Albertus Louw (AL): Ntoks, when is our next “FUN-kansie”?
Ntokozo Mbuli (NM): We’ve been talking about this FUN-kansie ever since I left 50/50. I’m dying to have it. But only when you can remove yourself from the trees. This is a question that I want to ask — why do you live in a tree? It’s the first thing I say about you, “You must meet my friend Albertus, he lives in a tree, but that’s a story for another day.”
AL: Since I was a little boy, I wanted to have a tree house. It is just such an amazing feeling to live close to nature. My whole idea was to experiment with natural building materials and to do something that’s healthy and integrated with nature.
NM: So, I’ve been to your, let’s call it your house, and it’s been a really special time. You and I have often had conversations about when I fell in love with nature, because the two of us are very different. We both worked at 50/50, but it was a place where everyone was an ecologist or a conservationist. And I was very much an urban girl. There have been various turning points in my life and career where I’ve started to understand this concept of being environmentally conscious, and your house is one of the places in my journey where I began to believe that you could live off the grid and still have pieces of your urban life.
AL: Thank you. And you’ve been such an inspiration to me. The moment I got the opportunity to present at 50/50, it was like, “Whoa, I’m meeting this icon.”
NM: We’ve been to swim with the sharks, and for me that was a big thing, because until that point I was against shark-cage diving. It was on that trip that I came into my own as somebody who’s got their own opinions about conservation, because the conservation world is vast, and even in that community there are opposing opinions. And while some things can be a bit taboo, it’s got to be about balance, because it is the eco-tourism industry that funds [conservation]. And then I gave you my Nedbank Tour de Tuli adventure.
AL: That was amazing! I had this dream of riding the Tour de Tuli, which is a four-day cycle trip through wilderness areas. It was such a dream, and then you got invited and I was so jealous.
NM: And then I fell pregnant. What was special for me about that trip — that I didn’t go on and that you went on — is that the story you came back with was enough for me to fall in love with the idea of harvesting knowledge from indigenous people, because yes, it was a great mountain-biking experience, but it was also in the most precious wilderness areas in Southern Africa. One minute you’re riding past elephants, the next minute you’re riding past communities of people who are existing in harmony with the natural world. And there were lessons that I drew from it that mapped out some of the things that I’m doing in my life now.
AL: It was such an amazing experience. You touched on the indigenous knowledge subject; I think that’s one of the things that I love about what you are doing.
NM: My biggest bugbear about the conservation space was that every time Black people were part of the conversation, it was from the point of view of their having to be educated about conservation. I would give a talk about whatever, rhino poaching or sustainable living, and somehow the question would spring up that, in a country plagued by poverty, why should we worry about rhinos being poached? I just started thinking that we were going about it the wrong way. Indigenous people are not the ones who need to be taught — they are the teachers. About 10 years ago, the then deputy minister of environmental affairs ran a campaign called Basa Njengo Magogo, which went into the areas where people are still using fire for cooking and taught them to make fires in such a way that there’s minimal impact on the environment. And we did a few stories on biodigesters, using cow or animal dung as fuel as opposed to coal or wood, learning from rural people. I thought, “Surely there’s much more of that.” We should bring that conversation into the mainstream, and we should stop talking about going into rural areas and teaching people about conservation. We should rather think about it as reminding ourselves of the connection between our identity and sustainability. And so you can’t use the same method of messaging for one group of people and make it a blanket statement. Because the poaching of rhinos doesn’t impact people in Lusikisiki, for example, but then let’s talk about renewable energy on a small scale, let’s talk about reminding ourselves about how our people lived with the land and speak about sustainability from that point of view. And then in other places you can talk about biodiversity management or ecosystems, because that’s important to those people. Everyone in the urban environment is trying to get off the grid and everyone in the rural environment has been off the grid all their lives. It’s about tailor-making the messaging to suit the people.
AL: I’ve struggled with that idea that there’s such a clash between the ideas of development and conservation. That arrogance of saying that people in rural areas should be taught about conservation, while the facts show that, in general, biodiversity is the highest where people live closest to the environment.
AL: There’s this idea that some people are for conservation and some are for development, and these two clash. A lot of the language around conservation has been negative: “You must pollute less, you have to use less energy.” I did a story on a city in the Netherlands called Venlo that adopted cradle-to-cradle principles, which really inspired me. They said, “We want to think positively, so we want to have an environmental footprint, but that environmental footprint has to be positive. We want to be more good rather than less bad.” That paradigm shift caused such a lot of awesome innovation to happen. Waste becomes part of the whole cycle of creating stuff. And that’s the whole idea of the circular economy that really inspires me. In Venlo, they have shown that they could make their businesses not just sustainable but thriving over the long term. The circular-economy thing is very much part of African culture and philosophy. There are fantastic ways that we can become much more innovative with it in Africa. I’m starting to work on a pilot with Briana Evigan, an American actress. We are working together with a group of very cool people in the Bushbuckridge area. It is very exciting and based on these things that we’ve been talking about, about how together in that community we can find innovative solutions and really build an abundant village where we use as many circular cradle-to-cradle ideas as possible.
NM: And my immediate future will be about working on the worldview of Africa and debunking a lot of the stereotypes about Africans and conservation.
AL: I’m looking forward to that. You and I will be working together again this year.
NM: And we’re going to go on that FUN-kansie.
• Ntokozo Mbuli is A TV producer, writer, and presenter who has become the face of environmental programming in the country
• Albertus Louw is an award-winning filmmaker and field presenter for 50/50, and a producer at Lightning Tree Stories
• From the February edition of Wanted, 2022.