By Julienne du Toit
Pictures by Chris Marais
New Year’s Day – a time for fresh beginnings, with 365 gloriously unsullied days of 2019 stretching before us.
Also a day when the streets of our home town, Cradock in the Eastern Cape, are revolting with party trash, cool drink bottles, uncollected garbage bags torn open by dogs and their icky innards strewn across pavements.
Chris and I are part of a small group with a real and largely unwanted insight into the kinds of things people throw away. In winter, before the weather warmed and snakes started slithering, a few of us in town would get together once a month on a Saturday morning and go down to the banks of the Great Fish River that is the source of our drinking water and irrigates crops from Cradock through Cookhouse, Somerset East and all the way through the citrus orchards around Addo to thirsty Port Elizabeth.
We’d clean up part of the riverside in an attempt to make the Great Fish the Karoo attraction it should be.
Picking up trash (with gloves, and braai tongs) is like attending a fresh archaeological dig revealing the eating habits of those living in 2018.
Litterers, I can say with conviction and authority, are very fond of Niknaks and all manner of lookalike maize snacks. They eat them from tiny bags and giant ones, mostly favouring sweet chilli flavours.
Litterers also own small dogs, which they feed with those little foil baggies – clearly they are not necessarily poor people. They throw away long-life milk cartons, chocolate wrappers, plastic bread bags, cigarette stompies and a staggering amount of plastic bottles in which resided sugary carbonated soft drinks. They favour KFC products in all their forms.
The fact that this is not a healthy diet is clear from the little medicine and pill bottles and even their prescriptions, with their names etched on them. If we were detectives, we could go after these people.
One of my mother’s gifts to us for Christmas was a small hard-covered book with a striking title: F**k Plastic. The subtitle is 101 Ways to Free Yourself from Plastic and Save the World.
Here are some of the facts in the first few pages:
- Plastic shopping bags are used for an average of 12 minutes, but last up to 300 years;
- Water or cool-drink bottles will still be around 450 years from now;
- Eight million pieces of plastic enter our oceans every year;
- These have so far broken down into 51 trillion pieces of smaller bits;
- More than 30% of all fish on our dinner tables have ingested plastic.
Back to the littered streets of Cradock, where our plastic lies far from the ocean but close to stormwater drains, and the rushing river. The last straw was seeing rubbish strewn across the pavement across the road from our house.
It’s already an eyesore, courtesy the Chris Hani District Municipality which took over Cradock’s water and sanitation function in 2014 (and that of a dozen other towns under its jurisdiction). That has been an unmitigated disaster involving regular dry taps, some parts of the town (notably Hillside) going without water for three months at a time, attendant service delivery riots, crazy billing and raw sewage gushing into the Fish River.
The eyesore water feature across the road started as an excavation to repair broken water pipes two months ago. For some reason they never closed it up and the clean drinking water in it continues to leak, trickling steadily down the street. The local dogs like swimming in it. Incidentally, we are living through one of the worst droughts in living memory.
There’s hazard tape around this unwanted water feature on the corner of Naested and Victoria Streets, but it remains a danger. Heaven forbid that a toddler falls in – the sides are clay and slippery.
Anyway, around the eyesore was revolting, smelly trash, the detritus of a Christmas season when garbage removal day fell on Boxing Day, so was of course not removed.
Last year I interviewed Dr Doreen Atkinson. She and her husband Dr Mark Ingle moved to Philippolis from Johannesburg in 1993. Dr Atkinson later went on to become a founder and trustee of the Karoo Development Foundation and in so doing, got to know all about various platteland municipalities and their downward spirals including that of her own new hometown. She also witnessed the rage and despair among locals of all colours at the failure of service delivery.
Atkinson offers some practical advice for anyone feeling the same way about their own town.
“If you are upset by, for example, the litter in your town and you can’t get the municipality to do anything, then clean up the streets where you can, even if it’s just in front of your own house. It will make a visible difference and may inspire your neighbour, or perhaps a few more in the street. Once you start doing it yourself, you have more control.”
So that’s what we did this morning, 1 January 2019. Chris and went across with our heavy duty gloves, braai tongs and refuse bags and picked up what we could. It was pretty revolting. But Atkinson is right, and what’s more, civic action lifts your mood.
There is still a lot of cleaning to be done – on pavements and right up to every level of corrupt government. But you start with where you are, doing what you can with what you have. Even if it’s a small thing.