Collective effort

2014-07-23 00:00

THERE’S no better way to get intimate with a city than to get down and dirty on the streets.

That’s where I was last Friday morning, along with my Witness colleagues, as we turned out in Willowton in Maritzburg. We were doing our bit to spruce up the capital as part of the clean-up campaign we have been pushing and in the spirit of President Jacob Zuma’s call to clean up South Africa for Mandela Day.

As I bent with aching back and sweat on brow, I had a new appreciation for those who clean our streets for a living. I also pondered how the litter we were sweeping up told us a lot about the city.

I can now say with some authority that Maritzburgers (or at least those who don’t give a toss about tossing their garbage onto the streets) have a definite sweet tooth, a fondness for takeaway chicken meals and a love for soft drinks and beer. My evidence is the innumerable sweet wrappers, fast-food packages and bottles we collected during the morning.

But I also learnt that Maritzburgers have a special heart and a commitment to their city, which should be an example to the rest of South Africa. The evidence was there before us as hundreds of you hit the streets to spend a little time to make a big difference.

The pictures that came in from last Friday’s clean-up were inspiring as we saw people who reflected every part of the city’s society united in a common cause. There were the CBD clean-ups by businesses and city and national leaders, neighbourhood projects by locals, and astounding efforts by scores of volunteers in places such as Copesville and France township.

I’m confident the campaign we ran to Clean Up The Capital played a role in this wonderful achievement, but I also know that many others, including the city’s leaders and the Chamber of Business, were key in making this happen too.

The impetus for my original column, which sparked our clean-up campaign, came from a conversation I had at a dinner with a potential Polish investor whose dismay at the state of the city’s environment had her ticking it off her list as an investment option.

Pity she didn’t see what happened in the city last Friday. I reckon it would have put Maritzburg on the top of her list.

Occasionally I have written in this column about my ambitions to bring a strong flavour of civic journalism to The Witness; a style of reporting that sees the media engage with the community to try to find solutions, as opposed to simply describing the problems we face.

I think the Clean Up The Capital campaign provides some evidence that this model can work and reinforces my commitment to more of the same.

We are applying this approach elsewhere too. In Durban we are engaging with community groups in Umbilo, Glenwood, Berea, Hillcrest and elsewhere, as we try this different style of journalism to address issues particular to these neighbourhoods.

In Maritzburg it’s encouraging to see how the conversation is moving now towards how we take the success of last Friday and turn it into a sustainable programme.

My own observation from walking Willowton was that there is a horrendous shortage of rubbish bins in public areas (there are none actually). It strikes me that providing these would probably stop a lot of the litter that plagues us.

We hear the city has some big plans for a sustainable programme to keep the capital clean and we’ll be eager to share those with you.

I know many others have ideas too. I hope that they will use the pages of The Witness to share their ideas to keep the conversation going, because we have already shown that if we all pull together, this is something we can overcome.

Finally, I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has embraced this campaign and the spirit in which it was intended.

Last Friday was a great day for me. I had fun doing some labour with my colleagues. It felt like we were all part of something important and, of course, we all were.

I also learnt that an Editor has hands as soft as a baby’s bottom and that I need to exercise more!

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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