One woman’s fight to clean up the city

2009-07-27 00:00

TO take a photo of my subject, I pick my way through piles of illegally dumped rubbish on a vacant site in the city. The wind lifts her skirt as she shouts a warning: “Pasop! There’s shit here. There’s shit everywhere in this city.”

Some people know her as Mrs Mop, others as Annamaria or Mam’Cele and, she says, “Die boere ken my as Lena.” Whatever you call her, she is a force to be reckoned with: “The boere will tell you ‘Ons ken daai bedonerde vrou’.”

Dumazile Cele (in her sixties) is a community activist and self-proclaimed maker of trouble for those in power. She has taken it on herself to clean up the city, to teach others to do the same and to press the authorities to carry out their responsibilities.

She can often be found clearing piles of rubbish off city streets, singlehandedly or with unemployed people who she pays and works with.

“I can show you places all over the city where people dump rubbish. They come at all times of the day and night. The streets are also toilets in some places. I clean up areas all over, but people just come and dump again.

“I talk to people every day to teach them about keeping the city clean. Street vendors, shop owners and people passing by. But they all say ‘the municipality­ must do it’. But it’s our city, not the municipality’s. All of us need to stand up for our city and work for it. We are all responsible.

“The municipal officials and the police­ all know me because I run up and down telling them to do their job and to sort out the problems that we have in this city. They tell me they can’t do anything because it’s the councillors’ job.

“People tell me that I should be a councillor and I’d like to be because I would sort things out. I don’t put up with nonsense. The authorities know that they would be in big trouble if I became a councillor because I am trouble­ for them.

“There are too many skelms working in the government and the municipality. They are only interested in money­. We need honest people to work there, people who care about the people. We’ve had three presidents and nothing has changed. In fact, it’s got worse.”

Mam’Cele is also the self-appointed protector of the city’s marginalised and needy, including foreigners and street children.

“Where I live in Shamrock there are many Zimbabweans and they all know me. Many call me their mother because I help them with the things that they need, such as finding work, buying a car or getting [official] papers­. I love to help people and teach them how to make their lives better. When you are happy, you should make others­ happy too.”

Cele visits the large group of homeless children on Henrietta Street daily­. She has helped some of them return to their homes and she has helped to get others admitted to hospital. She has also facilitated street clean-ups with the municipality.

“I was an orphan, a welfare child, so I know what it is to have problems in life. There have been children on the streets for 20 years, but it’s much worse now. I keep going to the offices of the police, the municipality and the Premier. Somebody has to do something about these children.”

Cele says that her strong social conscience comes from her childhood.

“My mother left me at McCord Hospital­ where I was born and Dr and Mrs Leonard Sampson took me in. They were my parents and I grew up with their two daughters. They treated me as one of their own children until I was 12 or 13. When they died I went to an orphanage.

“I learnt about love from those white people. We have all these problems in South Africa because people do not love each other. I want to teach people about love. Love is a great power.”

Cele has a large family — 13 surviving children of 15, including three sets of twins and 17 grandchildren.

“You should have seen them — one- and-a-half kombis full of children. I don’t know how I supported them all.

“God helped me and managed my family. They have grown up well.”

She worked as a domestic worker from the age of 18 when she had to leave the orphanage and has worked all over the city and surrounding areas.

“I invented piece work in this city. I worked for many different white families because so many people wanted me to work for them. They knew that I worked well. This is how I know so many people. In the fifties I earned R20 a month from each house — R100 to R200 a month altogether.”

For four years Mrs Mop has managed the True Friends restaurant on Railway Street near the Pietermaritzburg station. Her experiences there have led her to identify other targets for her social activism, including the liquor laws and the social­ consequences of easy access to alcohol.

“Alcohol causes lots of nonsense — divorce, rape, crime and violence against women and children. It is too easy for people — especially men — to drink all day, leaving their families alone.

“There should be only certain hours for drinking, not all day. People need to learn that drinking is not important in life. What is important in life is love. That’s what I want to teach people — they must know that it’s love that’s important in life.”

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