Plagued by litter

2009-07-30 00:00

I LIVE in a “smart” suburb of a provincial capital, about 200 metres from the front gate of the premier’s official residence. My home is opposite a girls’ school, which styles itself as offering “quality education”, and just anothe­r half kilometre away is an exclusive boys’ school, which has marked its elitism with high walls and spiked fencing. Yet, I reside in one of the filthiest neighbourhoods.

I walk the two kilometres to work every morning and walk back every afternoon, and the experience is harrowing, even for a jaded and cynical soul. The streets, pavements, gutters and verges are littered with the detritus of middle-class people’s lives: beer bottles (imported brands), energy drink cans, the plastic wrappers and containers in which high-end supermarket chains overpackage their food items, empty liquor bottles and fast-food wrappers.

In response, I have gone and bought a pair of rubber gloves and some bin liners, and twice a week I collect this litter along the 100-metre stretch of the street I live in, from my front gate to the intersection where the premier’s official residential property starts. And I’ve learnt much about my fellow human beings by doing this unpleasant and thankless task. We are a venal, careless species, the only one on the planet seemingly dedicated to despoiling and des­troying the only habitat we have.

During the midwinter school holiday, the amount of rubbish decreased substantially: fewer crisp packets (still half full), juice boxes, chocolate bar and boiled sweet wrappers discarded on the roadside or stuffed into hedges. It intrigued me that there were fewer beer bottles too. When the schools reopened, the litter returned to the “normal” levels I have come to know since moving to the city in February this year.

Ironically, the girls’ school proudly displays a sign in its grounds claiming to have “adopted the spot”. Well, if this environmental abuse is what adoption resul­ts in, it may be time to call on the equivalent of child welfare and protection services. If young people wearing the school’s uniform can treat the neighbourhood in which the school is situated with such casual disrespect, one wonders what values are being instille­d in them during class hours. A brief glance through the blade wire-topped fence at the litter in the school yard is instructive. The same soft drink cans and juice bottles, crisp packets and sweet wrappers spoiling the streets and pavements can also be seen on the school ground, admittedly in less alarming quantities (presumably there are workers employed to do some cleaning).

Of course, one can say that elitist education engenders this problem, giving young people a sense of entitlement that it is someone else’s job to do the cleaning up (underpaid poor people, municipal workers or municipal officials). The surprise with which people greet my own small attempts to clear up the litter speaks volumes about middle-class South Africans’ sense of entitlement that “someone ought to do it”, just not us.

Yes, overpaid municipal managers who mismanage our neighbourhoods ought to be dismissed if they are not doing their jobs. Yes, the rubbish collectors ought to be trained that their work does not entail only collecting the black bags put out on the street once a week, but also the rubbish that falls out of those bags as they lift them and the rubbish lying heaped at street corners from overturned municipal bins. The staff responsible for clearing the verges around the premier’s residence ought to be informed that official visitors will not only look at one side of the street going up to the front gate, which is green and litter-free, but may look to their right to find the grass dead and pockmarked with rubbish.

But the two sides of that street may be like the two sides of life in South Africa — those who have, and those who have not, those who take care of themselves, and those who are neglected. On the one hand, it is comforting to know that middle-class South Africans in Pieter­maritzburg are as excluded from the benefit of living in clean neighbourhoods, an experience poor South Africans have had for centuries. On the other hand, it is distressing to note how even educational institutions are failing to instil in, and demand of, their pupils and students the sort of civic duty essential to ensuring a future world in which human life is not utterly unbear­able except for those extremely wealthy few who can afford to immur­e themselves against the ugly, festering sore we seem hellbent on turning the planet into.

My challenge is, therefore, to all schools, colleges and universities, all those religious centres in which we also educate our young, to rise to the occasion and clean up our neighbourhoods, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, so that the slogans about the quality of life offered in Pietermaritzburg that are plastered around the city can become somewhat truer than they are at the moment.

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