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Empatheatre Performance ‘Lalela Ulwandle’ Sparked Conversation Around Ocean Governance During Un Celebrations Of World Oceans Week

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Acclaimed South African theatre collective, Empatheatre took centre stage at the United Nations World Ocean Week in New York 7 June 2023 where they performed ‘Lalela uLwandle (Listen to the Sea)'.

Acclaimed South African theatre collective, Empatheatre took centre stage at the United Nations World Ocean Week in New York 7 June 2023 where they performed ‘Lalela uLwandle (Listen to the Sea)’ – a play that explores intergenerational environmental injustices and sheds light on inclusive forms of ocean governance. Having made an impression at last year’s Climate COP27 and just returned from Rome, performing at the FAO closing of the International Year of artisanal fisheries and aquaculture, the group was excited to perform, yet again, in front of decision-makers, UN officials and ocean experts gathered in New Work.

“Now, we find ourselves at the UN headquarters in New York, it is well beyond our wildest dreams, to have this kind of audience” says Mpume Mthombeni, co-founder of Empatheatre, who stars in the production as Nowandle, a marine educator, who tells the story of three generations of her family, and the haunted history of South African’s coastline under Apartheid.


The day of the performance started dramatically when smoke from hundreds of wildfires in Canada reached New York covering the air in thick yellow smoke.

“It was a powerful day, as the show took place during a historical week, where New York suffered the worst air quality in its history, with hundreds of simultaneous wild fires raging in Canada smoke blew down and settled in New York, leaving the day filtered with ominious orange light. This added to the pressing urgency of the play, and the context of its origins which challenges the rush for oil and gas in our oceans, which would only just exacerbate climate incidences like this fire” Dr. Dylan McGarry, co-director of Empatheatre and One Ocean Hub researcher says and continues:


“The show landed powerfully in the conference rooms opposite the UN, kindly offered by our partner Peace Boat. Our team re-arranged the room into a theatre-in-the-round, and hosted a deep dive storytelling experience for UN delegates, UNDALOS Nippon fellows, and we also had the newly elected Indigenous Prime Minister of Cameroon in the audience. The play took this audience into the felt, embodied experiences of how decisions around the oceans impacts people in their day to day lives, and the politics of the sea in the South African context reveals a more nuanced picture of what ocean governance requires of our policies and how they are implemented.”

The immersive theatre production ‘Lalela Ulwandle’ was created as part of the One Ocean Hub international research network and it is based on research co-developed in South Africa.  The play explores intergenerational environmental injustices, tangible and intangible ocean heritage, marine science, threats to ocean health, and unpacks the various exclusions citizens have faced in ocean decision-making in their country. The performance sheds new light and hope on some of the well-known conundrums of ocean governance.

The audience sat captivated as the Empatheatre actors took the stage. In the audience were representatives from the United Nations, particularly the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Blue Planet Alliance as well as members from the Peace Boat, that facilitates youth participation in UN process and partners with the Hub at the Climate COP. The audience also included applied theatre professionals from different universities in the USA, as well as students and some Indigenous representatives from Australia and New Zealand. The post-show dialogue was rich and filled with questions and comments.

The general theme of these discussions was the ways in which the audience felt they could feel into the complexities of the ocean/climate nexus issues, and how the realities of decision-making practices that dominate ocean governance, have real, incredible local and personal impacts on people’s lives. Other African colleagues in the audience, felt the play reminded them of the political history of Africa and the seas, and how a detailed and critical analysis of history is required when investigating contemporary questions around ocean governance today. The discussions also unpacked the Empatheatre process and unique methodology, and how the play has been used to challenge evidence hierarchies in court and policy, and the implementation of ocean governance, particularly in the Marine Protected Areas space and the Marine Spatial Planning.

Director and lead dramaturge Neil Coppen reflects on the importance of the post-show discussions: “During the post-show discussions, we are able to think critically and collaboratively about the importance of listening to and mutual learning among researchers, spiritual healers, small-scale fishers and other stakeholders, and how this can transform the way we understand unexplored connections to the ocean and its role in climate governance.”

“The play brings together, unpacks and narrates the various histories that different South Africans have experienced in how decisions were made that impacted their lives. From the Apartheid forced removals of black communities away from the coast, to legislation suppressing Indigenous rituals and ceremonies, South Africa has transformed how many people have related to the sea. Under democracy many South Africans still struggle for recognition of their rights linked to coastal land and access. Lalela uLwandle tells the story of both this brutal past and the possibilities of weaving ourselves a new more just future” Dylan McGarry says.


Funded by the One Ocean Hub, Lalela uLwandle began as an instrument to challenge the narrow and oftentimes weak forms of consultation with the public around Ocean Decision making protocols. “By listening to many different people along our coast, and hearing the many diverse ways in which they value and understand the ocean, we were able to compile a chorus of voices” Says Lead researcher for Lalela uLwandle Dr. Kira Erwin at the Urban Futures Centre, Durban University of Technology.

‘Lalela Ulwandle’ has most noticeably surfaced intangible heritages of the ocean, and challenged evidence hierarchies in local law and international policy. Recently the audio play of Lalela uLwandle was used as evidence (along with two other short films from Empatheatre) in three court proceedings against Oil and Gas giant Shell and the South African government with regard to offshore oil and gas exploration. The play was used as evidence to support the rich and powerful affidavits of small-scale fishers and other ocean defenders in court on the expected negative impacts on fisheries, other marine biodiversity and their livelihoods. This was the first time in South African history that art was used as evidence in ocean governance, and found ways to represent Indigenous intangible heritage in meaningful and inclusive ways.

One of the most significant aspects of the play illustrates how natural and social scientists can collaborate with holders of different knowledge systems, respectfully and constructively, to develop a more integrated understanding of environmental challenges. The play also illuminates the close connections between human rights and ocean-climate governance, from the local to the international level.

“We hope that all the policy makers and decision-makers at this event feel inspired to collaborate with artists – as the UN has with us. Artists and cultural practitioners can work in solidarity with customary rights holders and intangible heritage custodians in new and nourishing ways that can co-create meaningful new forms of inclusive ocean governance” co-director of Empatheatre, Dr. Dylan McGarry concludes.

Watch a short, illustrated film about Lalela uLwandle here. 


As part of the UN World Ocean Week, the One Ocean Hub, Peace Boat, and Blue Planet Alliance also organised a joint side event on arts-based methods for inclusive ocean decision making and shared lessons learnt from South Africa. The workshop showcased the various collaborative arts-based projects facilitated by Empatheatre and the One Ocean Hub in South Africa, that created new pathways and collaborative solidarity practices that facilitate meaningful knowledge and evidence co-production in national policy, legal, and judicial processes.

“The workshop was a powerful moment for us, and for the participants, as it is a rare opportunity that we can take decision makers through an embodied experience into what ‘consultation’ looks and feels like in South Africa, around ocean decision making in real lived ways” says Dylan McGarry, lead facilitator of the workshop.

Drawing from research outcomes and findings over the course of the One Ocean Hub, in particular the pioneer work of the Coastal Justice Network, led by our current South African Country Directors for the One Ocean Hub Taryn Pereria and Dr. Philile Mbata. The workshop began with an ‘invisible theatre’ performance that was first developed in Rome in March as part of the FAO’s : International Year of Artisanal Fisheries And Aquaculture  (IYAFA 2022).

The performance, saw Mpume Mthombeni, playing a government official with Dr. McGarry performing as her translator and facilitator for a community consultation meeting on Marine Protect Areas Zonation revision as part of a fictional integrated Management Plan. The audience entered a room, and listened to presentations presented entirely in Zulu, and with complicated Zulu terms and maps on a PowerPoint display. With other actors from Empatheatre planted in the audience, asked questions and asked to have the meeting translated, the many elements of dysfunction that exist in community consultation could be performed and experienced by the audience. After the performance the delegates broke into groups and discussed their experience, with prompts to explore ways in which they could make community consultation more inclusive, democratic and work with local Indigenous protocols in their design.

“The workshop was very inspiring, mainly due to the feedback from the Nippon Fellows from UNDALOS (see also here), as they are all situated in governance positions in their different countries, and are having to facilitate precisely these kinds of processes, many reflected on how they had not considered these lived realities of ocean governance on the ground, and how it had shifted their thinking around practicalities that need careful consideration in practicing ethics of care in how we go about creating and implementing policy” Dylan McGarry reflects.