The activists who are greening Wesselton

Residents of this township in one of Mpumalanga’s coal-mining districts have been benefitting from grassroots initiatives to turn ugly dumping sites into precious green spaces.

For 20 years now, the members of the Khuthala Environmental Care Group in Wesselton, Ermelo, have tried to address the persistent environmental damage left by the coal mines as well as residents who dump their garbage irresponsibly. In doing so, they have transformed what would have been toxic spaces into sites of pride and beauty.

The chairperson of the Khuthala Environmental Care Group is Philani Mngomezulu, 42, who has been with the project since its inception. He is passionate about the work the members do to improve the environment and empower themselves. “When we are talking about environmental performance, it is everything – the trees, soil, human beings, animals, biodiversity, water resources and many more,” he says.

The group’s passion for a greener future has led to giant gains for Wesselton township, which is hemmed in by abandoned and unrehabilitated coal mines. In the piles of garbage in the area, they saw potential beauty. “We said, ‘Can we do something for our community, something to accommodate our children?’ We adopted a landfill spot and turned it into a park,” says Mngomezulu. 

12 August 2020: From left, Khuthala members Njabulo Nkosi, Given Zulu, Simon Nkosi, Linda Magagula, Philani Mngomezulu and Zethu Hlatswayo at the food garden they have planted in Khuthala Park.

Wesselton Park is one of the best-known open spaces in the area, and it isn’t just a playground for children and a place where residents can enjoy themselves. “It is an outdoor gym, which is the first of its kind in Mpumalanga.”

Khuthala is run by 14 members who volunteer their time. Those involved in the organisation speak glowingly of Wesselton Park. “Ah, man! That park has a lot of history,” says Mngomezulu. 

When it was officially opened in December 2007, he says, a large crowd attended the launch. “It has been an amazing experience,” he adds, pointing out that the green space has led to a number of spaza shops, a car wash, saloons, restaurants and liquor stores opening in the area. 

The power of a park  

Artists like L’vovo Derrango, DJ Sdunkero and DJ Bongz, whose signature “gwara gwara” dance became famous around the world, as well as Lulo Café, the Loliwe hitmaker Zahara and many more artists have performed in the park. 

“It tells us about the power we have,” says Mngomezulu. “It tells us that there is nothing impossible in life. It tells us about the role that we play as an organisation in terms of preserving nature and it tells us that we are capable of standing up for the Earth.”

During the 2010 Fifa World Cup, the park hosted large crowds. “The park was the only viewing area [in Ermelo] and everyone wanted to watch the World Cup in the park. It was a focal point, and it was such a beautiful thing,” recalls Given Zulu, who deals with all coal-related issues in the organisation, both the negative and the positive.

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“We needed to clean the park every day and it was one of those days we’d never forget,” says Mngomezulu. To date, they still maintain the park without any assistance from the municipality. “We are cleaning the park voluntarily and we are doing this wholeheartedly.”

The environmentalists say their efforts to wage an effective war against degradation help educate the younger generation to treat the environment more kindly. This includes curbing irresponsible behaviour like dumping, which they say destroys communities.

Inspiring others

The organisation has branched out to include the Khuthala Women’s Movement, which is run by seven women. They own a food garden and a kitchen, which has stopped operating temporarily because of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The women have also embarked on an initiative to produce handmade soap. “This soap project is a new thing,” says Nelly Nkosi, one of the movement’s members. “Even when it comes to wrapping and designs, we are still working on coming up with strategies to improve it so that it shows it comes from women’s hands.”

Spokesperson Thenjiwe Mavuso adds: “We want it to be attractive. It has to say, ‘Buy me.’” 

26 November 2020: From left, Khuthala Women’s Movement members. Back: Nelisiwe Nkosi, Nonhlanhla Sithole, Hloniphile Sithole and Zandile Motau. Front: Nomsa Nkosi, Thenjiwe Mavuso and Delisile Ndlangamandla with Vuyiswa Motau and Nosipho Mngomezulu.

The Khuthala Women’s Movement operates mainly in Khuthala Park, a more recently established open space between the town of Ermelo and Wesselton. It, too, used to be a dumping site. The park serves as Khuthala’s offices and the space is leased from the municipality. 

“People use Khuthala Park as one of the safest parks, and even in Wesselton we’ve never lost any single member of the community when we hosted events,” says Mngomezulu. “Khuthala is a provider to many people. There are homeless people who are sheltered by Khuthala.”

During the interview, someone arrives in the park to ask for spinach. Minutes earlier, some young people had arrived to take pictures of themselves and enjoy the fresh air in the lush surroundings. “This park serves as an environmental arena,” Mngomezulu says. “The one and only stream that is conserved and not polluted is the one behind us that runs through the park. We’ve got some crabs and frogs.”

26 November 2020: Members of the Khuthala Women’s Movement with freshly picked spinach grown at Khuthala Park. They aim to create environmental awareness among the youth through a programme called Operation Catch Them Young.

Supporting waste pickers

Khuthala is advocating for the formalisation of waste pickers in Ermelo. “They face a lot of stigmatisation. Without those people, the waste will be all over,” says Mngomezulu. Not long ago, Khuthala held a capacity-building workshop that waste pickers attended in an effort to share information and come up with effective ways to mobilise themselves.

The deputy chairperson of a waste-pickers organisation called the Missing Piece Waste Pickers Cooperative, Siphilile Hlathi, says being formalised would ensure that the valuable work they do sorting and recycling waste is taken seriously. Their usefulness is demonstrated by a nursery they have started in the middle of Ermelo’s landfill site. 

“We do not only collect waste, but also there are precious things like trees that we get from the rubbish. Ours is to preserve these plants for future generations,” says the cooperative’s chairperson, Piet Bonginkosi Sibeko, who is also a coordinator for the South African Waste Pickers Association. 

Mngomezulu says some of the trees and flowers planted in Khuthala Park have come from waste pickers. “These are the masters of waste who reduce it dramatically. They are playing a very vital role to our society. They must be supported.” 

Settling among crops 

Kuthala has helped many initiatives come to fruition. In 2018, it was instrumental in the establishment of the Nomzamo agricultural village, a shack settlement planned in such a way that people are not crammed together. Some of the occupiers are so-called backroom dwellers and others were without shelter after they had been evicted by the municipality.

Mngomezulu says the land used to belong to the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, which sold it to Imbabala coal mine. The owner of the mine abandoned it in 2011 when the Department of Mineral Resources ordered a halt to operations because it had no water-use licence. 

26 November 2020: Khuthala Environmental Care Group member Linda Magagula has been experimenting with growing spinach under shade cloth to maximise his yields. The group is constantly learning and trying new techniques.

“Now we’re rehabilitating it back to agriculture. The place is benefitting our people socially and economically. It can be used for future generations,” says Mngomezulu.

The fight against environmental injustice and for a better, green future is what drives Khuthala. “Once you become an environmentalist, you start to look at things from a different perspective. The environment tells you about the importance of our creation as human beings. 

“When you are fighting for environmental justice, it is like you’re serving God’s will. You don’t need to be an expert to see the damages done by the corporates who extract [our natural resources] destructively. It is easy to see that these people are against the will of God,” says Mngomezulu.

27 November 2020: Members of the Missing Piece Waste Pickers Cooperative with plants that they have salvaged from the Ermelo landfill. Some of the trees and flowers planted at Khuthala Park have come from the waste pickers.
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