In sight

For many people, when they turn on a water tap, they don’t think of the complex network of pipes and reticulation systems, the engineers, or the mountain wetlands and weather patterns that run all the way back up to the source of the water. By training the ambassadors to ‘see’ these often invisible systems – for water, food, energy and waste – FLOW’s aim was to build up a group of youngsters who would take ownership of those systems, and champion their care and conservation. They learned how to see anew, through movie making, modelling, and mapping.

Mandi Smallhorne

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In sight

For many people, when they turn on a water tap, they don’t think of the complex network of pipes and reticulation systems, the engineers, or the mountain wetlands and weather patterns that run all the way back up to the source of the water. By training the ambassadors to ‘see’ these often invisible systems – for water, food, energy and waste – FLOW’s aim was to build up a group of youngsters who would take ownership of those systems, and champion their care and conservation. They learned how to see anew, through movie making, modelling, and mapping.

Mandi Smallhorne

In sight

‘The world starts looking like a new world, every single day,’ Aphinda Ndlobeni muses on her experience with FLOW Kokstad.

‘When we were doing the mapping, we were moving around the places. Even though I was born there, I didn’t know that Kokstad was that beautiful,’ says Pumeza Mbedu.

‘Kokstad is like a little child that needs to be nurtured and given guidance,’ says Unathi Hams.

During the FLOW programme, many of the young ambassadors fell in love with their home towns, developing tender insights, seeing the heart of the place, sometimes coming to shocking realisations about poverty and lack, sometimes experiencing epiphanies. ‘Before the programme I had never been to Shayamoya and Horseshoe. You’d be surprised how many people own their own business. They want to take part in the economy and change their lives – they just need proper skills. The ideas are there, it just needs a way to grow it,’ says Aphinda, known as AP to her fellow ambassadors. Pumeza’s eyes were opened to the precious, fragile nature of the town’s water supply; Unathi was troubled by how so many of her fellow citizens live.

A new lens

Looking at their familiar places with new eyes, seeing new worlds in them, was a core intent of the programme. All the activities the FLOW Ambassadors engaged in – mapping, making movies, conducting surveys, and introducing community currencies – were aimed at shaking and remaking old ways of seeing, like a kaleidoscope, so that new pictures became possible.

And each activity also created assets, which the FLOW team began to refer to as ‘commons artefacts’ – maps of business flows and life-support systems, short films, survey data, community currency. They were community assets, created by the programme for the community as a whole, unlike official town plans, designed by others and tucked away in the rebarbative halls of officialdom, to which few of the citizens have access.

‘One of the seed ideas for FLOW emerged from my experiences as an architect and urbanist,’ says Anna Cowen, who, with partner John Ziniades, conceptualised and facilitated the FLOW programme.

‘It became clear that there was a gap between the sophisticated planning and development instruments we use, and the communities about which they talk. Integrated development plans, spatial development frameworks… these are instruments that talk about the future, and yet they do it in a way that keeps the knowledge privileged, inaccessible, arcane.’ For the communities who are the object of the work, they’re even more unreachable.

In her view this way of working with the future is exclusionary. Communities use and share ‘the commons’ within their spaces; they should and need to have free access to the knowledge, understanding and thinking around the present status and the future imagining of their places.

Who, after all, ‘owns’ these route maps to the future? Surely it’s not the municipalities alone, or national government? In their hands, complex plans, long laboured over, often end up gathering dust in a filing cabinet, seen once, but not read. This knowledge, this data, should not be owned by government or corporates: ‘We were conscious of the possibility of the data the programme was generating being exploited; it was one of our biggest fears,’ says Anna.

At all times in the FLOW project, there was an awareness of the tension between the protectionism around data (a feature of the world of research, where sometimes data is seen as a valuable owned asset), the open source movement, and the rights of people on the ground to take ownership of and feed back on the data they helped to generate.

FLOW set out to empower young people in the municipalities of Bergrivier and Piketberg with a knowledge of and insight into ‘place’, which they’d gathered themselves, using practical and sleeves-rolled-up methods.

‘We wanted them to understand the systems within which they live, whether economic or environmental; to see the complexity and inter-relatedness of every element in those systems,’ says Anna. ‘We wanted them to see themselves as inherent parts of the system, both acting and acted upon.’ Understanding the web of living systems, both natural and human, is a crucial insight as people face a world growing ever more uncertain. As the reality of climate change bites, as economic and political uncertainty rumble beneath the surface in vulnerable places like Kokstad and Bergrivier, it is becoming important for local communities to be able to trace connections between people and natural systems.

Models and maps

‘Oh, it was fun!’ says Thando Duku. It’s the common response when the FLOW Ambassadors are asked to recall their attempts to make cardboard models of their own homes, the first piece of training they experienced.

Nthabi Jafta snorts, remembering her initial derision at the very idea – and competitive feelings it aroused: ‘When you see the other one worked better than yours, and you must start again!’ But it was another bond forged between the ambassadors, she adds: ‘It’s when we built our team, we started to know each other, even if someone’s short-tempered [and impatient]… but then they love your house… and so we got to know each other.’

The ambassadors also made unexpected discoveries about their most intimate spaces, as they compared rooms and shapes of buildings.

‘Your house – the skin that protects you from the elements– is something that you don’t even think about,’ says Anna. But when you have to model it, the relationship shifts. ‘This is barefoot architecture,’ she says. The skills involved are easy to learn and should be accessible to everyone.

Seeing the invisible

The process was repeated when the ambassadors

set out to map elements of their towns. The mapping took place according to themes, explains Anna: exchange, water, energy, waste, food. ‘The first three months of the programme, we touched on all of these, with a stronger emphasis on exchange – the flow of trade between local businesses. We then deepened this thematic focus over the rest of the programme, expanding on the themes one at a time.’

Both Bergrivier and Kokstad are regions at the moving edge of climate change, already experiencing the vulnerabilities that brings. Underlying the exercises designed to ‘make visible’ the previously invisible was an intent to allow the young people to discover for themselves, and own, the unseen web of life, resources and resource flows that support them and their communities. The more they understand their life-support systems, the more able they will be to make necessary adaptations.

In Bergrivier, audits of household water use revealed where the demand for water was highest; audits of municipal water systems provided insights into how marginal and threatened the resource is, even in a region supplied by a river. ‘We went to see the wetlands,’ says Ian Schaffers, FLOW project co-ordinator in Bergrivier. ‘We’d heard about them, but now we can see why they are so important to us and what the various threats are [to the wetlands].’

Searching for the ‘invisible’ micro businesses in Kokstad’s streets, AP started to make connections: ‘There are a lot of skills here, and ones that are in short supply – artisans and plumbers, for example. They just need to take that one small step.’

When it comes to the surveys, maps and movies, AP’s insight is an example of what can be revealed by this process, of ‘making visible’ that which was previously unseen: a landscape of possibility, of hope, with the potential to make the leap to a more agile and resilient future community.

‘Asking the most straightforward of questions can be mind-blowing – where does the water come from? How does it get here?’ Anna says.

‘What FLOW has achieved in Kokstad and Bergrivier is just the start of an imagined future in which planning will be participatory and owned by the community,’ says Anna. The production of these ‘commons artefacts’, sketching out the lay of the land through modelling, mapping and making mini-movies, can be seen ‘as a kind of strategic opening into a completely new kind of dialogue, one that is fundamentally anchored in commons thinking’.

Max Bastard
FLOW Ambassador Aphinda Ndlobeni learns mobile journalism skills

In common

‘The commons’ is a widely used term for resources – natural, cultural, social, economic – which are shared within a society, and in which many people have a stake or interest.

It derives from the term ‘common land’ in Britain, or ‘the common’, where all residents of a village had the right to use a large area of pasture to graze their own livestock, often a central piece of land owned by the lord of the manor, around which the houses and church were clustered.

The term came into general use for a broader range of ‘property’ after biologist Garrett Hardin wrote an essay titled The Tragedy of the Commons in 1968. His thesis was that common goods and property would be degraded or overused to the point of extinction, since each person using a ‘common’ good would be driven only by his or her own profit or interest.

The narrative around the commons was largely shaped by this idea over several decades, and found its way into other fields, such as economics and conservation. Then there was a dramatic shift, as scientists and thinkers like Nobel Prize Winner Elin Ostrom showed that, far from leading automatically to degradation and a running down of resources, many ‘commons’ systems across the world have worked very successfully. One case she analysed was the use of common grazing land in Switzerland, a system which has been successful over hundreds of years.

Since then, the advent of the interconnected online world has expanded the vision of the commons far beyond natural resources, to include a huge landscape that embraces digital and intellectual commons, and has resulted in a great deal of work around the notion. MS

Kokstad’s waterworks feed water to the town from a perch on one of the mountain foothills that surround the town
Max Bastard

Drop by drop

In the early hours of the morning, the water starts its slow surge through Kokstad’s pipes, rolling down from the waterworks high on the hill behind the town, gurgling through infrastructure that went dry the day before. People rise early to get washing machines going, and fill water tanks huddled against the walls of homes and guest houses. Because the water will be shut off again in just a few hours’ time.

Water restrictions have been in place here since the last months of 2015. This part of the KwaZulu-Natal province, like the Bergrivier municipality in the Western Cape, has been hit hard by the disastrous 2014/2015 drought, worsened by El Nino that has scoured southern and eastern Africa. Kokstad takes its water supply from the adjacent river and the Crystal Springs dam, which was down to 2% of volume in late 2015.

‘Water-shedding’ was absolutely essential as the Greater Kokstad Municipality tried to coax the dam volume upwards, under a relentlessly arid sky. But it was only when the young FLOW Ambassadors went to the sanitation and waterworks plants in the two municipalities that they fully ‘saw’, understood and contextualised the fragility of this precious resource.

‘I never really appreciated the water that we get,’ says Amaza Jara. ‘When we went to the waterworks, I got to see the whole process of them cleaning the water, and how much they go through to try and make sure the water is clean for us to consume. The manager who was taking us through the whole works showed us a lot of things, and made me realise [that I can] do little things at home. You know mos when you’re brushing your teeth, you leave the tap open, but after that experience, now I know that I need to save water, I can use a mug. And when there’s a leakage I report it there and then. I don’t wait for the next person to see it and report it. I take initiative…’

Kirwan Klaase, who was involved in mapping the water system in the Bergrivier area, echoes her feelings: ‘Now I understand where our water comes from, and what processes it goes through so that we have clean water to drink, and bath with, and water for the gardens and grass. And also what happens with our waste water, that it gets saved, recycled, and used for irrigation.’

For all the FLOW Ambassadors, the idea that water needs to be cleaned before it is piped into homes was a revelation: ‘For us in Pakkies there was like a rumour, water from the toilet, they purify it, but we said, ‘No, it cannot be’,’ comments Nthabi Jafta. The mental map of how water gets from A to B in an urban environment was surprising and thought-provoking to this young woman, who grew up with water coming, ceaseless and pure, from a mountain source.


Dan Goodman

Get your mojo on

It was 1989, and the Berlin Wall was being dismantled, brick by brick. A young Dominique Vandenhout was right there, wielding a camera in his first job as a news cameraman, shooting history as it happened, with an immediacy that became addictive and which he is now helping others to experience.

‘It was this big thing that bit me… I’ve always been bitten by news, ever since,’ says Dom, who was born and raised in Belgium. As the years went by, he would be bitten by another bug: the itch to put moviemaking or mobile journalism (mojo) into the hands of young people, to give them a tool for meaning-making and agency.

A decade or so on, Dom had ‘a house and a wife and son and a car, all these things that society expects of you, as well as a great job full of adrenalin. But I wanted to do something else, something completely different.’

Dom discovered the idea of video journalism (a concept that would morph into mojo as the technology evolved). This form of visual journalism was less unwieldy than the crew-and-equipment-heavy news journalism he’d become so skilled at. Video journalism leveraged new technology to enable one person carrying a small video camera to create their own story, anywhere and at any time.

And then he took a leap of faith that ultimately drew his passion into a partnership with a commitment to nurture resilient communities able to tackle future challenges: he moved to South Africa.

‘By coming to South Africa, I could give my family more quality of life – living in Europe is so hectic,’ says Dom.

He had developed a concept for hyper-local reporting, based on reporting he’d been doing in his own home town in Belgium. Back in 2005, there were no big news organisations with video news feeds on their websites, so this was brand new thinking.

The initial idea did not work out, but while Dom started a training organisation, the Media Academy, and worked as a consultant, it stayed with him. ‘I had seen how much impact [hyper-local TV] had on people.’

So when he and John Ziniades, FLOW core team member, connected via a project they were both consulting on, the concept seemed a natural fit with what John was working on at the time, the Kokstad Green Ambassadors. Soon Dom found himself teaching young people mobile journalism (mojo), and this work naturally became part of FLOW when it was birthed.

‘It’s such a nice thing to teach these youngsters, it really gives me a good feeling that I can give them a set of skills which they can use to communicate with the world.Maybe it’s just an idea you put in their mind, something that makes them think of new possibilities, encourages them to do new things, think out of the box. So that excites me; and when they say they really liked the training… you can’t get a better compliment! It’s different from the kick of shooting breaking news, but both make me excited.’ MS

Through the looking glass

‘It’s been incredible to see how they’ve grabbed the opportunity and made great little infomercials,’ said Piet Bosman, FLOW project co-ordinator in Kokstad, reflecting on a day of training in movie making for the FLOW Ambassadors.

Learning to capture moving images of their town, their place, and their people was a crucial aspect of FLOW training. They made movies of local heroes; they made infomercials about local businesses. And, not surprisingly, the ambassadors loved it.

‘Many people in these small towns have not had the same kind of access to technology that city kids do,’ says Anna. The cell phone is ubiquitous, even in rural South Africa, but not necessarily the smart phone, the androids which have changed the face of urban life and social media. ‘For me the film-making was the really sexy part of the training. It’s really, really cool to make a movie!’

When Dom Vandenhout arrived to show the ambassadors how to do this – how to find angles, to understand light and composition, storytelling and editing – the programme ‘took on another life’, says Anna.

The FLOW Ambassadors in Piketberg and Kokstad were equipped with good equipment that they shared, like iPhones. ‘I learnt a lot of responsibility,’ says AP. ‘You were put in charge of very expensive equipment. You knew that, without this equipment, I can’t further myself, I can’t work. And the work that we did here, it wasn’t just about you as a person, it was about the community as a whole.’

AP was a natural in front of the camera – she’d make a good presenter, says Dom. Each of the ambassadors found a niche for themselves. In Kokstad, Thando brought some raw experience to the moviemaking – she had worked for the national electricity supplier, Eskom, and had done some photography for them. ‘She said in her interview that she liked taking pictures,’ says Jo Lees. ‘She took to the film-making immediately.’ And this quiet woman knew she was good: ‘I like making movies, I’m the top on video cameraing,’ says Thando.

Lindiwe Ntaka battled with editing, but it was worth it: ‘Yo, I’m proud of myself, not everybody knows about editing. I know what to take [out] and I know what to put in.’ She felt that Dom was a patient and appreciative trainer: ‘He’s a nice guy, very gentle when he’s teaching, he makes sure you get what he is saying. He doesn’t shout, he is calm and soft.’

Movie making performed several functions in FLOW, not least of which was empowering the young people with a skill and exposing them to useful technology. It also shifted the way they saw their places and the people within them. And when the infomercials were shown at currency workshops, it shifted the way the ‘objects’ of the movies saw themselves.

‘All these people came all dressed up, like when you went to the movies in the 1960s – they looked at themselves and they started feeling proud,’ says Dom. They had never ‘seen’ themselves as successful entrepreneurs before, he adds, ‘but now they see themselves with their whole community, and they say, ‘hey, that’s me!’’

That reflecting back to the community is something the FLOW team would like to see taken further, says Anna. ‘We were thinking of all sorts of ways to share the movies with the community.’ That way, the movies too would become ‘commons artefacts’, owned and used by the people in them as well as those who made them. And as living proof of the value of ‘commons artefacts’, the Bergrivier Municipality used a movie the FLOW Ambassadors made about the local waterworks at an Integrated Development Plan presentation, to share information about the services it is providing that is usually invisible to citizens of the municipality.


Beyond buildings

It was a tour through the slums of Addis Abba in 2003 that crystallised in FLOW co-originator Anna Cowen the idea that youth can be – indeed, need to be – included in shaping the towns and places in which they live.

She had been practicing as an architect in Cape Town for eight years, but was frustrated by the limited ‘scope and scale of architecture. If she wanted to do work that tackled inequality, poverty, and environmental over-extraction, she believed she needed to be working on the system in which buildings are constructed, not only the buildings themselves.

So she signed up to do a master’s in African urbanism and sustainability, which brought her to visit a housing improvement initiative in the slums of Addis.

‘It was a slum upgrading initiative run by a nurse – not a town planner or an architect, a nurse! It involved doing a needs assessment in the community to see who should be prioritised to get the first house upgrades.’

Initially, the project sent university students out into the community with clipboards and questionnaires to find out who were the families most in need of improved housing.

‘But they discovered that by using students, it thwarted the needs assessment.’

The students were outsiders, and people didn’t tell them the truth in the interview process. The wrong people got bumped to the top of the list, and the students got caught up in the community’s power struggles.

To get around this, the project got teenage girls from within the community, dressed them in yellow bibs, and sent them from home to home to gather the same information. Because they belonged here, and had growth up here, people told them the truth. This ‘transcended the power dynamic’, and got the people most in need to the front of the queue for bricks and mortar homes in the slums.

‘This was one of the most powerful insights in my professional life, a really crystallising idea,’ she reflects over a decade later.

The dissertation for her degree took a look at the public participation processes behind three public spaces on the Cape Flats, outside Cape Town, an area that was segregated for working class coloured people under the apartheid state and still echoes this enforced separation today.

‘It was out of this, that I started developing seeds of the idea that was to become the FLOW Ambassador programme. It was about looking for ways to design processes that are participatory and inclusive. That’s when I started thinking about getting young people to document and map their own communities so that they can be designers of their own places rather than having outsiders come in and do it for them,’ she says, as she contemplates the wrap-up of the FLOW initiative.

For more than 20 years now, she’s been trying to ‘change the way we make things’, particularly through moving towards ‘globally connected yet localised, circular economies, with a strong focus on growing the commons’.

The idea of fostering ‘localisation’ through mapping and storytelling has come through strongly in the design of the FLOW Ambassador programme.

But while FLOW had a strong youth development component, another idea lay at the germination of the idea: that the researchers knew that they too would develop and transform when doing this kind of work.

So how was Anna transformed?

‘I’ve deepened my understanding of how change happens, and developed more patience. In this kind of work, things take their own time. They will happen when they are ready. LJ’

It helps to understand that commons are not just things or resources. Outsiders to commons scholarship are prone to this mistake, either because they are economists who tend to objectify everything or because they are commoners declaring that a certain resource ought to be governed as a commons (what I call an “aspirational commons”). Commons certainly include physical and intangible resources of all sorts, but they are more accurately defined as paradigms that combine a distinct community with a set of social practices, values and norms that are used to manage a resource. Put another way, a commons is a resource + a community + a set of social protocols. The three are an integrated, interdependent whole.’

David Bollier, Think Like a Commoner – A short Introduction to the Life of the Commons, New Society Publishers 2014

A mapping exercise following the flow of trade revealed that Kokstad Copiers was a fundamental link in the web of business in Kokstad. This small-to-medium-sized business trades with virtually everyone in the web. Large retailers like national retail chain Pick n Pay used their printing services; small businesses in the town centre, such as fashion outlets, used them; and micro businesses printed out colour pictures (of hairstyles, for example, for one of the township salons) at Kokstad Copiers. As a potential kingpin, it was satisfying to see the business sign up for the currency and the K’Mali branding prominently in the window next to the front door.


Max Bastard
Max Bastard
Understanding how food fits into the web of life in each region is a first step to boosting and protecting local farmers and local produce, like these pumpkins grown on Piet Bosman’s farm outside Kokstad
Sydelle Willow Smith

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’ […] …the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

David Foster Wallace

novelist and essayist

commencement speech, Kenyon College 2005

The FLOW Ambassadors mapped different food and water-related sustainability solutions in their town
FLOW Ambassador Ilicia Cloete sketched her understanding of the Bergrivier municipal water system and the way that electricity is generated and distributed to the Bergrivier region