Our Better Selves was a silent movie produced in 1919 that starred actress Fannie Ward, and, according to Wikipedia, no longer exists in celluloid. A still image of the promotional poster is available and shows Fannie Ward in dramatic pose with a blurb that reads: The story of a social butterfly who used her old, vain and frivolous self as a stepping stone to better things.
There is a non-governmental agency bearing the same name, Our Better Selves. I am not sure where it is based, but its Facebook page bears a photograph of earnest young men and women who very likely live their NGO’s quest of “empowering change agents”.
These were the results of my fingers flitting across the Google box between “our better selves” “US elections” and “EFF”.
The exercise was a mind swirl prompted by the story that hit a nerve on social media in Durban, of the homeless people living in a Covid shelter established by the municipality next to the Jewish Club (diagonally behind the Elangeni Hotel). To occupy themselves during the lockdown the men and women housed there plowed up the vacant space beside their tents and planted vegetables. Their urban garden has proved a huge hit with their neighbours and the bountiful crops have been selling like hotcakes.
It spurred a flurry of feel-good stories about adversity turned to advantage. eThekwini Municipality deserves kudos for its approach to homelessness. It graciously partnered with capable NGOs to provide shelter to about 2 000 homeless people during the hard lockdown. The city showed the sort of compassion, responsiveness and agility its residents would appreciate all of the time.
The city has helped the homeless by housing some, teaching basic computer skills, helping them re-apply for their identity documents and to feed themselves. “Now THIS, people,” beachfront resident and journalist Sue Derwent raved on social media, “is buying fresh, straight out the ground, and local.” It helped the homeless help themselves. Derwent’s post got close to 10 000 likes on Facebook.
The municipality’s Nonduduzo Ngcongo wrote on the city’s website how the pandemic gave people pause to reflect, and in the case of 13 gardeners housed at the beachfront shelter, to grow bountiful crops of lettuce, spinach, chillies and tomatoes. Ngcongo quoted site manager, Binky Mkhize, applauding the homeless gardeners: “I am amazed by their commitment, hard work and change of heart in the way they look at life. These are normal people who deserve a second chance.”
Mkhize said there was even a plan for the homeless to sell their produce to municipal soup kitchens. The city said there was a second gardening site in Greyville and a third at Lahee Park in Pinetown. The gardening initiative has attracted the support of celebrities, NGOs and businesses.
All-round this is a thoroughly heart-warming story. The city has graciously thanked its partners in helping provide shelter, three meals a day, toiletries, sanitation healthcare services, and, in some instances, drug management and psychosocial support. The city says since the shelters were established in March, more than 250 homeless people have quit drugs, 189 have returned to their families, 65 have received computer training, and 10 have been moved to old age homes. Eight are now employed.
The city said it was doubling its efforts to the homeless in eThekwini. This is truly laudable. It stands in contrast to the heartlessness of other South African cities in dealing with homelessness. Now, if only this sort of collaboration and genuine empathy could be extended to how we deal with housing in general in eThekwini. If only we could forge unity of purpose to find long-term solutions to people living in shacks throughout the city.
Goodwill is one thing, visionary leadership and execution is another. Right opposite the beachfront shelter where the green-fingered gardeners are working their magic is the site of the old Star Seaside Home, a plum piece of real estate that has been vacant and dilapidating since 2014. The city has refused an offer by hoteliers to buy the land and develop it. The site is similar to hundreds of government-owned properties dotted around the city, lying vacant, waiting for a sweet deal.
The same city leadership – so worthy of praise in respect of caring for the homeless – deserves to be roundly criticised for sitting on its hands and not realising the value in vacant state-owned land and decaying buildings. eThekwini Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, or the leaders of the newly formed Economic Council the city is crowing about, should demand an urgent audit of these properties. If they aren’t being used, sell them to the highest bidder in an open tender and ringfence the money for decent housing so more eThekwini residents can live in dignity and lead productive lives.
The pandemic has foisted change on us that at times has been scary, but it has also been used as a catalyst for good. It is time to harness the good and reject the evil that boils around fear. I juxtapose the optimism and hope generated by the vegetable garden story with the violence and bigotry witnessed in Senekal and Brackenfell. The latter feed our base instincts. They are representative of what I read recently about “psychologically intoxicating reactionary nationalism” in the USA and other countries around the world. This scourge is ugly and divisive and offers us no prospect of finding our better selves. This edition of KZN INVEST has a chunk of cheerful stories. I trust they will do their bit to banish the gloom of 2020 and instil a bit of hope for 2021.