Can South Africa ever be cleaned up?

Douglas Gibson says our urban infrastructure is gradually disintegrating, as the case of Yeoville illustrates

While the governing party at national and provincial level is tearing itself apart with faction-fighting, back-stabbing and internal disciplinary matters, the concerns of ordinary voters are grossly neglected.  Poor government and maladministration, or worse, has been permitted for a generation with results there for all to see.  One of them is the gradual disintegration of our urban infrastructure in many towns and cities.

The other day I spent an hour and a half helping to clean up the litter in Fortescue and Raleigh Streets in Yeoville. As the last member of Parliament for Yeoville before the new South Africa in 1994, I know the area well, especially around the Yeoville Recreation Centre, which was an important magnet for Yeoville residents.

My modest street and pavement cleaning effort was in support of the A Re Sebetseng campaign launched by Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba.  Several hundred others helped, including City Councillors and Members of the Mayoral Committee, among them Nico de Jager and Michael Sun, MPLs like Jack Bloom, Leader of the Opposition Mmusi Maimane and the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Warren Goldstein.

I was told that Pickitup had done some cleaning up earlier on, but I could see little evidence of that.  The pavements were filthy, with piles of rubbish, abandoned tyres, bits of broken glass, cigarette butts by the thousand and bottle tops everywhere in the crevices between the paving. Wearing gloves and carrying a plastic refuse bag, I and others soon made a difference. 

What was sad was seeing the run- down condition of the pavements with cracked and broken paving stones, dirty water running down the street, and hardly any rubbish bins in sight.  The shops, with some exceptions, looked shabby and many of the neighbouring blocks of flats looked like slums. What a contrast with the middle- class suburb of twenty-five years ago.  The residents of those days, many of them elderly Jewish people, have either died or fled.

Why do integrated suburbs, often with residents from all over Africa and other parts of the world, instead of having a flair and flavour of international colour, have to degenerate into slums?  I am not talking about hijacked buildings like many of those in the centre of the city; those constitute a major problem worse than the crime and grime of the suburbs.

Surely rent-paying residents would prefer to live in decent, clean areas rather than the appallingly dirty and depressing surroundings that one sees in parts of the inner-city suburbs of Johannesburg, of Tshwane and of Ekurhuleni?  Surely landlords would be able to ask better rents for better-kept buildings and surely shopkeepers would benefit if their surroundings were clean and safe?

Residents told me that women are afraid to go shopping in the Raleigh/Rockey Street area because of bag-snatchers and other criminals. Why has this tragedy been allowed to happen to the heart of the area?  Where are the policemen from the Yeoville Police Station?  Why are they not patrolling the streets and keeping them safe as they did in the days of Alan Gadd MPC and Harry Schwarz MP?  The same goes for many other Johannesburg areas as well as places like the central areas of Boksburg and Benoni.  The SAPS members are our friends and they must take back the streets for us, proving that a downward spiral of crime is not pre-ordained.

Where are the Metro Police who should be enforcing the by-laws against littering, loitering and jay-walking, not to speak of enforcing the traffic by-laws and ensuring that even taxis learn to behave?  We have all heard of the spotless streets in Singapore.  They are kept that way by a combination of adequate sweeping and citizens who have been trained not to throw rubbish down, not even a cigarette butt, on pain of significant fines if they disobey the law.  It works.

Where are the rubbish bins that should be available on every corner and at strategic points in between?  If there are few bins people cannot be trained to use them. Are there reasonably convenient dumping sites so that residents who need to get rid of larger items like bricks or rubble or tyres can do so without simply dumping them on the pavement?

Where are the by-laws that force owners of buildings to keep them reasonably clean and properly maintained, on pain of fines or perhaps even of expropriation (at a fair market value based on their run-down and tatty or filthy condition), for public purposes? Where are the owners and residents who could each keep the area in front of their shop or building clean?

Where are our schools that should be training children to value and conserve a clean and healthy environment, to the benefit of all of us?  What about Residents’ Associations that could be playing a role in educating residents; insisting on action by Councillors and all other authorities; and rewarding and recognising sustained efforts by annual prizes and ensuring positive publicity and recognition for good citizens who help to keep areas clean?

Mayor Mashaba has taken the lead with A Re Sebetseng (We are working). He intends visiting areas all over the city each month in an endeavour to emulate successful clean-up campaigns in other parts of the world. His brave effort should inspire Johannesburg citizens and our neighbours to realise that clean and tidy streets and pavements promote good health, and could rescue some of our suburbs from that terribly depressing look of poverty and degradation. 

Perhaps they will accept that cleanliness requires an individual effort, often only a very small effort, by each of us. If we can inculcate these values in our citizens, there is no reason why the degeneration and decline of the past twenty years or so cannot be reversed, with our streets, our cities and our country starting to look cleaner again.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is: douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com.

This article first appeared in The Star.