Thoughts on cleaning up

2014-07-23 00:00

THOSE who have never known anywhere in South Africa other than Pietermaritzburg might be surprised to know that trash and grime are not the public face of every South African town and city.

While there are certainly dirtier towns in South Africa than ours, those generally have the excuse of being dirt-poor backwaters, not provincial capitals.

Even poverty is no excuse for slovenliness. The tiny crowded central African country of Rwanda has a population five times that of Lesotho and a GDP one tenth of ours, yet its capital city’s streets and parks are clean and attractive. Rwandans have civic pride, evidently.

Anyone who loves this town and wants to see it becoming worthy of the marketing slogan the City of Choice will have been saddened, if not outraged, by the sight of pedestrians and motorists littering with impunity as they go about their business.

Littering (and illegal dumping) is so rife in Pietermaritzburg that even though our city cleaners generally get the city centre clean overnight, it is trashed once again every day, within a matter of hours in places.

What can be done in the face of such widespread lack of civic pride?

Two things are, I believe, worth trying. One is to have a lot more bins in public spaces.

People anywhere are generally lazy and will not walk far to dispose of a piece of rubbish, so we need bins spaced at not more than about 30 metres apart in places where there is a lot of foot traffic, and these bins must be emptied before they overflow.

The bins can also be used to carry a message, such as those which Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust (Duct) installed at Campsdrift several years ago, which bear our kingfisher mascot and the words, in English and Zulu: “Take pride in your city and keep it clean”.

Secondly, we need a massive, sustained, creative and ongoing public education campaign aimed at getting across the message that littering is “not cool”. Along these lines, the most creative idea I have heard of comes from Bogota, capital of Colombia in South America.

People with dramatic talent were employed by the city to draw attention to acts of civil disobedience using mime and humour, publicly shaming the perpetrators.

They literally mocked the litterbugs out of their bad habits.

We have no shortage of unemployed people in this town, and any number of those would have the dramatic flair to pull this off.

When I was 16 years old, I was a passenger one day on a country road in a car driven by an old friend of my father. This man had retired after many years’ service on the mines, and still wore the handlebar moustache that he had acquired as a young RAF pilot.

Coming around a bend, we encountered a shredded truck tyre that was partly blocking the road.

It was not a busy road, and we had no difficulty in taking evasive action. But instead of driving on — it was not our tyre and not our problem — we stopped and spent a minute clearing the road.

Nothing was said, nor did it need to be.

Actions speak louder than words, and that simple act made a strong impression on me.

I am encouraged that The Witness is campaigning for a cleaner Pietermaritzburg, and also that the cleanliness of the city seems to have become a greater priority for our city council.

It was gratifying to see pictures in the weekend newspapers of even the president in blue overalls and gloves filling a black trash bag somewhere in the Eastern Cape on July 18, doing his 67 minutes of community service.

But I am sure I am telling no one anything they don’t know when I say that once-a-year community clean-ups are of value mainly as awareness-raising exercises.

To be effective, cleaning up has to take place more or less continuously.

The real heroes are those individuals and groups who have adopted some public space, be it as little as the road verge fronting their property or their business, or something more substantial like a whole street, a block, a park or a section of river.

There are indeed many such individuals and groups in this town, but we need many more of them.

If civic pride became the norm rather than the exception, what a beautiful city we would have.

• David Still is the chairperson of the Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust.

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