Fairer and more inclusive marine protected areas through restorative public storytelling

By Dylan McGarry, Elisa Morgera and Laura Merilainen

The Empatheatre team in South Africa (that recently performed at COP27) has embarked on a new journey to use restorative public storytelling to address issues of fairness and inclusion in the creation and management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), through a new theatre-based research project co-developed with 13 young artists (Mbazwana Creative Arts) in northern KwaZulu-Natal region. The project, titled “Umkhosi Wenala” (is Zulu for “Festival of Abundance”) aims to create an innovative participatory decision-making space where rural youth can have a voice in the creation and management of MPAs that exclude cultural, spiritual and other local perspectives, concerns and questions.

On the closing day of the workshops, participants were divided into groups and asked to theatricalize and perform a story which had resonated with them the most over the last few days of storytelling, sharing and listening . Mbazwana Arts Centre, Zululand, 2021. 

The project aims to foster transformative public dialogue, transgressive learning and alternative approaches to zoning and other forms of spatial planning of rural areas surrounding conservation and mining concessions in a manner where indigenous and local knowledge, contemporary social dynamics, historical injustices and cultural phenomena are foregrounded in decision-making processes.

This blog post explains the innovative partnerships behind this project and how the restorative public storytelling method is contributing to making ocean governance more inclusive in post-Apartheid South Africa.

“Walking along the timeline felt like walking as a group across the coastline, and each story felt like the tide rushing up to meet us. All of these tidal shifts revealed layer upon layer of fascinating stories and histories of the region from the beginning of time (mythical and remembered)……. right through to the present day moment.” Reflects Dr. Dylan McGarry Mbazwana Arts Centre, Zululand, 2021. 

Partnership and co-production through alternative mapping of space and time

In June of 2021, the Empatheatre team conducted preliminary workshops with thirteen young performers/activists from the The Mbazwana Arts Centre, in collaboration with the organistion “Mbazwana Creative Arts” in Northern Zululand led by Spha Mzobe, building on long-standing investigations by marine sociologist Dr.Philile Mbatha (University of Cape Town, South Africa) on exclusionary practices and lack of fair and equitable benefit-sharing around World Heritage Sites.

Empatheatre facilitators used a counter hegemonic mapping methodology, where interactive chalk drawings on the hall floor were used to map the KwaZulu-Natal coastline and asked participants to locate where they were born and narrate an early childhood memory pertaining to it. Gradually the cement floor of the arts-centre hall came alive in white chalk lines and illustrations telling a myriad of stories “…stories that introduced us to rivers, coastlines, homesteads, lakes, plantations, cattle, horses, hippos, and magical snakes and baboons of the area,” says Empatheatre co-director, Neil Coppen.

Participants then also shared their first memories of the sea, while standing on the map to illustrate where they first encountered it. Over the next few hours, the group travelled up and down this mapped coastline listening to participants telling a series of stories and personal recollections around the Sodwana Bay area.

Another transgressive and generative exercise involved drawing a chalk timeline across the expanse of the arts centre floor and asking participants to pick up a piece of chalk and fill in the time-line with narratives, anecdotes, stories, myths, events and historic episodes that they personally felt impacted the Mbazwana region and their own lives. This allowed for the team and participants to place stories and histories against landmarks and places, but also weave together their memories of the region with each other. Participants were also encouraged to return back to their communities, in between these sessions, to interview their elders about other stories of the land and sea. These stories were later written (or drawn) into the timeline and narrated back to the rest of the group.

Empatheatre co-facilitator Dylan McGarry helping keep the chalk time-line up to date. Mbazwana Arts Centre, Zululand. 2021 

After surfacing a range of narratives through these mapping exercises – combined with a variety of participative theatre and writing-games and exercises which were conducted by Empatheatre facilitators – on the closing day, participants were divided into groups and asked to theatricalise and perform a story which had resonated with them the most over the last few days of storytelling, sharing and listening.

As Empatheatre co-director Mpume Mthombeni reflects: “It was so humbling, and painful to withness how history has played out in this part of the world, and how alive it is in the hearts and minds of young people.”

Art-based research and solidarity

One of the most profound moments in the workshop was witnessing Dr. Philile Mbata engage with the timeline process and contribute the stories that she had collected during her PhD over a decade prior in the region by working with indigenous knowledge holders, many of whom would have been the grandparents of the participants, and had subsequently passed away. As an isiZulu speaker from Umlazi, she has been carrying stories and histories gifted to her through her previous research, and she finally had a chance to share many of them back with the participants.

“It’s a rare moment when academic work comes back to a community in the language of the place and that can be fully held and used by the next generation who the stories rightfully belong” Dr Dylan McGarry, co-creator of Empatheatre says.

At the close of this workshop, a shared project WhatsApp Group was created, and participants have been provided with a mobile data allowance from June to November 2021 to continue interviewing and sharing stories centring around the research questions/collective interests which were decided upon over the course of the first meeting. Over a period of 6 months, the WhatsApp group has generated a wealth of incredible interviews with local fisherfolk, sangomas and elders from Mbazwana and other communities surrounding the Isimangaliso World heritage site and continues to surface powerful narratives, mythologies and belief-systems pertaining to the region.

All dialogue, sharing of stories, and collaborative analyses of the stories are occurring in vernacular isiZulu.

“Empatheatre feels strongly that every stage of the research and devising of a new project should occur in the main language of the region, and we have been very inspired by the rich idiomatic and poetic framing and shaping of stories that is emerging in northern Zululand dialects” McGarry says.


The musical tells the story of two twins, a brother Nkosana and sister Makhosazana, who inherit a kingdom after the disappearance of their grandmother, a queen, said to have drowned in the ocean. The two Nkosi’s, destined to rule together, are divided by circumstance and political forces beyond their control. After two decades of betrayal and conflict between their competing kingdoms, the situation further escalates with the arrival of a fence which cuts the communities off from their village and resources and resurfaces past tensions and new resentments. The production weaves together many relevant moments from the last century of Northern Zululand’s history and uses humour, pathos, satire, puppetry, ritual and music to tell its story.

“With the legacies of apartheid many perspectives and histories have been excluded in decision making, and this play aims re-map these lost histories and memories through the leadership of KZN youth”, Neil Coppen, Empatheatre co-creator explains.

The musical deepens some of the Hub research findings, from across the South African research team, on gender and inter-generational dialogue, indigenous and local communities’ customary laws, cultural and religious connections to the ocean, exclusionary practices in spatial planning and conservation, and fair and equitable benefit-sharing within communities and between communities, researchers and public authorities. As such, it also reveals multiple issues related to human rights, that will be further explored in 2023.

At the conclusion of each performance, audiences are invited to join into a facilitated conversation with the performers and creative team, with a view to advancing understanding of these issues and explore generative opportunities for more inclusive ocean governance.

The Empatheatre team and participants from the Mbazwana Creative Arts collective brainstorm new ideas as the Mbazwana Arts Centre Workshops in Zululand. 

On the road towards more participatory decision-making

The insights and oral histories arising from the workshops have now been turned into a thrilling hour-long musical (in isiZulu and English), which toured the region surrounding the park, and brought many different knowledge holders together, who participated in post-show discussions. Including local Indigenous authorities and leaders, who engaged and offered feedback on the performance, the ethics of representation, and the text itself. This first iteration of the play has allowed the team to adapt it, to have even more significant impact on how audiences can work with the complexity of addressing the past injustices in how decisions are made in contemporary governance.

The Empatheatre Team, with the support of the One Ocean Hub and the Coastal Justice Network, aims to extend the play further with a tour across Kwa-Zulu Natal, with a particular focus on a public consultation process underway in a neighbouring MPA further down the coast in 2023. Alongside this extend tour, the team aims to work with Hub researchers, community leaders and other knowledge holders, to use the post-show discussion as a think tank to draft a peoples’ charter on marine protection. You will be able to follow the Empatheatre’s journey on Instagram here.

Noxo Mlungwana fills in a story on the chalk time-line. The time line featured narratives, anecdotes, stories, myths, events and historic episodes that participants felt impacted the Mbazwana region and their own lives. Mbazwana Arts Centre, Zululand, 2021 

A documentary of this research collaborations will be launched at the closing events of the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture, which the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is organising in mid March 2023 in Rome, Italy, where early insights from the extend tour and the draft peoples’ charter on marine conservation will be shared internationally with policy makers and practitioners involved in sustainable fisheries and marine conservation. The engagement at the international level is expected to further co-develop the Hub research and policy contributions on how to make marine protection more inclusive, just and support multi-species flourishing (human and more-than-human alike).

The project received funding from the One Ocean Hub (OOH) and through the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s (SANBI)’s African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP)- funded “Deep Connections” Project. The project also received a generous grant from the Berttha Foundation, as part of Empatheatres 2022 Bertha Artivist Award, as well as funding from the National Arts Council of South Africa.  The project forms part of a greater initiative spearheaded by the One Ocean Hub, and SANBI’s Deep Connections project to enrich and deepen our understanding of marine ecosystems and the relationship people have with them. This project would not have been possible without the tireless and loving dedication of Sphamandla Mzombe, Dumasani Ngubane who run the Mbazwana Creative Arts, and the talented researcher/writer/actor/singers that are  Njabulo Zikhali , Mbali Ntuli, Siphamandla Vusi Mafuleka, Noxolo Thandeka Mlungwana, Zimpendulo Petunia Mthembu, Nokubonga Zikhali, Nolwazi Zulu, Nelisiwe Mbuyazi and Nomthandazo Nxumalo.

Photos by: Jacki Bruniquel