Storytelling for social change: learning from practitioners

Towns Action Network partners share how their organisations use storytelling to change practice.

Author: Helene Botha


A festival-goer records the youth performance at the 2022 Changemakers Festival hosted by The Valley of Six Changemakers Network. Credit: Ashraf Hendricks  

Like many young students preparing for their exams. Funeka Mpofu spends odd hours studying. However, his inconsistent hours are not by choice but due to rolling blackouts – which aren’t just affecting his ability to study, but ultimately to apply for jobs. In sharing his story as part of Accountability Lab’s #PowerUp series, Funeka and others are vividly showing how South Africa’s electricity supply crisis is affecting young people.

Stories shape the way we understand and engage with the world around us and can be powerful tools for social change. Three changemakers from the Towns Action Network – a national learning and support network aimed at catalysing small town regeneration in South Africa – share here how their organisations are using storytelling to facilitate change in their communities.

Using stories to drive social change

Civil society and community organisations often share on-the-ground, lived experiences through storytelling to foster understanding and trust and increase communication between each other and with local policymakers. 

The Towns Action Network, for example, uses storytelling to highlight how peer-to-peer learning and collaboration between organisations within the network leads to more sustainable and impactful projects.

Storytelling is also a way to keep policymakers accountable. The Action4Accounatbility project – a joint initiative by Accountability Lab SA, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and the Public Service Accountability Monitor – includes activist storytellers to help report on service delivery and community engagement. Their stories help civic action teams to report to keep their local representatives accountable in the areas of Lenasia, Finetown and Mondeor in Johannesburg.

Participants in the Accountability4Action tell the stories of civic action in Johannesburg. Credit: Accountability Lab SA

Social change requires resourcing and storytelling has become increasingly important in gathering support, mobilising resources and reporting to donors. Doug Reeler, from the Barefoot Guide Connection says, “There’s a need to go beyond shallow reporting and deliver deeper accounts of real change and real practice. Civil society organisations can use stories to educate donors on the real needs of the communities they are partnering with and show the impact of continued support.”

Practitioners and community members can also use storytelling as a tool to explore and unlock their capacity for change. “In our storytelling workshops, we help people explore the real story that happens within themselves and in their relationships during processes of change,” explains Reeler. “By unlocking this inside story, they can understand their will and motivation, as well as what’s blocking that motivation, whether its fear, self-doubt or even hate, to unleash the drive for change.”

The impact of a good story

For a story to cut through the noise and constant bombardment of information from the media, it needs to draw the audience in with a clear message.

“A good story is one that is insightful, that people can relate to,” says Sadia Khan from Accountability Lab SA. “Especially when you’re sharing a community event or activity, adding a personal angle or putting a face to the story makes it more impactful.”

Khan also raises the importance of who is telling the story. In telling the story of a particular town or community, the residents and those involved should tell the story. This makes the story relatable and helps ensure grassroots retention and investment in the next activity, thus supporting the continuity and sustainability of the initiative.

An interview with Unathi Filita, a Social Worker in Uitenhage, Eastern Cape as part of Accountability Lab SA’s Integrity Icon campaign. Credit: Accountability Lab SA

Different avenues of storytelling can help to explore the nuances of a place or event. Reeler notes, “Stories of practice, where the storyteller brings a personal account and draws the reader into their confidence can be a great way for practitioners to share knowledge, best practices and the real work of social change.”

Generational storytelling, a process of remembering the past, exploring the present and envisioning the future, can help communities co-create solutions to local problems. Clara Barthus from the Valley of Six Changemakers Network shares how this form of storytelling has helped younger and older generations in Greyton and Genadendal to learn from each other about agricultural practices, community gardens and bartering systems. It has also influenced the development of food gardens and a local Talent Exchange.  

Engaging the Youth

Giving young people opportunities to add their voice in a time where that voice has been largely absent is critical. Involving youth means deeper connections with communities and longer-term benefits such as reduced outmigration, and more youth-activities and entrepreneurship.

Young filmmakers train on the job as part of Accountability Lab SA’s Integrity Icon Film Fellowship. Credit: Accountability Lab SA

“In our experience with training youth to be storytellers, we have learned how impactful stories can be in getting them involved and sharing what’s going on in their communities,” says Khan. Both Kahn and Reeler stress that successfully engaging young people means using social media, photos and video formats.

The Valley of Six Changemakers Network are engaging young people through dance and rap music. Barthus adds, “The youth are crucial in bringing successful projects and practices across to the next generation and the future.”

Accountability Lab SA has provided unemployed youth with good phones and narrative skills to share photos and videos of what is happening in their communities and how it impacts them. In their ‘Voices of the Youth’ series, participants have documented the impact of unemployment, the pandemic and the July 2021 riots on their lives. 

Stories of change:

Stories can also help spread hope and be an inspiration of what is possible. Kahn, Barthus and Reeler share some stories of change from the communities they work in.  

Finetown Clinic Opens its doors: An example from Finetown, Johannesburg of how storytelling can help drive a cause, after years of active engagement from the Finetown CivActs members, the clinic opened its doors in July 2023. Read more

#PowerUp Series: A series of articles by young writers for Accountability Lab SA focussing on how South Africa’s electricity supply crisis is affecting young people. Read more

Mind Over Matter: The story of how a community in Genadendal has come together to support people who are differently abled through skills development, craft projects and gardening at the day care centre. Read more

Restoring our Home in Nature: The latest guide from the Barefoot Guide Connection, featuring the stories and practice of the African Biodiversity Network that explore our relationship with nature through indigenous knowledge, ecological agriculture and biodiversity related rights. Read more


Sadia Khan is Interim Country Director for Accountability Lab SA. She has 40 years’ experience in the private sector in finance and banking and is passionate about sharing her knowledge with young people starting their careers.

Clara Barthus is Chairperson of the Valley of Six Changemakers Network, Norma Kanjanie Agricoop and Voorstekraal Women’s Network. She has also helped develop community projects including a soup kitchen, community garden, youth skills development and arts & crafts initiative and helped develop the Voorstekraal Community Centre.  

Doug Reeler has been active in civil society since the 1980s and works with the Barefoot Guide Connection supporting social change leaders and practitioners to write their stories of change. He also works with the Valley of Six Changemakers Network in the Genadendal/Greyton Valley in the Overberg, Western Cape.

The Towns Action Network is an action-inspired learning and support network aimed at catalysing the untapped potential of struggling towns, and fostering collaborative action between local municipalities, residents and business for sustainable change and impact.

The network’s activities are co-led by the Economic Development Partnership (EDP) and seven other Support Partners – Ranyaka, Kagiso Trust, Restaurare/ Citeplan, Karoo Development Foundation, Accountability Lab SA, Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), South African Local Government Association (SALGA).