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“It is unbelievable that my neighbours don’t separate their waste”, proclaimed the gentleman I met for lunch a few Sundays ago over his fish dish. I’m not sure what my own neighbours do with their household waste in the privacy of their own homes, but I do know that recycling in the suburbs of Johannesburg can, on any good day, be quite tedious, interesting and/or frustrating.  I, however, choose to describe it as adventurous.

A few months ago I moved from my townhouse in a security complex in Pretoria to an older established suburb in Johannesburg. In the security complex recycling was very straightforward. The complex has bins for glass, paper and plastic and these bins are collected regularly. All one has to do is separate one’s household waste and deposit recyclables in the correct container. 

My current situation is quite different. Now I live in a stand-alone house in an old (and poorer) suburb and I am responsible for dealing with my recycling on my own, meaning I have to make the effort to remove it from my premises, drive to where I can find recycling containers within the suburb and deposit the items in there. But it being Johannesburg, a city plagued with inequality and poverty, there are also recycling collectors who roam the streets on ‘rubbish collecting days’ searching the bins placed in the street for recyclable items which they then sell to recycling companies. With the full realization that by removing my recyclable items from my bin, I might be depriving several households from a livelihood, I decided to still separate my household waste but to put the recyclables in a separate container for easy collection by the recycling collectors. To my bewilderment, my logical system was completely ignored by the series of collectors going through my rubbish bin. They left behind several items in my recyclable pile and still ransacked my other waste to see what might lurk in there, taking very noticeably the black plastic bag the non-recyclable items was in.

Being a true Johannesburger, I also have CCTV cameras angled at my pavement for security reasons and being a researcher, I decided to use the CCTV footage to ascertain the collection patterns to see what is collected and what is not. Whilst it might have been acceptable to just let the remaining recyclables go off to the dump, I was not sure whether these would be separated at the dump or whether it was all just going to end up in the landfill. So, I decided to watch and study the collecting habits of the recycling collectors and adjust my separation accordingly. As I was anyway taking glass to the recycling bin – glass is not collected by the collectors presumably because of its weight and the danger of carrying and pushing breaking bottles – I might just as well take the remaining recyclables as well. Putting aside my concerns about the ethics of using cameras to spy on uninformed persons, I embarked on studying the collectors’ habits over several weeks. Every week I learned something new; every second week any assumptions I had, based on my on-going research results, were proven to be incorrect, as the collectors (who are all the same persons every week) changed their habits on a weekly basis. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to their collecting. 

Last week, feeling quite exasperated, I dashed outside to speak to a collector when he tossed aside my carefully collected paper waste, which he had collected just three weeks prior, to ask: “Man, what gives?”. 

“It makes my bag too heavy”, he answered. 

“But I thought you get paid based on the weight of your products?”

“Yes, we are, but if it is too heavy, I cannot push and pull it easily and I might get hit by a car. Today I have a lot of tins and plastic. I do not need your paper.”

Hmmmm….

Further discussion with the other two regulars indicated that the items they will always collect are tins and plastic bottles. Paper… well, that depends on the situation on that day. Other recyclable plastic, unless it is big black plastic bags that can be re-used, are also not wanted. So, going forward, I will deposit my paper and plastic in the appropriate recycling bins when I deposit my glass. Tins and plastic bottles I will put aside for the collectors and this way, hopefully, all the bases will be covered - for now. As I said, recycling in the suburbs of Johannesburg is an adventure like no other.

 

 

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On blind spots and losing one’s vision

Wednesday, 17 January 2018 14:10

During December 2016 I lost my vision. Perhaps it happened slowly and unnoticed prior to that December morning when I woke up with darkness shrouding my left eye and my right eye not quite able to focus as well as it did the day before. Perhaps I should have taken the symptoms experienced for several months leading up to that December morning more seriously instead of just chucking them in the basket of “too many long hours in front of computer screen, too many long-distance flights, not enough sleep”. Perhaps...

I can’t help but to draw parallels with sustainability issues that companies face as I reflect on my 2017 journey, which included not being allowed to travel and several eye operations, each operation bringing with it the hope that miraculously through the application of the latest medical science, the sight in my left eye will be restored.  Too often companies ignore the symptoms or the signs that something is amiss and too often it is only when there is an outcry, or a strike, or an outbreak of violence, that the issues are addressed. Like I did, many companies undergo several ‘operations’ to address the symptoms, using a variety of consultants to address the problems; and I am sure that like I sometimes wished I could gauge out my left eye and start from scratch, many companies wish they could start from scratch. Unfortunately that is not possible and one is forced to deal with the situation at hand in the best manner possible to yield the best possible result. 

Unfortunately my left eye remains unusable, but in the past four months I have put in an enormous effort in adapting and re-learning how to cope with those unexpected issues that appear when one (suddenly) only has one functioning eye, including discovering that one has no depth perception and if one does not want to stumble down slopes and stairs, one must learn other ways to deal with such limitations. And similarly companies can learn new skills and adjust to different ways of dealing with sustainability issues and even if the damage cannot be reversed, the application of the correct mitigation can result in an outcome that could be just as valuable as reversing the damage, and sometimes the outcome can be even more sustainable than the original state of affairs. All that is required is the will to do it and a corporate culture that is not tone deaf and one that is willing to embrace change.

Blind spots also plagued my beleaguered vision for a while. And when I read the following Facebook post late last year by a renowned and well-respected South African human rights lawyer, it made me think of how often we have blind spots when it comes to issues of power, patriarchy and institutional racism:

“I recognize the delicacy of the matter, but really.

Imagine I got very drunk in a hotel room with two female colleagues. Thus uninhibited and uninvited I undressed and masturbated in front of them.

In the sober light of day, I would be so ashamed and embarrassed I would be forced to emigrate.

Their scorn and laughter and that of their friends would be too much to bear.

Now imagine I was sober, I would not even have the excuse of drunkenness, I would be obliged to kill myself.

Louis C.K. is the person who comes across as a total doos. The women who were the witnesses to his shameful conduct as those who are doing the shaming.

I don’t understand the narrative of the spectators to his embarrassing and utterly inappropriate behavior as his victims.”

 

This professional works in the human rights arena in a country plagued with inequality, misogyny and racism, and yet appears not to understand (or perhaps he is unable to acknowledge?) the power relations that exist in industries, whether in Hollywood or at the Mining Indaba or on Capitol Hill.  Not to mention the victim blaming that is implicit (at least in my opinion) in his post.  If development and human rights professionals have such significant blind spots, what hope is there? And how does one address the situation? 

A medical procedure and several different eye-drops inserted several times a day for several weeks effectively dealt with my blind spots, and thus I would imagine that awareness-raising, calling out by others, and serious self-reflection would be a good start when it comes to addressing blind spots in the development fraternity. And as I had to unlearn and re-imagine my habits in order to adapt to my altered vision, whether when driving, walking or reading, hope rests on the belief that as development and human rights professionals we can also unlearn old habits and re-imagine what the world would be like without the blind spots that allow for patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and racism to continue.  We, who find ourselves in this position of building careers on the back of the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed, should certainly lead the charge to affect real change and to obliterate these blind spots.

After 11 months off field work, I returned to work full-steam and with enthusiasm a few weeks ago.  I have learned that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks, and that I have the ability to adjust and be even better at most tasks than before I lost the vision in my left eye, mainly because (I think) I am now acutely aware of the blessings that come with one’s ability to see, hear, smell, walk, talk, jump, run and apply one’s mind. And also because I needed to prove to myself that I can indeed still be an asset to society and hopefully be a catalyst for change in the future. 

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