I often visit my small rural town of Vryheid whenever I get the opportunity to do so. That is where I grew up and attended primary and secondary school. Every time I leave the town back to Johannesburg, I am thoroughly depressed and I depart with my heart in my mouth.
Over the recent decades, I have seen the continuous deterioration of neighbourhoods, infrastructure and the orderly and structured existence in many communities around the country. To see it first hand in the neighbourhood where my youthful consciousness was formed seals the reality of our country for me. In my mind, Vryheid has become the microcosm of what is bad and is happening throughout South Africa.
In Vryheid, the once-upon-a-time beautifully paved streets and pavements are now cracked at every turn. The crevices in the streets and pavements are now overgrown with weed and grass that the municipality has not bothered to fix or to weed out.
Municipality leaking water runs along the broken gutters and meets on its way with abundant litter left behind by the community that nobody has told that to litter is hazardous. In my youth, under an Apartheid municipality, after every few meters on the pavement, there was a cleanly wrapped waist drum with the inscription, ‘Keep Your Town Clean’.
The sight of those many neatly wrapped drums helped to drill into my youthful conscience that I could not willy-nilly cast my empty can of Coca-Cola into the gutter. In my hometown today there is hardly any difference between the pavement and the shop beyond it. The pavements are not only broken and overgrown with weeds, they are also bedecked with all manner of merchandise from all corners of the universe.
There is a township aunt selling sweets and vegetables out of tattered cardboard boxes. She competes for pavement space with a Somali who paddles diapers and sanitary pads, or a Pakistani touting fake leather belts and bags, or a Nigerian with multiple second-hand mobile phones, electronic calculators or illegally duplicated CD and DVD copies strewn across the pavement, or indeed a Zimbabwean with bales of multi-coloured African cloth hanging over his shoulders.
To get into the shop beyond the pavement, one has to carefully negotiate one’s way through this informal marketplace that is governed by no bylaw or any regulation whatsoever.
If one happens to trample or kick a piece of merchandise by mistake, one might get an earful of unpalatable expletives in any language of that pavement. It is a marketplace of fiercely contending interests where fake and smuggled contraband has flooded the pavement ensuring a better competitive edge for the smugglers and producers of fake commodities.
Because there are no longer any drums reminding everybody to ‘Keep Your Town Clean’, and because there is no law or regulation governing the informal marketplace that has emerged in the town, refuse emanating from all this informal and formal commercial activity, clogs the broken gutters. It is filthy everywhere.
I was reminded of this town of my youth when I read the story of Joe Nkuna, a Tshwane man who was fined for what the Tshwane Metro Police Department (TMPD) spokesperson, Issac Mahamba, called “obstructing a sidewalk” because “this space is reserved for pedestrians”. Mr Nkuna “was utilising a public road reserve to grow an array of crops”, Mahamba said.
Since the Nkuna incident, there has been huge social media uproar from many quarters, especially from the black elite and educated class in South Africa. Some of these voices have questioned whether there is any bylaw that prevents an urban inhabitant from planting crops for food on the sidewalk or pavement outside their yard. Indeed, they argue that if such a bylaw exists it is Apartheid-era and therefore it should be scrapped.
Others have argued the morality of food production and feeding the poor, the hungry and the unemployed as against the immorality and insensitivity of the TMPD and, by extension, the black government, which are stopping a conscientious citizen from planting in the pavements in order to help the poor. To them, the TMPD is preoccupied with a wrong, immoral, wasteful and useless 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 it is presented out of the context of many other responsibilities that municipal and governmental authorities have, it tends to reflect the unbridled anger and utter frustration of the electorate with government authority in general and the ANC as the governing Party in particular. Unfortunately, when society’s anger becomes unbridled and frustration reaches an extreme degree, the wood gets confused with the trees and rationality gets sacrificed.
Let us imagine for a moment that every urban dweller is allowed the freedom that the outrage in social media seems to support. All of us can leave the jurisdiction of our yards, go to the street, dig the pavements and sidewalks and start tilling and planting whatever we deem necessary to feed the poor and the unemployed.
It goes further; we start planting, not tomatoes and cabbages, but maize, sugarcane and wheat. All of a sudden, next to the beautifully manicured sidewalks, pavements, front gates and streets, we are now blessed with plantations and more plantations of pavements and streets. This then becomes the common sight of a South African suburb everywhere.
In this scenario, pedestrians have been pushed off the pavement to go and compete for the roads with speeding deadly cars. Children have lost the safer space to ride their bicycles and BMXs. Street lamps, signage boards, road signs now compete for recognition in these overgrown pavements and sidewalks.
The urban inhabitants who prefer the organised and serene beauty of the neighbourhood can now lay no claim to their property investment because the poor and the unemployed need to be fed. This reality does not consider that some of the inhabitants who desire this organised and serene beauty might be from the poor layer of society who broke many a sweat to be able to enter the urban environment of their choice.
The pavements that have been taken over by plantations of maize now become ideal hiding places for muggers, housebreakers and all sorts of robbers and hooligans who have taken advantage of this urban extreme liberalism in human settlement. By this time, what initially sounded like a perfect and compelling moral argument has turned out to be a nightmare of lawlessness, wanton crime, unchecked voluntarism and a colony of the ungovernable.
Many of those elite commentators in the social media who call for the scrapping of the bylaws that govern such settlements, I bet you, would never put their property investments or dare make such a neighbourhood their homes. Unless they careless about the value of property investments they make.
The question then is why would the black elite and the educated be so vociferous in support of Joe Nkuna? What makes them fail to see the wood from the trees? The simple answer is that they are extremely angry, acutely frustrated and hugely disappointed with the government of the day in general and the ANC as the governing Party in particular.
They are angry and frustrated with what they define as lack of economic, social and racial transformation since the advent of a black led government in 1994. They feel insulted and betrayed as they follow proceedings in the Zondo Commission and begin to fathom the extent of corruption at very high place in government, the state and the governing Party. They are appalled by the worsening state of the economy, unprecedented levels of poverty, unemployment and helplessness overall.
When I visited my hometown and observed the poor littering the town streets with unrestrained cavalier, I could see in their eyes and read in their faces a community whose primary and singular concern was where the next meal was going to come from. Restraint to litter is least in their social conscience right now, but to get bread for the children back home.
The responsibility to keep the pavements and the streets free of litter, according to them, is left to the gods, not even to the municipality and the government. The government must at least first provide a monthly social grant, and then provide shelter, a job, safety from crime and adequate land for their farming. That is what is primary and fundamental in their minds. Litter can be left to the hindmost.
There is a meeting of hearts and minds between the black elite in the social media that is up in arms in support of Nkuna and the poor rural folk in my hometown that litters the streets with no tinge of concern or guilt in their conscience.
In both cases, the immediate gravity of the social environment that confronts them, although in different ways, makes them pin their eyes on the wood in a way that has made them miss the trees.
Life to them now comes only in big chunks and not in its constituent parts. They have told themselves that this government and this governing Party can only be relevant if it can begin to chew the big chunks of concern and, for now, let the hindmost deal with the constituent parts.
This uncompromising dichotomy is however false and dangerous. The omnipotent litter, the broken gutters and the pavements that are battlegrounds of survival for township aunties, Somalis, Pakistanis, Nigerians and Zimbabweans are as essential to address in turning around the economy of my rural hometown and the health of the rural town folk as it is to secure the next meal for the children.
There will be no investment and business confidence in such a rural town if the municipality and the government do not address filth, grime, lawlessness and order as well as the issue of social dignity of the community. If there is no investment and the economy does not grow, it shall forever remain difficult to secure a job and bread for many of my town folk.
It is as important to cultivate and grow tomatoes at the right place, cabbages and maize and their right place, for Mr Nkuna, as it is for the municipality and the government to put in place bylaws that delineate the backyard for a vegetable patch, a public municipal pavement for pedestrian use and an open field for maize plantation. It is as equally important for Nkuna’s town and for the same reasons, as it is important for the folk of my rural town of Vryheid.
If we do not recognise that this dichotomy needs to be managed, we run the risk of cutting our nose in order to spite our face. Those who cut their noses in anger might regret the long-term consequence of their action.
Mavimbela is South Africa’s Ambassador to Brazil. He writes in his personal capacity.