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Modeling Sustainable Living in Johannesburg, South Africa

A Conversation with Mabule Mokhine of The GreenHouse Project

Founded in 1998, the GreenHouse Project is a walk-in green living demonstration center in Johannesburg, South Africa, with the dual purpose of connecting community-based green enterprises in the area. The main facility is a renovated green building surrounded by small plots for community gardening and teaching. This small building boasts composting toilets, greywater recycling, and natural lighting. Permaculture gardens are used to train the neighboring communities in organic farming and sustainable living. As one of several organizations within The Berkana Institute’s Southern Africa Open Places Initiative, the GreenHouse Project is modeling new ways of living in community and helping to shape the evolution of a new regional economy. The GreenHouse Project often hosts learning exchanges with Kufunda Learning Village in Zimbabwe.

At a Berkana gathering of leaders from pioneering initiatives in New York in October 2010, we spoke with Program Manager Mabule Mokhine about his work at the GreenHouse Project, cultural differences between South Africa and the United States, and what’s coming next for the organization.

NPi: What is the work of the GreenHouse Project?

Mabule Mokhine: The GreenHouse Project, or the GreenHouse People’s Environment Center, is a walk-in demonstration, outreach, and information center on environmental sustainability and sustainable living. The GreenHouse was conceived by an NGO called EarthLife Africa. When they realized that it was not going to be easy to communicate policy and legislative issues around environmental sustainability to ordinary men and women in South Africa, they came up with the idea of setting up the GreenHouse Project as a walk-in facility.

NPi: When was it founded?

MM: It was founded in 1998 and set up at the current site in 2002, just around the time of the World Summit on Sustainability. Initially, my involvement with the GreenHouse was as a resource center. They made some facilities available to me when I was busy helping set up community-based initiatives in and around Soweto concerning food and recycling. Then in 2006 they invited me to join them formally.

NPi: What is the daily work at the GreenHouse Project?

MM: It’s interesting in many ways. First, most of us don’t consider ourselves working for the GreenHouse, but working with the GreenHouse, which changesone’s relationship with work. And secondly, I think it’s interesting because I’m myself all the time. There is no hierarchical structure. We are grounded in the values of Ubuntu—respect for the other person—so the environment is very fluid. I can have a plan, walk into the center, walk into the office, and that plan only begins to take shape sometime later in the day because several people have heard about the GreenHouse and decided to visit. There are no appointments, and we don’t make a fuss about that. People are perfectly free to come.

There’s a lot of interaction with people from whatever background—from rich people to the poorest of the poor. It’s exciting to come across people who don’t have anything but are willing to do something for themselves. It’s also interesting to come across people who have no clue what environmental sustainability is and have come just out of curiosity. They battle with their own mainstream thinking in the conversation about the environment. They will ask you questions and say, “But that’s not possible. It can’t happen.” And you spend hours with them showing them that something is possible. When you part, they have something to think about and work with. Most people come back.

NPi: Berkana talks about healthy, resilient communities. What does a healthy, resilient community mean to you?

MM: The picture that comes into my mind is pockets of communities that are able to feed themselves, communities that provide leadership for themselves inmany areas and at many levels of society, communities that are conscientious about the resources available to them and manage them conscientiously. I think the way human development has evolved is such that we have small centralized pockets of development and huge pockets of undeveloped communities. 

When the centralized developed pockets catch the cold, everybody else suffers. My view is that in life, living organisms are made up of many, many units of living structures—your cells, etc.—and that is why when we become sick, we only become sick because a significant number of those cells have taken a knock. But the body has other cells to replace those. That’s also how I look at human society. It’s better to have decentralized communities that self-organize, that take care of their resources and themselves. Because if one goes into shock, there are a thousand other communities to help the one community out of shock.

NPi: What is something you’ve learned from your work that has surprised you?

MM: The one thing that has surprised me and still continues to surprise me is how people who should be learning to do things for themselves, who should be taking ownership and co-creating healthy, resilient communities are still very much drawn to unhealthy, unsustainable forms of lifestyle even when they are aware that it brings in very little for them. Much of our energy and time goes to people who don’t want to do things for themselves, who would rather wait for the big man.

In South Africa, the big man would be your government or the private sector. While I don’t undervalue the importance of government helping people do something for themselves, it should be exactly that: those resources should be made available to people to help them do something for themselves. So that’s been a shock to me. I thought people who were poor—they would be ready and willing to do something for themselves. That’s not always true.

NPi: What is the larger shift of social change of which you feel the GreenHouse Project is a part?

MM: It’s championing a shift from a linear flow of material resources in society to a closed loop flow of material resources in society. For example, if you walk in a forest, there is no waste. Even if you go to the ocean floor, there is no waste. Nowhere in the universe do you find waste except in human beings. It’s not something as old as human society. It’s very, very new. The reason why is because we have basically cut ourselves off from cyclical systems—systems that feed one into the other—to systems where we mine, harvest, produce, process, send to retail, buy, consume, dispose. There is no connection in that flow with other systems that are supposed to support that flow.

In the forest, materials change from one form to another, benefiting different living organisms throughout the forest’s ecosystem. But in human society, modern human society—this is very, very new—we have advanced in ways that have meant a lot of destruction to the very systems that should sustain us and future generations. I see the GreenHouse Project playing a significant role in shifting, or reconnecting, communities and individuals with the essence of living systems.

NPi: How would you invite people to get involved?

MM: That’s a very interesting question. That’s the big question I’m taking from [my latest trip to the United States]. My wife and colleague Nomonde Mokhine
has a circle of friends who would be curious to know what our experience of the United States has been. We will have a series of conversations with most of our friends over refreshments. We will invite them into our space to share with them our experience of the United States.

For me, the biggest take-away is that I feel very lucky that I’m part of a network of individuals who see the importance of building community. Because where I’m coming from, the battle is to preserve community. It shouldn’t be that kind of a battle. What I feel fortunate about is that coming into the United States, one comes into a network of individuals who are very much grounded in the spirit and sense of community. I’m wondering, how would it be to convey, communicate, and share that with our folks in Johannesburg, who most of the time are exposed to—or have impressions of—a United States that has no community, with its consumerism and celebrity culture? This is my second visit to the United States. When I visited Berkeley, there was very much a sense of community, too.

For people in South Africa, it’s about working with a model of hosting home-based conversations about how we are living our lives, the things that we like about our lives, and the things that perhaps we like but that do not make sense. Working with community-based organizations, we want to weave within those conversations things that are practical, that we can do in our own home spaces. For example, growing our own vegetable gardens, or separating out recyclables for people who collect recyclables, or becoming more proactive in our children’s education.

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One Response to Modeling Sustainable Living in Johannesburg, South Africa

  1. Aerin Dunford on May 17, 2011 at 9:47 am

    As I read the end of Mabule´s interview I am struck by the many similarities in the daily work that he and the GreenHouse are doing and the way that I spend my time and energy. I am thinking about all of the differences between Oaxaca and Jo-burg … and yet Mabule and I are thinking and working on such similar things. Beyond just the food and waste topics (both shared passions for us) I am also thinking about the way that Mabule mentions that the medium for change is based on home-based conversations. I also think that this is a root system that interconnects the culture where I live and where Mabule is from. Change happens through friendship, when we take the time to visit our friends in their homes and share our ideas, listen to one another over some refreshments.

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