If you drive into Soweto on a winter evening, you may not be able to see your way — the air is thick with the smoke of coal fires. The car ride will also be bumpy — Soweto’s streets are full of dust and potholes.
And be careful of the little children in the streets. Soweto’s children play in the streets because there are too few parks. The night-time hides the piles of rubbish lying on the streets — sometimes, they come as high as your hip.
Since people first moved to Soweto in 1939, the government has kept its purse firmly shut — it spends as little money as possible on the township. Or on any other black township, for that matter.
In the beginning, the government treated places like Soweto as temporary. There was no planning, or at best, very little planning. There were no proper houses, roads, sewerage pipes, stormwater pipes and no planning for recreation areas, like parks.
And laws like the Group Areas Act and the Land Act forced people to live in small, overcrowded areas. This is still happening today.
Now, the people of Soweto have come together to challenge this injustice. They have formed organisations to put pressure on the government to open its tight fist — and start improving the townships. One of these organisations is the National Environmental Awareness Campaign (NEAC).
A NEW LIFE
The NEAC was formed soon after June 16 1976. Many people believe that this day changed the face of South Africa. It also changed the lives of many people.
Japhta Lekgetho is the president of the NEAC. For Japhta, June 16 was the beginning of a new life. For twelve years, Japhta was a teacher at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto. He taught geography, history and business economics. But Japhta was not happy with Bantu Education. He felt his hands were tied by always having to teach ready-made information.
“There was nothing new to offer students,” says Japhta. “So, when many teachers resigned in 1976 in protest against Bantu Education, I also decided to pack my bags and leave.”
“LIVING WITH FILTH”
During the 1976 uprisings the Urban Bantu Council (UBC) stopped operating. The township became dirtier. The authorities did not care. People became sick and tired of living with filth. That was when Japhta and his friends decided to start the NEAC.
In the beginning, the NEAC’s goal was to keep Soweto clean. They organised clean-up campaigns. The school children were the first to give their support. Later the parents also joined in.
Soon after the campaign, Japhta found that he had a new name. People would talk about the clean-up operation and say: “Do you know Japhta Lekgetho?” “Who? Oh, you mean “Mr Clean”!” Even today, the name has stuck.
“Mr Clean” and his fellow workers started to spread the message about the need to take care of the environment — about cleanliness, about the pollution in the air and about making Soweto beautiful. “If we don’t start now,” says Japhta, “there will be nothing left for our grandchildren.”
“The NEAC would like people to make the gardens of their homes and the pavements of the streets beautiful,” says Japhta. “We want to make parks and organise clubs. But we also want people to learn to love all things in nature. By nature, we mean the plants, the trees, the flowers, the veld and all the animals and birds that live in it.”
BREATHING FRESH AIR
Loving nature and keeping Soweto clean are only one part of the NEAC’s campaign. One of the most important aims is to educate people about the dangers of pollution.
“The air in Soweto gets polluted because of all the coal fires in the township,” says Japhta. “The smoke causes damage to the lungs and can cause diseases like TB.
“The air also gets polluted because of all the rubbish left in the streets and the broken sewerage pipes. When the rubbish starts to rot, the air is filled with bad smells that spread diseases. Many township babies have died because of the diseases that are carried in the air.”
Japhta says that the reason why there is so much pollution and disease in Soweto, is because the government does not look after the townships in the same way as it looks after the white suburbs. So, the NEAC has a second goal — to challenge the local authorities to spend more money on the townships.
“For too long, the government has made excuses about the townships and said that there is not enough money to give services. We do not accept this. We demand proper services for the residents. The job of keeping Soweto clean is the Soweto Council’s job. Not ours.
“The Group Areas Act and the Land Act are some of apartheid’s most evil laws. We join all other organisations in the call for the removal of these hated laws.”
Thirteen years after the NEAC was formed, it has built a centre in Mofolo. At the centre, visitors can watch films about the dangers of pollution. And they can also have fun — the centre has a lovely park, two soccer fields, a library, a hall, a netball field, a nursery for plants and a little shop that sells food. People can also play chess, go dancing, join the soccer club and read in the library.
On the weekend, the centre is packed with people enjoying picnics, the clean air and the green grass and trees or playing sport.
Laura Polecutt has worked with the NEAC for six years. She spoke about the NEAC’s projects. “We have also started projects in Atteridgeville and Mamelodi. And we want to start other community projects, like a brick- making project.”
“We also want to build a research station in Soweto. The goal of a research station is to train people in agriculture and in ways of working the land better. The centre would like to have more projects, but it is not always easy to get money.”
The NEAC still has far to go in the fight against the damage to the environment caused by apartheid’s laws. So far, it has only scratched the top of the hard soil of apartheid’s problems. There is still a long way to dig.
But in the end, it is only when apartheid is really dead and buried, that all of South Africa’s people will enjoy proper planning and services.
When that day comes, we and our children and our children’s children will be able to breathe fresh air, play in parks and feel the soft, green grass under our feet. We will have a government that cares about the land and health of all its people. Then, we will have a truly beautiful South Africa!
DO YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE NEAC? Write to: NEAC P.O. Box 118 DOBSONVILLE 1865
NEW WORDS environment — the environment is everything around us, like the land, the trees, the air, the birds and bees, the streets and the houses temporary — something that only lasts a short time, is temporary pollution — when the water and the air become dirty and dangerous, we say there is pollution