Hoping for change

2009-01-02 00:00

I’ll not quickly forget the day this year that I stood in a car park of one of the city’s larger shopping centres and listened to a car guard from central Africa — I’ll call him Pierre for clarity’s sake — tell me how he came to South Africa to find work after his wife and three children were ambushed and murdered in their home by rebels. His wife was raped before being killed. I was at a loss for words, but we were interrupted by the driver of a white bakkie who wanted to give Pierre R2 for his trouble and me to get out of his way.

I was working on a story about car guards with my colleague Stephen Coan. His brief was to look into the way the car-guard industry is regulated, or not. My brief was to interview car guards to find out what sort of conditions they faced, how formal their contracts were and how much money they made.

It was a humbling assignment. They all worked long hours, most of them supporting large families on what they earned. Only one was prepared to be identified in the story as they all feared losing their jobs. Many of them, like Pierre who has a degree in literature, were highly educated refugees, unable to find more formal employment.

As a journalist, my ultimate hope is that my stories will engineer positive social change. More often than not, that hope remains unfulfilled on any grand scale. Of late, I’ve tended to hope instead that telling the stories of people like car guards is a small contribution towards creating a more humane and caring society, one that respects individuals and recognises that everyone, no matter how invisible or marginal they seem, has something to say that’s worth hearing. After that assignment, I’ll never view car guards in the same way again and, I hope, neither will our readers.

The car-guard story increased my exposure to the diverse community of foreign nationals in the city and gave me more insight into the precarious life they lead — not only financially, but when it comes to issues of personal safety and state protection. While Maritzburg heaved a sigh of relief when it seemed that it had escaped the wave of xenophobic violence sweeping the country in May, I encountered worrying signs in the form of two cases involving Zimbabweans that xenophobia seemed to be alive and well and that the South African criminal justice system was ill-prepared to protect the rights of foreign nationals.

In July, 26-year-old Zimbabwean refugee Phinias Joe was detained for two days at Mountain Rise Police Station where he claims to have been repeatedly beaten and threatened by police, despite being able to produce his refugee permit. His 16-year-old compatriot, who was caught up in the same arrest, had to spend a night in hospital and received nine stitches to patch up head injuries sustained in police custody. Reverend Ingrid Andersen of the Pietermaritzburg Anti-Xenophobic Coalition (co-ordinated by the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness [Pacsa]) told me in December that she has made a formal complaint to the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) regarding the case of the 16-year-old after she was told by the investigating officer at Mountain Rise that there was “not enough evidence” to be able to prosecute.

Andersen’s news followed hard upon the discovery that charges of attempted murder against two Eastwood businessmen accused in September of setting alight their Zimbabwean employee, Ian Madzogo — another case investigated by Mountain Rise — had been withdrawn because of insufficient witnesses. Obviously there are many factors to be considered in this case, but the brutality of this particular attack and its long-term consequences on the life of Madzogo leaves one a little shaken. How many other, less profiled, cases are out there, quietly being withdrawn?

On a brighter note, my year was also marked by meetings with a number of people who have shown that it is possible to turn a lived commitment to protecting the environment into viable business operations. Two such people are Wally and Debbie Fry who gave up their work in the building industry to start Fry’s, now a thriving 16-year-old Westmead-based business which produces a range of vegetarian alternatives to meat products which are finding keen markets all around the world.

Both committed vegetarians, Wally and Debbie said they measure their success not so much by the money they make as by the number of animals they save from slaughter, as well as their contribution to reducing the devastating impact of the livestock industry on the planet. I reckon they’re making quite a bit of money, but I got a strong sense of their commitment to the planet.

In the Karkloof I encountered another environmentally committed couple in Paul and Shereen Duncan of Dovehouse Organic Farm when Dovehouse became the first distributors in KwaZulu-Natal of a bio-degradable alternative to “disposable” polystyrene food and beverage packaging.

Supplied by Green Home (Pty) Ltd in Cape Town, the range includes cups, plates, bowls, knives and forks, bags and takeaway boxes, all of which can be safely thrown into a compost bin instead of being sent to clog up the local landfill.

The Duncans, who started their organic farm on the Karkloof Road about eight years ago at a time when the concept of “organic” was less appreciated, also host raw food courses and hold regular workshops on composting and other environment-friendly practices. To me, they’re like pioneers who are actively living out their responsibility to future generations.

I’ve written a couple of stories this year on the lack of waste recycling facilities in Pietermaritzburg and the poor municipal response to this situation. Judging from the response I’ve received from members of the public, the problem seems to tap a collective nerve.

Because many of my stories have focused on the lack of opportunities available for recycling, I’m delighted to report that I’ve recently been in touch with another committed individual from Howick — Karen Barnes of Go Green — who told me that she’s now prepared, but only where it’s feasible, to extend her existing curb-side collection business to Pietermaritzburg.

Barnes, who for some time lived in the UK where recycling is part of the fabric of daily life, says she was driven to start her business in July out of frustration at the limited opportunities to recycle. “I’d end up carting all my recyclables around in the boot of my car just to get them out of the way,” she said. “I thought to myself: there’s got to be an easier way to do the right thing.”

Thus Go Green was born. For a monthly fee, Barnes collects household waste from designated points in neighbourhoods in Howick and Hilton and many people also drop waste off at the depot.

Go Green services a number of schools in Pietermaritzburg and some B&Bs, hotels and residential complexes in Hilton. Margins are slim and Barnes relies on volume and extremely tight co-ordination. She says she’ll extend her services to parts of Pietermaritzburg only if it’s viable. “There has to be a sufficient number of people in one area to make it cost-effective,” she said.

Barnes asks her customers to sort their waste into four main categories: glass, plastic, cans and cardboard. “Fine sorting” takes place at Go Green’s depot near Midmar. The waste is then baled and sent to Central Waste collectors in Pietermaritzburg. If you are interested in participating, contact Karen Barnes at gogreen@telkomsa.net

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