The FLOW project is a two-year long, University of Cape Town African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) research project that took place in two South African municipalities – the Greater Kokstad Municipality in KwaZuluNatal, and the Bergrivier Municipality in the Western Cape, from August 2014 – September 2016. The project engaged out-of-work, out-of-school local youth – the FLOW Ambassadors - to build both individual and community capacity to thrive and innovate in the face of the growing challenges of climate change, resource depletion and inequality. Key activities included asset mapping, local storytelling on mobile phones, personal development, local government engagement and the introduction of two community currencies.

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The FLOW project is a two-year long, University of Cape Town African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) research project that took place in two South African municipalities – the Greater Kokstad Municipality in KwaZuluNatal, and the Bergrivier Municipality in the Western Cape, from August 2014 – September 2016. The project engaged out-of-work, out-of-school local youth – the FLOW Ambassadors - to build both individual and community capacity to thrive and innovate in the face of the growing challenges of climate change, resource depletion and inequality. Key activities included asset mapping, local storytelling on mobile phones, personal development, local government engagement and the introduction of two community currencies.

The polycrisis

Climate Crisis

Southern Africa will get hotter throughout the region as the climate shifts. Some parts of it will get wetter at times of the year; other parts will get drier. Overwhelmingly, it will do so unpredictably as weather patterns become more extreme, more changeable, more volatile. The aftershocks of these changes will hit every aspect of city life: the availability and cost of food, water, and energy; people’s health; infrastructure; transport and general mobility; people’s settlements; job prospects and how local economies function; and how municipalities govern. Climate change will add another layer of stress to the existing development challenges that are concentrated in the region’s cities and towns.

Slum urbanism

Villages, towns and small cities in Africa face a precarious and uncertain future: the bulk of the continent’s population growth will happen here in these smaller settlements, rather than in the mega-cities, as the continent’s city-dwellers are expected to reach 1.2 billion people by the middle of this century. Most of the urban sprawl that will spill out from this growth will not be formally built, managed and organised settlements. Rather, they will be part of the ongoing ‘slum growth’ that makes up most of the continent’s urban settlements.

Under-capacitated local government

Most local governments around the world don’t have the internal capacity, budget, or resources to adequately meet the mounting social, environmental and financial crises that are directly impacting their constituents. In a developing world context, these crises are made that much more daunting by the development challenges as towns and associated infrastructure and human settlements grow.

Youth Bulge

The World Bank reckons that a fifth of Africa’s population is between the ages of 15 and 24. This is equally a blessing and a curse because 40% of them are pouring their youth and vigour into the workforce, but that means that the remaining 60% are largely aimless and frustrated by being out of work. As Africa’s population continues to boom – from today’s 1.2 billion, and more than doubling that to 2.5 billion by 2050 – the ‘youth bulge’ will continue to swell, along with all the challenges and opportunities that will bring.

Resource Depletion

Our increasing demand for natural resources like water, food and energy, means that we’re using up more than nature can keep supplying. This ramps up the pressure within communities as more people have to compete for smaller amounts of available necessities.

Financial stress and instability

The world is awash in debt – over $200 trillion dollars of global debt is underpinned by only $70 trillion of actual goods and services (global GDP). Since the 2009 crisis, most governments and private households have gone deeper into the red. In 2014, the World Bank named South Africans “the world’s biggest borrowers”, 86% of whom took out loans (global average is 40%), with over half of them struggling to repay home loans, 60% not meeting monthly credit card payments, and 11 million over-indebted. With one of the highest Gini coefficients (measure of inequality) in the world, most South Africans face mounting economic stresses, as the global (and South African) growth engine grinds to a halt.

Where FLOW worked

FLOW worked in two South African municipalities simultaneously – the Bergrivier Municipality in the Western Cape, just an hour and a half’s drive north of Cape Town, and the Greater Kokstad Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal, a three-hour trip south west from Durban. Piketberg and Kokstad are the administrative centres of each municipality respectively and they include a number of smaller towns, villages and rural settlements. The FLOW Ambassadors came from their respective municipalities, infusing the project with a diversity of rich, lived experience.

Bergrivier Municipality

If Piketberg were a person, it would be an introvert, with some extrovert ways. It would be a bit shy, but kind and friendly. It’s got a lot to offer, although it may need some help to reach its full potential. There’s a bold personality beneath its retiring front.

Sometimes it can be a bit busy, and it loves to gossip. On a bad day, it might be a bit prone to self-medicating, mostly on booze.

Some people say it’s a ‘skew town with upright people’.

Piketberg started as a settler outpost, and many of its population are the descendants of the slaves who stoked this early agricultural economy. Today it’s the administrative capital of the Bergrivier Municipality. Its population is small, just 17 000 in all. The residential areas still largely echo the segregation and apartheid-era town planning policies which have middle-class mostly white folk in the ‘better’ part of town, and lower-income people of colour in the less-resourced side of town. Unlike many towns and cities in the country, though, Piketberg doesn’t have any informal settlements, because of the municipality’s strict enforcement of its policy on informal dwellings: if a shack goes up, within 24 hours it’s taken down.

Globally, the overarching trend is for rural people to trickle slowly towards bigger cities. This part of the world is no different. So, in terms of bigger cities being more attractive to rural folk, Piketberg is to its smaller neighbouring towns, what Cape Town is to Piketberg: the place that promises greater prospects of jobs, access to schooling and housing, education, good healthcare and the like. Its bigger gravity slowly pulls people in.

The catchment area around Piketberg, whose population is estimated at around 15 000, includes communities like those in and around the towns and villages of Redelinghuys, Eendekuil, Aurora, Velddrif, Porterville, Dwarskersbos, Laaiplek, Goedverwacht and Wittewater. The entire Bergrivier District’s population comes in at about 70 000.

It’s a curious mix of small independent businesses, with their hand-painted and decorated shop signs and store fronts, and big national chain stores with their distinctive branding.

The N7 highway is a thumping artery of trade and traffic that passes along the edge of the town: northwards, to the Namibia Tourism Route; and southwards, to ‘the Cape’. Like many of the grain trucks that thunder along this asphalt artery, occasionally dusting seed onto the roadside which grain-eating birds descend on in hungry packs, so the passing N7 traffic clearly allows some economic benefits to spill over into the town.


Greater Kokstad Municipality

On the long drive from eThekwini (Durban) to Kokstad, the terrain shifts from tropical to temperate. As the road twists inland at Port Shepstone, the tarmac is littered with sweet debris, mashed bits of sugar cane dribbled from trucks carrying the harvest up the national road, the N2, towards eThekwini. The single-lane highway heads west from the coast through a tunnel of commercial forests, and the outside temperature drops steadily as the Drakensberg mountains draw closer.

The approach to Kokstad winds through a grand sweep of foothill country, soft contours of grass curving away on either side, dotted with cattle grazing dreamily. The N2 slingshots past Kokstad, twisting east and south towards Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. You turn right up Hope Street towards the clear outline of Mount Currie, crossing the Mzintlava River and approaching the town through a brawling throng of trucks and minibus taxis.

Kokstad is a frontier town, a short drive from the borders between the KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provinces, and between Lesotho and South Africa. The town is a junction, a regional hub, a waystation for trucks and tourists. Go straight through town and curve right, and you’ll reach the Drakensberg town of Underberg and after that, the Midlands. Turn left onto the Matatiele Road, and drive through Quacha’s Nek into Lesotho. Whichever road you choose, you’ll pass guesthouse after guesthouse, serving business people, tourists and mountain hikers.

With nearly 66,000 residents, according to the 2011 Census, it’s said to be the fastest-growing town in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), drawing people from the Eastern Cape to the south, as well as other parts of KZN, seeking work and education (in 2007 Oprah Winfrey opened a school, one of a number of good schools in the area). The largest business sector here by far is agriculture.

Looking east from a vantage point above the golf course in the late afternoon, the town lies in a sun-drenched bowl of cradling hills. The middle-class suburbs sweep down towards the centre of town, where muti (natural medicine) shops and shwe-shwe boutiques cram the alleys across Main Road from the large chain stores.

On a hill rising on the northern side of town is the township, Shayamoya (‘Hit the Wind’, or ‘Windy Place’), with row upon row of regimented state-built little houses. Water supply is erratic, and a few years ago there was sewage running in the streets due to sanitation failures. Chaos reigned for days in May 2016 when residents shut down the area in protest at poor service delivery, amid allegations of officials misusing funds.

Zinc-and-cardboard shacks have sprung up on a slope to the east, a hill crowned with rocks painted white by followers of the Shembe faith. On the other side of the hill is a cramped area called Bhongweni and Horseshoe, where, the Shayamoya people say, ‘they take drugs’, and ‘it’s not safe’.

In the undulating, grassy country beyond the town are other small communities within the greater Kokstad catchment area, like the small town of Franklin and rural settlements like Pakkies. Kokstad draws in people from here, as well as far away, to make up the vibrant mix of energies that give the town a special frontier dynamism.


What’s the theory?

FLOW was built upon three intersecting elements that are seen as foundational to supporting communities to develop and harness their transformative capacity to shape the future/s in which they want to live:

1. re-connection to life support systems (tapping into the essence of life)

2. agency (mastering our own destiny) and

3. social cohesion (the ties that bind).

Growth in each one of these areas supports the other, becoming a supporting cycle that builds greater strength within individuals and communities. When people and communities are fit and healthy in these ways, they are more likely not only to recover from disaster, but to thrive in the face of uncertainty, and actively create the kinds of communities and cities in which they would like to live.

FLOW’s goal was to team up with communities in the Bergrivier and Kokstad regions and to strengthen these traits within them. They did so by working with out-of-work youth who have few study opportunities or work prospects, to groom them to be ‘ambassadors’ for social and environmental change in their towns. The project also set about starting a new conversation around how we give value to things, how we then exchange those things, and how we keep things local. FLOW did this through introducing two complementary currencies into the communities.

Re-connection to life support systems (tapping into the essence of life):

re-connecting people with the natural and human systems that keep them and their communities alive, healthy and thriving.

The ‘dignities’ of modern life seem to be on tap for many of us: light comes when we flick an electrical switch, water flows when we open a tap, there’s food at every corner cafe or supermarket, and the rubbish trucks take away our household waste.

We are dependent on nature, and complex human-run systems, to bring us water, energy, and food, and help us manage our waste.

But when we don’t understand or ‘see’ those systems, we don’t realise how fragile they are, how overstretched they might be, and that many people still don’t have access to them. As climate variability changes, so too does the ability to plan for and depend on these systems.

When we understand and ‘see’ the natural and human-made systems that give us water, energy, food, and waste-absorbing services, we are more likely to take better care of what we have. It will allow us to manage them in such a way that there will be more to go around. It will help build resilience into communities, which helps us cope with whatever ‘shock’ might compromise those critical life-sustaining systems.

Core to FLOW was finding ways to allow people and communities to re-connect with the natural systems that give us these life-supporting resources, and the human systems that bring these services into our homes and communities.

Agency (mastering our own destiny):

supporting creativity in individuals so that they may actively engage in crafting the kinds of lives, communities and settlements in which they wish to live.

When a person has a sense that they are the master of their own destiny – that they are independent, self-reliant and self-sufficient – then they might have a sense of healthy human agency.

Without that sense of agency, we become victims in an uncertain world, and passive recipients of what the state, or teachers, or parents, or preachers, or bosses decide for us, in terms of how our cities and settlements grow and are managed. With too much agency, we become entitled and self-serving.

Three groups of unemployed youths, from the age of 18, but also some as old as 35, agreed to work with FLOW, as part of a process that aimed to catalyse engaged, creative, and contributing citizens. The hope was that they would become the kind of people who influence their neighbourhoods, towns and local government processes. The aim was to work with out-of-work youth, local potential leaders, businesses, and people in the municipality – to nurture within each of them a person who can be an agent of change in their own lives, institutions, and communities.

Social cohesion (the ties that bind):

strengthening community bonds so that people are tightly knitted to one another and supportive of each other.

Wealth, when we are hungry, may not take the shape of cash in our pockets, but rather it may be a neighbour who cooks us dinner each night. It may be an aunt who can take care of our baby so we can go to work and earn a living. Or it may be a friend who can drive us to hospital when there’s an emergency. These are examples of wealth – a different kind of wealth from the usual way of measuring it – which lead to wellbeing.

When people and communities pull together in ways that allow them to thrive and prosper, then they have a sense of social cohesion.

FLOW’s third pillar was geared towards growing community ties, and strengthening that social cohesion though the broader Bergrivier and Kokstad regions, working with the youth ambassadors and the community currencies to foster this connectedness.


See: Moving from Adaptive to Transformative Capacity: Building Foundations for Inclusive, Thriving, and Regenerative Urban Settlements


‘Anti-fragile’ and ‘bouncing forward’

Being ‘anti-fragile’ and ‘bouncing forward’ are ideas that inspire FLOW. ‘Anti-fragile’ was coined by writer Nassim Taleb in his 2012 book of the same name, and elaborates the potential for humans to thrive and grow stronger in the face of difficulty, uncertainty and complexity. The phrase ‘bouncing forward’ was suggested by Keith Shaw, a community resilience expert and social science professor at the University of Northumbria in the UK. He describes two main approaches to ideas around resilience. One is the survival approach where vulnerable people or communities or organisations recover, bounce back, and then persist after a crisis, and they do this through taking action before disaster strikes. The other approach is about ‘bouncing forward’: this is about more than just surviving, but about ‘attending to possibilities for life’, while holding out for the ‘possibility of optimistic alternatives centred on hope, renewal and transformation’. It means adapting, innovating and trying new things. AC & LJ

Ecosynomics: the science of abundance

Ecosynomics is a term coined by James Ritchie-Dunham, of the Institute for Strategic Clarity, and means ‘the principles of collaboration’. It points to the emerging field of understanding abundance-based agreements between people that lead to greater well-being, harmony and vibrancy, and is evidenced all around the world and across cultures. The project has drawn on the Ecosynomics framework to inform FA curriculum design, as well as the way the FLOW team work together. ‘This framework makes it possible to see the often hidden, underlying agreements that most affect the human experience, enabling people to choose the fundamental assumptions they accept, the structures and processes that result from those assumptions, and the behaviors they want to experience in their daily interactions with others’, says Ritchie-Dunham. AC

On wellbeing

Ask the people of Kokstad, Piketberg and Goedverwacht what ‘wellbeing’ means, and this is what they say.

It’s what happens when everyone is taken care of, and has the basics they need in life, such as food, water, and shelter. It’s when young people have good education, and the hope of a job one day. It’s when people look out for each other, and each person knows someone’s ‘got their back’. It comes with being in hearty health, both physically and mentally. When their neighbourhood is free of crime and abuse, that’s a well state to be in.

When people are free to explore ideas, express their opinions, and make choices for themselves.

It happens in a community where there is fairness. Where people feel safe to explore and express their own selves, while respecting each other’s individuality.

It happens when each person has a sense that they can provide for themselves. When a person has her hand on the tiller of her life, and can steer her way through the swells and troughs that come with the inevitable storms in life, rather than being tossed back and forth on heavy seas.

Wellbeing, in its fullness, is about a sense of happiness, peace, and having a degree of control over your life, they all agree.


Nama Riel dancers at the Snoek-en-Patat festival in Goedverwacht

What we did