Habitable Air

The Power of Breathing Together: Durban Shack Dwellers Turn Air into Collective Action

In a world where air pollution and environmental concerns are gaining increasing attention, a recent study sheds light on a remarkable phenomenon in South Africa that speaks volumes about human resilience and community solidarity. Titled “Coughing Out the City: Habitable Air in Petrochemical South Africa” by Kerry Ryan Chance, this study explores how residents of South Africa’s shack settlements are using a unique practice known as “coughing out” to cope with the challenges posed by industrial pollution, racial inequalities, and even the COVID-19 pandemic.


Durban’s shack settlements are harnessing the power of their breath to bring about change. Imagine air as an invisible, dynamic medium that surrounds us. It’s essential for life, yet it can transmit various energies, including sound, and even carry the molecules responsible for our sense of smell. In Durban, this ever-present element has become the platform for a unique form of collective expression, rooted in an ancient tradition known as “coughing out.”


The Power of Collective Action in Durban’s Shack Settlements

Imagine a community meeting where the air is filled with the harmonious melodies of traditional songs, prayers, and spirited discussions. These gatherings, known as Branch Area Meetings, serve as communal spaces in Durban’s shack settlements, where residents come together to address their collective concerns. They are a powerful testament to the strength of collective action.


This intriguing practice of “coughing out” serves as a means of transforming individual pain into a collective injury. Residents in Durban’s shack settlements use it to address the violence and pollution they face in their daily lives. Rather than keeping their suffering to themselves, they gather to share their experiences through rituals such as community meetings, musical performances, and spiritual healing rites.


In essence, “coughing out” allows them to voice their concerns collectively, forging connections among their communities and emerging as political actors within their own right. While not all forms of collective action lead to protests, these practices help make the air more breathable and urban life more livable.


Singing for Change

One of the most intriguing aspects of these meetings is the role of music, specifically the musical styles of isicathamiya and mbanganga. These styles are deeply intertwined with the act of “coughing out” as a means of collective expression and catharsis. The lyrics of these songs often address the collective experience of pain and suffering, emphasising the need for residents to be heard and collectively address their concerns.


Interestingly, isicathamiya music, which originated among migrant miners working in toxic environments, draws strong parallels between the suffocating conditions of the mines and the polluted urban landscapes of Durban’s shack settlements. The soft-stepping dance moves in these performances serve as a reminder of the need to remain unnoticed, echoing the historical struggles of labourers in the toxic mines.


Spiritual Healing and Ancestral Connections: Breathing Life into Spirituality

Furthermore, the research sheds light on how spirituality intersects with these practices. Residents in Durban draw from Christian and traditional African spiritual traditions in their quest for cleaner air and healthier lives. While Christianity plays a significant role in community meetings and musical performances, traditional healers are central figures in the spiritual healing process.


In these communities, traditional healing practices and spirituality play a significant role in the practice of “coughing out.” Residents seek counsel from traditional healers to address various ailments and misfortunes, and the act of “coughing out” is associated with ancestral spirits and healing rituals. It is believed to readjust ancestral harmony and protect against the polluting hazards of witchcraft. The concept of ancestral spirits, known as “umoya” in isiZulu, plays a crucial role in these practices. Ancestors are considered a part of a network that extends across time and space. They are believed to influence an individual’s fortune or misfortune based on the strength of their connections with the living. Neglecting these connections can leave individuals vulnerable to harmful influences, even witchcraft.


Making Sense of “Coughing Out”

But what does “coughing out” really mean in these contexts? It’s not just about physically expelling pollutants from the lungs. It’s a powerful form of voicing, a means of expressing pain, discomfort, and collective injury within at-risk communities. It’s about shifting individual suffering into a collective experience that fosters resilience and solidarity.


A Legacy of Environmental Struggles

The significance of this practice becomes even more apparent when we consider the historical context of Durban’s shack settlements. These areas have a legacy of environmental struggles, racial inequalities, and industrial pollution. Yet, residents have found innovative ways to address these issues through “coughing out.”


Looking Beyond Western Political Theory

The practice of “coughing out” challenges conventional notions of political speech. It’s not about addressing authorities or dominant groups; it’s about communicating with intimates and fostering a sense of community. It’s a form of everyday resistance that often goes unnoticed by those in power.


A Path Forward

As we reflect on the findings of this study, it becomes clear that there is much we can learn from the resilience and creativity of South African communities. “Coughing out” is not just a reaction to pollution; it’s a powerful tool for collective action, a way for disenfranchised groups to voice their grievances, and a means of fostering solidarity in the face of adversity.


In a world grappling with environmental crises and social inequalities, the story of “coughing out” in South Africa serves as a reminder that even in the most challenging circumstances, human communities can find innovative ways to come together, support each other, and make their voices heard. It’s a story worth sharing, celebrating, and learning from as we navigate the complex issues of our time.


This study published in “The Journal of cArgo” showcases the power of breath as a catalyst for change. It invites us to rethink our understanding of collective action and environmental advocacy, showing us that even the most ordinary elements of life, like the air we breathe, can become platforms for transformation and empowerment.