FROM a street cleaner’s vantage point, South Africa’s heritage is not a pretty picture.
My dorp is one of the few where a national road still runs through the middle, right down the high street, in fact. Many travellers regard it as a convenient inter-provincial dumping spot for litter, and the three entrances and exits to the place are often a depressing replica of the official rubbish pit several kilometres away.
The poort that threads through the entrance hills from the Bloemfontein side is particularly filthy because the wind pins every piece of plastic to the thorn trees along the N.
A group of residents decided to mark the Heritage Day by doing something about our town: we’d spend part of the holiday cleaning up. Because it was also international braai day the better cooks among us lit a fire and made boerewors rolls. With the help of local officials, we flagged down motorists and offered them a delicious memento from their brief visit. A case of lighting two fires with one flame, perhaps.
My own contribution was to cadge some Karoo daisies from the provincial nursery for planting on the islands in the centre of town, as replacements for long-dead rose bushes. But when the day dawned, the whole dorp was without water, thanks to a break in the pipe, and so planting had to be postponed.
Instead, I joined the squad cleaning the poort entrance to the town. Actually, I was initially the squad’s only member, but to my astonishment a dozen or more police officers pitched up to help, the only signs of their occupation their SAPS caps.
There were the myriad plastic cool drink bottles, many flattened and half covered by sand. Right up with them are plastic bottles once full of spring water – healthy for the drinker perhaps, but foul for their environment. Then there were empty glass booze bottles, many of them smashed, with spiked edges perilously close to passing tyres.
This was expected of course, but I hadn’t anticipated some other patterns that emerged – condom packets, and sometimes their used contents, lying near empty energy drink containers, which made me wonder that we don’t have more sex-related motor accidents. Then used nappies and empty biscuit boxes paired up, often lying together under bushes.
I also detected the development of a worrying health heritage: all along our path we found fast-food containers, originally holding stuff so inedible that it often remained uneaten.
The health problems caused by these products was clearly obvious, even to the people who had bought them, because there, mixed in with the polystyrene containers, lay empty blister packs of antacid tablets. Travelling can be as rough on the stomach as on the pocket.
We also cleaned up vehicle rubble left after accidents: pieces of car lights, bumpers,body work, tell-tale blue plastic gloves issued to SAPS members attending a scene where there might be blood, and poles and metal barrier sections ripped from the edge of the road by a truck cartwheeling down the slope.
By the time we had loaded all the rubble from a recent accident in which five people died, I was starting to feel like an undertaker. My anger towards town officials was reinforced – all of our local traffic police have been forced to take special leave since April. No reason has been given, nor any indication of when they’ll be back. Would their presence have prevented any of these accidents, I wonder?
But it wasn’t all bad. True, the rubbish indicated a nation with serious eating and drinking problems, as well as a horrible disregard for the environment. The police, on the other hand, were heroes. That band of men and women, led by the local station commander, got stuck in to help with our impromptu community action, although it cut into their precious free time.
It was brilliant image-building for the police and created new local respect for the thin blue line. That community building mattered more than everything else this Heritage Day. With any luck, our municipal officials might even have learnt something from the SAPS about accountability, community involvement and responding to problems.