Greening the township

2009-10-14 00:00

WHY are township residents so idle? This question struck me when I flew over Tembisa, northeast of Johannesburg, last Saturday.

It was a beautiful clear morning with excellent visibility and beneath me I could see the thousands upon thousands of Tembisa homes fanning out below. Small properties with postage-stamp gardens and not a single tree, not a patch of lawn and not a shrub visible from the sky.

Just thousands and thousands of bungalows surrounded by dust.

From the air you could spot BMWs, Mercs, Hondas and Audis outside the homes. You could see the 4x4s and multipurpose vehicles too — cars that probably cost more than the homes themselves. From the sky you could see the tarred roads, the electricity poles and the satellite dishes on their masts.

You could see bustling shopping centres with parking lots filled with Saturday shoppers. Money was being spent, as it always is on a Saturday in Tembisa. Money earned and money spent. You could also see the barren parks, untended and deserted alongside the occasional school, its fields as brown and soulless as the homes that surround it.

By some stroke of good fortune, the captain of our flight had been instructed to remain relatively low, so we circled above the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, where lush gardens and patchworks of swimming pools encapsulated much of the South African suburban opulence.

But the contrast was stark.

Minutes later, as we started to climb higher into the sky, we flew above Soweto, that amazing city that’s home to millions. Once again, we were looking down on little houses in the middle of those dusty plots. Once again, you could see the shabby playgrounds, grassless and featureless, alongside the community centres rising from the dried soil, baked hard by the African sun.

Brown Africa — dry, dusty and unforgiving.

Then, after this quick, albeit unplanned, tour of Johannesburg, we climbed high into the sky, high above a cloud layer that spread from Johannesburg to Cape Town. The clouds were bringing rain to Gauteng. Free, plentiful water.

I started thinking about the matchbox suburbs with every house a home for someone. Every little matchbox is a castle on a little piece of Africa. A piece of Africa owned by the families who live there. But unlike Africa, with its abundant capacity for life to flourish, there are no gardens and no lawns. There are no trees or parklands. There is no African plant life. For these are the dustbowl suburbs.

Within a few thousand metres of Tembisa and Soweto — at least it seems that way from the sky — are manicured gardens, trees everywhere and a wonderful green hue that so clearly demonstrates Africa’s rich environmental abundance.

My immediate reaction was that the people of Tembisa and Soweto are all struggling workers of our South African society who barely earn enough to keep body and soul together, let alone tend a garden. But the cars in the driveways belied that thought.

And anyway, in Africa it only takes a little bit of time and a little bit of effort to grow something. Hell, there are government incentives everywhere to plant trees, to grow grasses, to plant vegetable gardens. It doesn’t cost money to grow a garden in Africa. It costs time. And time is a real investment in property, in the community and in the future.

Thousands of people in Soweto and Tembisa have actually bought their homes. They own these properties and each one represents their investment in South Africa, in Africa and in the future of our country too. Yet these matchbox houses demonstrate just how little time anyone is prepared to invest in making their house a home. Why? Because millions of South Africans are lazy couch potatoes.

Johannesburg’s Greater Metropolitan Council has a scheme for the greening of Soweto. Tembisa has a vegetable garden initiative, encouraging residents to grow their own vegetables. The annual Arbour Day offers all the people of South Africa free trees to plant and nurture in their own environment. The Department of Education has hundreds of initiatives where youngsters are encouraged to plant and tend their own gardens.

No, it’s not a lack of money that stops anyone from making a garden grow. It’s indolence, slothfulness and idleness. And almost every homeowner in Soweto and Tembisa is guilty of that environmental crime.

At least that’s the way it appears from the skies above Johannesburg on a clear Saturday morning.

And what does it take to transform these patchworked suburbs? Nothing more than a little bit of effort.

Money is not the criterion for growing a garden, a lawn or a vegetable patch. Apartheid is not the reason why you cannot improve your surroundings. A lack of education is not the cause. The local, provincial and government departments are not at fault either.

So I’m not prepared to make any more excuses for the residents of Soweto or Tembisa, who live in the dustbowls and complain about the cost of fresh vegetables and whine about how it is getting more difficult to provide fresh food for their children.

Start growing some food. Start tending to your gardens. Start taking some pride in your surroundings and start making your own home a sanctuary for yourself, for your children and for your extended family too.

All it takes is a little bit of effort.

• Paddy Hartdegen writes a regular column for The content of his columns constitutes his personal opinion and doesn’t pretend to be facts or advice.

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