With solar power, urban farms, and radical grassroots democracy, eKhenana provides an impressive model for a sustainable low-carbon future.
Limiting global warming to 1.5°C will require huge global efforts and transformations. As climate scientists have made clear, greenhouse gas emissions need to halve by 2030, trillions will need to be mobilised to fund complex energy transitions, and virtually every economic sector will have to find ways to reduce their environmental footprints.
Though less often talked about in the climate headlines, our ways of living will need to change too. Homes and buildings will need to be decarbonised. Transport systems will have to be reconceptualised to prioritise walking, cycling, and public transit. And food systems will have to change radically, both in terms of how we grow food and what we consume. A world in which up to 10 billion people live with dignity while keeping to the global carbon budget will necessarily look vastly different to today.
In recent years, the question of what this sustainable low-emissions future could look like has animated both climate scientists and creatives. They have imagined a myriad of possibilities, some more fantastical than others.
For the residents of eKhenana commune, however, the future is already here. In this settlement in Durban, South Africa, low-consumption lifestyles, shared living in urban villages, and self-sufficient small-scale agriculture are not utopian visions but daily reality.
eKhenana was first established in 2018 when a group of people decided to occupy some neglected municipal land in Durban. They began by building their homes, shacks, before adding schools, shops, and community spaces. The commune are members of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the South African social movement of the poor that fights for land, housing, and human dignity.
Today, eKhenana is made of up 109 families and the community is a model of democratic, ground-up, climate-friendly self-sufficiency. As South Africa faces rolling blackouts, the commune enjoys reliable solar power that it uses to boil water, charge phones, and keep the lights on. Through its food sovereignty garden and cooperative farming projects, it feeds itself with nutritious and cheap locally grown produce.
“Life at eKhenana is never boring,” says resident Thozama Mazwi, who helps tend to the commune’s sixty chickens.
According to South African climate change researcher Christy Bragg, governments and corporations are often misguided when they try to imagine and shape the future. They get distracted by grand but false solutions, a criticism that has been levelled at high-level talks such as the upcoming Africa Climate Summit with its focus on carbon markets. Instead, says Bragg, policymakers should be looking at self-reliant communes like eKhenana. 15 years of working in sustainable development, climate change adaptation, and co-operative governance have taught Bragg that “sustainability comes from the bottom-up”.
“There’s a lot of pressure in our capitalist, consumer-type of culture to go big, and we really need to be going small,” she says.
Bobby Peek, the director of the environmental justice non-profit organisation groundWork, concurs. He says that many more communities should follow eKhenana’s lead in going from being mere consumers to active providers of energy, with low-income households given support to overcome the high upfront costs. “It must not be that only middle-class people can afford to install solar energy,” he says.
Peek, who is also a commissioner on the South African Presidential Coordinating Committee on Climate Change, believes that eKhenana’s approach to land – in making use of vacant terrain to establish local food systems – similarly presents a model to be emulated. The world food system is currently estimated to be responsible for over a third of all global greenhouse emissions. The kind of small-scale cooperative farming set up by and for the commune, says Peek, should happen in “as many spaces as possible”.
“It is about using the land that is available, that has not been used, to be able to create the food systems that we need,” he explains. “We need to think creatively about urban agriculture, urban architecture, and urban planning.”
For both Bragg and Peek, the watchword in building locally self-sustaining communes is sovereignty. Communities, they agree, need to be able to take control of their food and ownership of their needs without relying on the government.
To say eKhenana has managed to thrive in the absence of the state wouldn’t be quite right. The commune’s self-sufficiency has, in fact, been hard-won against a backdrop of state-sanctioned violence. Like most land occupations in South Africa, the community in eKhenana have had to repeatedly rebuild their homes after countless eviction attempts. These often-violent operations, enforced by the government and private militias, have led to the deaths of at least eight residents.
This harassment has continued even since the community at eKhenana won the right to legally occupy the land in 2019. The government and police, says AbM’s General Secretary Thapelo Mohapi, “treat Abahlali like a criminal organisation”.
The politics conducted within eKhenana couldn’t look more different to the formal state’s elite and exclusionary approach. In the commune, all decisions are reached by consensus at community meetings through radical democratic participation. Residents regularly gather at Thuli Ndlovu Hall – named after one of their assassinated comrades – where everyone is given a chance to discuss all communal decisions, from where spinach is planted to how resources like the community-owned sewing machine are shared. This agency is coupled with responsibility; all members are expected to be active in, and aware of, eKhenana’s various projects and challenges.
“Our discussion must have one answer, reached communally,” explains Mazwi. “No one can tell us what to do, not even our [former] chairperson, comrade Mnguni, may he rest in peace, because we make our decisions for ourselves.” Lindokuhle Mnguni was gunned down by hitmen in August 2022.
Like all AbM branches, eKhenana practices Ubuhlalism, their interpretation of the philosophy of Ubuntu. In stark contrast to neoliberal individualism, a driving force behind the climate crisis, this way of thinking advocates for a communal worldview that prioritises wellbeing over profit.
“Ubuhlalism teaches us how to share with other people, how to treat each other, how to build yourself,” says Mazwi. “Ubuhlalism is something you can’t touch, you can’t see, but something that you practice. It’s something inside you.”
The centrality of this philosophy can be seen in eKhenana’s collective decisions such as around its solar power, whose use negotiated daily after prioritising communal activities like poultry farming and meetings. After the panels were installed in November 2022 by The Urban Movement Incubator Energy Democracy project, a coalition striving for widespread adoption of community-led renewable energy solutions, AbM released a statement celebrating that “this is electricity that will do less harm to the world and that will be democratically controlled by the community rather than centrally controlled by a violent and corrupt state”. eKhenana residents speak of an “energy democracy”, insisting that “when we move to renewable energy, we move together”.
For all of eKhenana’s work towards self-sufficiency, the commune is necessarily still part of the city and world at large. Although shack-dwellers receive little to no basic services from the government, for example, they informally rely on the national water system and procure some energy from the national grid through self-connections. Mazwi says the biggest challenge eKhenana faces that it cannot solve alone is the collection of waste, which the community often has to burn.
No matter how evolved, eKhenana’s practices will also not protect it from increasingly common severe weather events. In April 2022, for instance, the KwaZulu-Natal coast, including Durban, received more than 300mm of rainfall in 24 hours. The catastrophic flooding caused by this “rain bomb” led to 459 deaths and left 40,000 people homeless. eKhenana’s food sovereignty garden was badly affected, but the commune otherwise got off lightly compared to other informal settlements.
In solidarity, eKhenana residents organised food drives and cooked meals for AbM comrades and non-members alike.
“The Durban floods did not affect eKhenana community because of our land [position], but it affected us emotionally because our family members and comrades were affected,” says Mazwi.
The commune’s sense of solidarity also stretches far beyond the city to the global poor, who are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change. AbM has strong transnational networks and co-organises knowledge-sharing and capacity building workshops with activists from around the world. In fact, it was Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement that provided the first seeds for eKhenana’s food sovereignty project.
According to Bragg, “Westernisation has isolated us very badly…We need to be building capacity within our communities”. For eKhenana, that community begins with its 109 families that are providing a template for how billions of people can enjoy rich and sustainable lives while protecting the planet but extends to people and movements the world over.
Helen Aadnesgaard is a South African writer, researcher, and activist. She recently completed her Master’s in Gender Studies where she worked closely with Abahlali baseMjondolo to explore the criminalisation of poverty and the philosophy of Ubuhlalism from the movement’s perspective.