Changemaker Festival catalyses local partnerships in Genadendal/Greyton Valley

Author: Marcela Guerrero Casas, EDP

“Valley of Six” changemakers celebrated partnering for action, supported by the Towns Action Network TAN)

“A place where people can get food and an education” is how Lazaan Swarts describes her vision for the new Voorstekraal community centre, launched at the area’s first Changemakers Festival on 26 November. Nestled in the valley between Voorkloof and Genadendal, the previously derelict building has been renovated and repurposed as a children’s library, community centre and Talent Exchange shop for local residents. There are also plans to utilise the surrounding 50 hectares for farming under the custodianship of a local cooperative.

Performances by local children open the Changemaker Festival to launch the Voorstekraal Skills Development Centre in Genadendal on 26 November. Credit: Ashraf Hendricks 

The Changemaker Festival is an initiative of the Valley of Six Changemakers Network – which brings together around 30 local civil society groups – as well as the Norma Canjanie Agricoop and Voorstekraal Women’s Network. In the weeks preceding the festival, these organisations joined together for a series of ‘Helpmekaars’ to refurbish the centre. 

“The biggest resource is already here and is the people themselves,” says Doug Reeler, one of the festival organisers about how the centre would be run and maintained. “Within this valley there are dozens of highly skilled people whose talents are not fully used.” The new centre is also implementing a Talent Exchange system as an alternative way for people to purchase goods using work or in-kind contributions.  

The Changemaker Festival included many activities to engage young people from the area. Credit: Ashraf Hendricks

Local farmers taking the lead in food security

As the ribbon cutting to open the centre took place, Carlo Wehr from the Norma Canjanie Agricultural Co-operative spoke passionately about his relationship with the building and the land.  He calls himself ‘the Chief’ on agricultural matters having farmed in the area since 2001. Carlo has permission to grow on the 50 hectares surrounding the centre and is now working with members of the Co-op to build on existing support from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture and bring in new resources and partners.

“Everyone can come here and learn to do something,” says Carlo about the new centre, which in addition to being a venue for skills development will also generate revenue from hiring out the space for weddings, church gatherings and other events.

Lazaan Swarts from the Living Grace Primary Agricultural Co-Operative and Valley Food Gardens, runs an established nursery in Genadendal, while also growing seedlings for local residents to start their own gardens and seed banks. “This centre is really needed to bring people together in the valley,” she says. 

Lazaan Swarts with her stand of seedlings and herbs at the Changemakers Festival in the Genadendal valley. Credit: Ashraf Hendricks 

Nurturing a generation for change

GreenCapes’s SA Climate Champs, which raises awareness among youth about climate change also joined the festival with an interactive stand of educational activities about renewable energy that attracted many curious children. “We believe in empowering young people”, says Thula Zondi, GreenCape’s Communications Officer, who likes the idea of a children’s library to provide youth with resources to deepen their understanding of climate change.

Children from the Valley engage with the SA Climate Champs stand Credit: Ashraf Hendricks

Reimagining space and place

The land on which the centre is located faces complex land tenure challenges similar to many places across South Africa. Originally mission land, there are no formal title deeds, yet local elders effectively control the usage and residents can make use of it. The elders gave their blessing for the use of the building which had stood empty for 20 years, creating an opportunity to maximise this valuable space.

The Theewaterskloof Municipality’s involvement in the centre has been largely informal, allowing the improvements to be purely community-lead, explains Councillor Chris Cloete who attended the festival with Executive Mayor Kallie Papier. The Councillor’s vision for the space is for “stalls, fresh markets, and [for it to be] driven by the community to help themselves.”

For the Valley of Six Changemakers Network, the Voorstekraal centre could become an inspiring model for more centres in other communities in the valley, with plans already underway. Rethinking existing resources, including people’s skills and vacant public spaces while connecting with existing activities such as farming can help to catalyse the change that our towns need.

The Changemakers Festival was the final event of the Connections Carnival, which has seen a series of innovative public events and connections taking place in eight South African towns since September 2022. The carnival is an initiative of the Towns Action Network (TAN), launched in March 2022, which brings together eight Support Partners who are involved in catalysing regeneration in small towns: In Transformation InitiativeRanyakaKagiso TrustRestaurare/Citeplan, Accountability LabKaroo Development FoundationDemocracy Works Foundation, and the EDP. The Network aims to enhance accountability of local government to local residents, businesses and local organisations to limit corruption and promote regeneration efforts.