"Exhibiting You" - Story

Who Knows the Earth Best?

June Podcast Features Sibongile Masuku van Damme

Submitted: 06/09/2008

Women, Power and Politics Exhibition curator Masum Momaya sat down with Sibongile Mansuku in Palo Alto, California, to learn about how gender, race and the environment co-exist in post Apartheid South Africa. An excerpt from the podcast interview follows.

Have you always cared about the environment since a very young age?

I think I was very much influenced in looking at the environment in a very broad perspective because my great-grandmother was actually a traditional healer but she was also a traditional gynecologist and pediatrician.

Everywhere she walked she looked in terms of plants. As I grew up as well, being a woman, my grand-grandmother then, and me would wake up very early in the morning and pick wild spinach. So it was sort of the woman provider kind of role that was one was being prepared for. So I could identify from a very young age edible plants that could be used for providing for the family.

And do you find, was that specific to the South African context?

I think particularly for young women we grow up knowing which plants are edible and which are not and what would generally be used in the home. When I grew up and working as a conservationist it was quite interesting the way you start seeing the plants now categorized in terms of alien species and non-alien species because you're grown up plants like kokouza with it the black jack and all of a sudden it's being dubbed an alien plant but it has been a provider of nutrients for you from a very young age.

Who is doing the dubbing, who is classifying plants?

I think the movement, particularly in South Africa now, is very much the attack of the alien and the alien here is the invader plant. So it's quite a big environmentalist movement but it's very much aimed at the poorest of the poor and in this respect it's usually the women.

I want to go back to that notion of alien and non alien plants, but first I'm wondering if you can tell us: What is a conservationist and what do they do?

I call myself an environmentalist, which is much broader. Conservationists are more concerned with plants and animals. But an environmentalist is concerned about social issues, decisions, political decisions in terms of provisions economically, in terms of what the budget is going to look like. It's really about the inter-dependence of the economic, social, and political aspects in terms of biodiversity and the relationship.

Have conservationists historically neglected those social factors? For example, in the case of classification of plants, has that been a tension within the environmental movement in the sense of conservationists neglecting some of the social factors?

I think conservation has really started off, particularly in South Africa, from a purist point of view. No people, no alien species. And I think with recognizing that the encroachment of alien species in not necessarily an issue of offences but involves humans in terms of history. The English have been there with their horses and wanted to provide for them. So you have a historical issues of alien plants being there but I think particularly with 1994 and the new dispensation and the instruction to conservation that it must start now being relevant to people's issues.

One of the areas that was recognized as being able to answer that call was to look at how to clean up the environmental spaces.

There were some interesting ways you were received as a black woman within a movement that was predominantly white men. Is that correct?

Yes, when I entered conservation in 1996, remember this is two years after a new constitution, we were really not welcome, 1) as women, 2) as black women. We were constantly asked, "Oh, Sibongile, what do you know about conservation?" So were really seen as sort of a window dressing that had to play a public relations role to appease government.

And you really, really had to stand up and be assertive as a woman and you also had to have an understanding of what the business you were in was about. Because I came in a social scientist but most of the time your colleagues would question your understanding of conservation and they would argue with you that there was no space here for dealing about people issues. "We're not a developmental agency, that's for government to provide for the poor. Our business here is clear, it's conservation." So you had to constantly justify your role in conservation and it got ugly quite a number of times.

And so how did you respond to that? It seems that, we started in the very beginning, that you would know quite a bit about conservation given that you had grown up with this knowledge of plants and it had been passed down from generation to generation and really had a specific understanding of the environment.

You see, that's exactly the arrogance that conservationists started off with: "Black people have no understanding of what conservation is." So the whole layer of indigenous knowledge in terms of how people related with the environment was all of a sudden erased. My prior knowledge of conservation issues, my common sense understanding of conservation was not regarded.

So part of the work that I did was to develop a series of booklets which were called "Indigenous Knowledge" series. First of all, it was to provide evidence of the fact that our indigenous knowledge sits at the same table as the so-called label "conservation knowledge."

I developed one which was called "Sweet Water." It was a story in Zulu explaining how people collected water. For instance, people will collect water where they can hear it, which means it was oxygenated water. And, water when it was collected you would brush the surface which means you get rid of the surface bacteria. People wouldn't collect water after a storm because generally the water wouldn't be healthy.

So there were quite a number of practices that had scientific wisdom behind it, and it was not just only in the area of work but also in the area of school, where kids were told don't bring that nonsense knowledge from home, it's not science. So, it also meant re-teaching teachers how to approach the so-called indigenous knowledge and to bring out those scientific rationales within the practices that people did.

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