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Climate Justice Imaginings

Astrid von Kotze

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coral reef 1.jpg
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Some members of Emphatheatre were also involved in an exhibition of a huge crocheted coral reef that took 12 years to create, and was made lovingly by hundreds of citizens across South Africa (see figures 1, 2 and 3 below). It is one of many exhibitions across the world, and ‘holds a powerful symbolism and figuration of solidarity in times of climate change.’ In front of it, on the floor, sat some women busy crocheting further pieces to add, reminding us that while real reefs are under threat of dying from bleaching, there are some humans who are countering the threat by demonstrating symbolic support to help reefs to grow. It was the most moving piece of art and craft I have seen for a long while – enhanced by the atmosphere in the room: buzzing with mainly young people, there was laughter, agitated conversations, warm embraces and greetings. It was as if the ocean reef had us all under a spell of vibrant life.

Figures 1, 2 and 3

Pictures of the Emphatheatre Crocheted Coral Reef


A book invited visitors to jot down their first memory of encountering an ocean. We were invited to draw pictures with crayons, and as people drew and talked to each other they made the sea come alive. 

Here was an example of expressing active optimism to counter the doomsday messages of ‘it’s too late to save the planet’. It was a most hopeful occasion of love and care, of sharing enthusiasm and being alive. What is extraordinary, is how the stories of hardship and heartsore, of destruction and dying still spell hope for the future. 

Building Hope

We look to writers, performers and artists for hopeful impulses. It was Ngugi waThiong’o who claimed that ‘writers belong to the prophetic tradition’ – they speak truth to power and make the invisible, visible. Musicians can keep the spirit and memory of humanity alive and help us re-believe that a reunion with Nature is possible. Artists can rekindle desire, produce the yearning that gives us fuel to work harder together towards that other, better. Literature that engages our imagination towards the not-yet. Creative productions like the ‘Lalela Ulwandle’ are meeting places between the enduring ocean and brutal human actions and help make sense of invisible bridges that need to be reconstructed. They can re-ignite our collective ability to work together for life-affirming changes. Art is an experimental space for playing, for trying out other options, for linking what has been severed, for constructing what could be. 

In Principle of Hope, Bloch (1976) suggests that the work towards utopia requires optimism – not as a deterministic ‘automatic belief in progress’ or as ‘cheap credulity’ in wishful promises, but as ‘militant optimism’. It arises from the knowledge of the causes and mechanisms of oppressive forces, the understanding that people working together can change events. It is the optimism fuelled by positive energies, such as those of story-tellers, driven by the belief that counter-hegemonic action is required of us as moral work. 

Note: Crocheted coral reef created by citizens of South Africa. Pictures by author.

Oceans as Life-giving Force: Theatre and Crafting for Climate Justice Education

Let’s set our sights beyond the abominations of today to divine another possible world.
(Galeano, 2002, p.18)


Lalela Ulwandle (Listen to the ocean)

 ‘All these words they keep using to try and confuse us, GDP, economy...They speak about value, but whose value are they talking about? How can you put value on something that sustains life?’ The woman shakes her head sadly: ‘The sea is telling us to slow down…’, she says, and we listen to the waves for a while longer – until the young man gets up: ‘They claim that the mining will enrich us all, the poorest of the poor’, but how will the fishers benefit from this?


For the next hour, the three people on stage tell us their stories, rooted in different cultures and backgrounds: The scientist’s life work was studying the survival strategies of small creatures in the sea, marveling at their being, admiring their beauty, but also engaging in protests against drilling and prospecting in the sea. The son of a fisher tells about his father and his ancestors making a living from the sea, and how things have changed: ‘What was once the Bay of Plenty, is now the Bay of Empty’. In those days, they listened to the sea, they fished with care and appreciation. The third, the granddaughter of a healer who communicated with the spirit-world under the water and used the messages to heal others who came to her with hurt and disease, connects us with African wisdom. As each throws a light on the stories of the others, they join the dots with thought and love, empathy and connection that characterizes a closeness to Nature that is nurturing. The audience is pulled along through the story and the theatre – they hold their breath and shake their heads in rhythm with the narratives. For the storytellers, the meaning of life has derived from the ocean and they communicate this to us, the audience, to create a deeply moving experience, both in process and message. 

‘Lalela Ulwandle’ is a performance by members of Empatheatre. It has toured South Africa for the last 4 years, warning of the dangers and injustices connected to mining coastlines and disturbing the sea through exploitative practices.  Empatheatre, is a group of artists, academic researchers and responsive citizens who created a theatre-making methodology ‘through friendship and solidarity’, aimed at promoting social justice. Under the banner of the Coastal Justice Network, they researched historical and contemporary experiences of dispossession and exclusion of coastal communities from their customary territories, and from ocean governance. As the profound local ecological knowledge of traditional coastal groups continues to be marginalised or ignored by top-down efforts at marine conservation, we all need to be reminded of our ocean heritage. 

Story-telling gets people together as performers and audience to co-construct the stories. Communicating with clarity and feeling, and listening actively with heart, mind and body, a connection is made. The performance distilled the message of how the life and wellbeing of the sea is central to our own wellbeing. It had begun with a moment’s silence in memory of a woman from the local community who had been taken by a shark in the sea just 3 days before – making the comment, ‘the ocean gives – and it takes’, particularly poignant.


Bloch, E. (1976). Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Suhrkamp Taschenbuch.

Galeano, E. (2002). The right to rave. New Internationalist, 342

A short-illustrated film with the central story of Lalela Ulwandle can be viewed here:


Astrid von Kotze is a retired Professor of Community Development and Adult Education. Living in Cape Town, South Africa, she continues to work in popular education and theatre practice.

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