By Vusi Mavimbela
I often visit my small rural town of Vryheid whenever I get the chance. This is where I grew up and attended primary and secondary school. Every time I leave town to return to Johannesburg, I get deeply depressed and leave with my heart in my mouth.
Over the past decades, I have seen the continued deterioration of neighborhoods, infrastructure, and orderly and structured existence in many communities across the country.
Seeing it firsthand in the neighborhood where my youthful consciousness was formed seals for me the reality of our country. In my mind, Vryheid has become the microcosm of what is bad and is happening all over South Africa.
In Vryheid, once upon a time there were beautifully cobbled streets and sidewalks that are now cracked at every turn. The crevices of the streets and sidewalks are now invaded by weeds and grass that the municipality has not bothered to repair or weed.
The water that leaks from the municipality flows along broken gutters and meets on its way abundant waste left by the community which no one has said is hazardous waste. In my youth, under an apartheid municipality, every few yards on the sidewalk there was a neatly wrapped waist drum with the inscription “Keep your town clean”.
The sight of those many neatly packed barrels helped me break through my young consciousness that I couldn’t, willy-nilly, toss my empty Coca-Cola can down the gutter.
In my hometown today, there is hardly any difference between the sidewalk and the store beyond. The sidewalks are not only broken and overgrown with weeds, they are also adorned with all kinds of goods from all over the universe.
There’s an aunt in the township who sells candy and vegetables in tattered boxes. She competes for sidewalk space with a Somali who paddles diapers and sanitary napkins, or a Pakistani touting faux leather belts and bags, or a Nigerian with several second-hand cell phones, electronic calculators, or illegally copied. CDs and DVDs strewn on the sidewalk, or a Zimbabwean with bundles of multicolored African fabrics hanging over his shoulders.
To enter the store beyond the curb, one has to carefully negotiate your way through this informal marketplace which is not governed by any rules or regulations.
If someone happens to stomp or kick a commodity by mistake, we may end up hearing nasty curses in any language on this sidewalk. It is a market of fiercely opposed interests where contraband contraband and contraband has flooded the sidewalk, ensuring a better competitive advantage for smugglers and producers of counterfeit goods.
Because there are no more drums reminding everyone to “Keep your city clean”, and because there is no law or regulation governing the informal market that has emerged in the city, the waste emanating from all this informal and formal commercial activity clogs the gutters. It’s dirty everywhere.
I remembered this city from my youth when I read the story of Joe Nkuna, a man from Tshwane who was fined for what the spokesperson for the Tshwane Metro Police Department (TMPD ), Issac Mahamba, called “obstruct a sidewalk” because “this space is reserved for pedestrians”. Mr. Nkuna “was using a reserve of public roads to cultivate a range of crops,” Mahamba said.
Since the Nkuna incident, there has been a huge social media outcry in many quarters, especially from the black elite and educated class in South Africa. Some of these voices wondered if there is a bylaw prohibiting a city dweller from planting food crops on the sidewalk or on the roadway outside their yard.
Indeed, they argue that if such a regulation exists, it dates from the apartheid era and should therefore be abolished. Others have pitted the morality of food production and feeding the poor, hungry and unemployed against the immorality and callousness of TMPD and, by extension, black government, which prevents a conscientious citizen from plant on sidewalks to help the poor. For them, TMPD is concerned about a wrong, immoral, unnecessary and unnecessary exercise of fining a morally conscious citizen who wants to feed the poor.
Indeed, it is a compelling moral argument, especially in these times of extremely negative economic challenges with hunger and unemployment at unprecedented levels.
However, if presented out of the context of many other responsibilities of municipal and government authorities, it tends to reflect the unbridled anger and utter frustration of the electorate with government authority in general and the government. ANC as a ruling party in particular.
Unfortunately, when the anger of society is unleashed and the frustration reaches an extreme degree, the wood merges with the trees and rationality is sacrificed.
Let’s imagine for a moment that every city dweller has the freedom that social media outrage seems to support. We can all leave the jurisdiction of our yards, go to the streets, dig sidewalks and sidewalks, and start plowing and planting whatever we deem necessary to feed the poor and unemployed. It goes further; we start to plant, not tomatoes and cabbages, but corn, sugar cane and wheat.
All of a sudden, alongside beautifully manicured sidewalks, sidewalks, gateways and streets, we are now blessed with plantings and more sidewalk and street planting. It then becomes the common sight of a South African suburb everywhere.
In this scenario, pedestrians were pushed off the roadway to fight for the roads with deadly cars at high speed. Children have lost the safer space for biking and BMXing. Lampposts, traffic signs, traffic signs now compete for recognition in these sidewalks and sidewalks overgrown with vegetation.
City dwellers who prefer the organized and serene beauty of the neighborhood can no longer claim their real estate investment because the poor and the unemployed need to be fed.
This reality does not consider that some of the inhabitants who desire this organized and serene beauty may come from the poor layer of society who have sweated a lot to be able to enter the urban environment of their choice.
The sidewalks overrun with corn plantations are now becoming ideal hiding places for muggers, burglars and all kinds of robbers and thugs who have taken advantage of this extreme urban liberalism in human settlements.
By this time, what initially seemed like a perfectly convincing moral argument turned out to be a nightmare of anarchy, gratuitous crime, unchecked voluntarism, and a colony of the ungovernable.
Many of those elite social media commentators calling for the removal of the regulations that govern such settlements, I bet you, would never put their real estate investments or dare to make such a neighborhood their home. Unless they care less about the value of the real estate investments they make.
The question then is, why would the black elite and the educated be so vehement in favor of Joe Nkuna? What is it that prevents them from seeing the wood of the trees? The simple answer is that they are extremely angry, extremely frustrated and extremely disappointed with the current government in general and the ANC as the ruling party in particular.
They are angry and frustrated at what they define as a lack of economic, social and racial transformation since the advent of a black-led government in 1994. They feel insulted and betrayed as they go through the proceedings. of the Zondo Commission and begin to understand the extent of corruption at a very high place in government, state and ruling party. They are dismayed by the deteriorating state of the economy, unprecedented levels of poverty, unemployment and powerlessness in general.
When I visited my hometown and observed the poor people littering the city streets with a frantic horseman, I could see in their eyes and read in their faces a community whose main and singular concern was where the next meal was going. to come. Restriction on waste is less in their social consciousness right now, but to get bread for the kids at home.
The responsibility of keeping sidewalks and streets free of rubbish, they say, is left to the gods, not even the municipality and government. The government must at least first provide a monthly social allowance, then provide shelter, work, crime protection and adequate land for their agriculture. This is what is primordial and fundamental in their mind. Litter can be left behind.
There is a meeting of hearts and minds between the black social media elite who take up arms to support Nkuna and the rural poor in my hometown who litter the streets without any worry or guilt in their consciousness.
In either case, the immediate gravity of the social environment they face, albeit in different ways, causes them to fixate their gaze on the wood in a way that has made them miss the trees.
For them, life comes only in large pieces and not in its constituent parts. They said to themselves that this government and this ruling party can only be relevant if they can start to eat away at the big pieces of concern and, for now, let the last ones deal with the constituent parts.
This uncompromising dichotomy is, however, false and dangerous. The omnipotent rubbish, broken gutters and sidewalks that are battlegrounds for the survival of township aunts, Somalis, Pakistanis, Nigerians and Zimbabweans are also essential to turning around the economy of my rural hometown and the health of the people of the rural town it is to secure the next meal of the children.
There will be no investment and business confidence in such a rural city if the municipality and the government do not tackle the dirt, grime, lawlessness and order as well as to the question of the social dignity of the community. If there is no investment and the economy does not grow, it will forever be difficult to secure jobs and bread for many of my townspeople.
It is as important for Mr. Nkuna to cultivate and grow tomatoes in the right place, cabbages and corn in the right place, as it is for the municipality and the government to put in place bylaws that delimit the backyard. for a vegetable garden, a municipal public sidewalk for pedestrians and an open field for planting corn. It is also important for the town of Nkuna and for the same reasons as for the inhabitants of my rural town of Vryheid.
If we don’t recognize that this dichotomy needs to be dealt with, we run the risk of cutting our noses in order to upset our faces. Those who cut their noses in anger might regret the long-term consequences of their action.
>> Mavimbela is South Africa’s Ambassador to Brazil.