HOPE IN HOWICK
In these KZN towns, the power of Pollyannas is cleaning up neighbourhoods
Jaded by years of service delivery failure, residents in parts of KwaZulu-Natal are finding new hope in simply doing it for themselves.
Matt Hogarty doesn’t see himself as a Pollyanna. Nor do Blessing Nyoni, Leanne Nixon-James, Ray Gumbo or Stephen Herbst.
But in a land of weary people worn down by crime and grime, tripping over broken pavements, dodging potholed streets and suffering through rolling blackouts, their positivity is compelling.
Philosophers, priests and psychologists have long advocated the power of positive thinking. So, anxious residents of KwaZulu-Natal, desperate to escape the echo chamber of gloom, are flipping mental switches to improve their lives.
Are they woolly-headed idealists believing they can fix deep systemic problems with a smile and a dash of sunshine? Are they trying to staunch a haemorrhaging artery with a Band-Aid?
Such questions are not stopping Hogarty, Nyoni, Nixon-James, Gumbo or Herbst.
KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s most volatile province, is wobbling towards economic recovery after unrest and floods. People are on edge, but some of them, for example in Howick, Margate and eThekwini, have got together to fix things.
The term “Pollyanna” comes from a 1913 book by Eleanor Porter, but it became etched in popular culture in 1958 when Hollywood’s Doris Day belted out Everybody Loves a Lover, with the lyric “Wow, I feel just like a Pollyanna!”
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Two years later, the comedy drama Pollyanna hit the screens, telling of a cheerful orphan who changed the outlook of a small town through irrepressible optimism.
But is finding good in everything foolish optimism?
Hogarty won’t attribute what he’s seen in Howick to Pollyannas. He says it’s deeper than that.
What really stirred people was being part of a solution. They didn’t feel powerless in the face of state failure.
Seven years ago, Hogarty, a school principal, was driving through the then filthy Midlands dorp he calls home, bemoaning the sorry state of affairs. Litter-strewn and crime-ridden Howick seemed ruined.
Hogarty’s rant was interrupted by his children. A challenge chirped from the back seat: “What are you doing about it, Dad?”
On Facebook, he called for volunteers to join him in a clean-up, thinking he’d muster a few mates. About 50 people ended up shovelling rubbish and tidying pavements.
“I didn’t believe much was possible because morale in the town was so low. But we spurred one another on. The next clean-up attracted 100 people, the next 150.
“Since then, thousands have rocked up. At first it was surreal.”
Love Howick was born in a clean-up. Hogarty says scrubbing the decks made a stark difference, but what really stirred people was being part of a solution. They didn’t feel powerless in the face of state failure. A seed of hope was nurtured by action.
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Hogarty got the editor of the local newspaper to run a competition, calling on residents to say what they loved about Howick in 50 words. The paper was inundated.
“We needed a vision more than anything else. We needed to project hope, to put that Mzansi spirit into action. When we stopped focusing on the rubbish… we focused on the transformation.” Seven years later, Love Howick is a plethora of self-help projects.
We have had people come here not believing they would last a day. Now they support their families.
One of the most successful is run by Ray Gumbo, who has helped 300 school leavers get jobs and has seen hopelessness replaced by high self-esteem.
“We deal with some people who come from poor or troubled backgrounds and they flourish because they are told they have intrinsic value that nobody can take away. We help them understand they are not helpless victims.”
The one-month course teaches basic job-readiness skills and learners volunteer to help out at school feeding schemes, the magistrates’ court or clinics. Meticulous time sheets of their work are kept.
“They learn how to take instructions and be presentable,” says Gumbo. “Community service builds character and develops a good attitude. It gives work experience that helps boost CVs. We have had people come here not believing they would last a day. Now they support their families.”
The power of ‘doing something’
Nyoni runs a social cohesion organisation in Bhambayi, a shack settlement surrounding the historic centre Mahatma Gandhi established in Durban.
Nyoni’s Glory of the Last Days community organisation (Goldco) has been involved in social cohesion since 2010, but the group came into its own during the July 2021 riots.
The group deals with drug users, helps pregnant teenagers and provides safe after-school care for children.
“We realised the power of doing something,” said Nyoni, “when we stopped complaining.”
Goldco members have a “know your neighbour” initiative and help jobless people turn dumping sites into vegetable gardens. It involves 89 people.
“We don’t wait for the government. When you have a little hope and do something, however small, it makes people feel less helpless,” Nyoni said.
In Morningside, in Durban’s Berea, Nixon-James has a clothing business. She and husband Brett felt “on the verge” of despair watching litter pile up on the curbside. In August 2022, they paid a waste picker to clean up the park across the road once a week. Now he and a friend are employed four days a week and sponsored by about 30 families.
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“The ripple effect has been incredible. Attrition wears you down, but when you can see a difference it makes all the difference,” Nixon-James said.
On The Verge trumpets mini-makeovers on social media, with hundreds of likes.
Pavements are being cleaned; people are tidying up parks and public spaces. They have painted concrete bollards with murals, planted flowers and edged walkways.
“It’s a joy. The community has grown closer. We’ve got to know one another better. More people are having conversations and I think we see a more fulsome picture of society. It is not just all gloom. A bit of hope is catchy,” Nixon-James said.
‘Just do it’
In Margate, Tidy Towns is doing similar work. Driven by Herbst, the project has collected tons of rubbish in 19 months.
Herbst said residents realised theirs wasn’t the only broken municipality. They pay rates and taxes and deserve government services, but they also know things are unlikely to change and carping doesn’t help.
“The difference is phenomenal. We engage with the police and municipality. There are nine volunteers and we pay 23 rehabilitated drug users and people on the streets to help. Together we do so much more. We are for the community, by the community. We don’t wait. We get the permissions we need and we get on with it. We keep it simple. Collect garbage if it has not been picked up. Clean pavements, work with the municipality and like-minded people. Just do it.”
Hogarty agrees: “If your surroundings are tidy you will interact in a positive way. It affects your outlook and things don’t feel futile.” DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.