Clean up all you like, Cyril, but without consequences the litter will be back
When then US vice-president George HW Bush realised he was trailing badly in the polls against Michael Dukakis in the race for the White House in the 1988 presidential election, he hit on a novel idea that was to turn his fortunes for the better. He stood on Boston Harbor and proclaimed it "the dirtiest harbour in America".
For Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts and way ahead of his time on environmental issues, that was not just an embarrassment. It was like a blow to the solar plexus. The tide turned. Not only did Bush go on to win convincingly, Boston Harbor got the much-needed spruce-up.
To drive the point home, one has to go to the scene of the crime, as it were. Which is probably why President Cyril Ramaphosa was seen last week in the North West, arguably the dirtiest region in the country - at least Mahikeng is - talking about some sort of cleaning-up campaign. I hesitate to use the word "launch" as in launching a campaign. We talk a good game. We shall believe it when we see it.
He didn't say the place was the dirtiest, nor was he standing on top of a dump site. He didn't have to. It was self-evident. People still talk wistfully about how neat, clean and well-looked-after Bophuthatswana was under Lucas Mangope. We're not supposed to say such things. It's sacrilegious. But it was probably the best run of the homelands.
The problem was not so much that freedom happened but that the ANC were the midwives. They proceeded to run such places - and the rest of country - down. To make matters worse, the North West was hit by a tornado in the person of Supra Mahumapelo that has left complete devastation in its wake. Mahumapelo is now part of the debris that the Ramaphosa part of the ANC is clumsily trying to shovel out of the way.
The country's in a mess but its problems are not insurmountable. Ramaphosa's biggest headache is managing his party. It's like herding cats. It's a futile exercise. The party has become a bar to progress. How does a visit to Venezuela to shore up a hapless Nicolas Maduro help us out of our predicament, for instance? But I digress.
Announcing his cleanup campaign, Ramaphosa put it about as though it was an idea he got from Rwanda, which has earned a reputation for keeping its environment spick and span. But why we should go all the way to Rwanda - a one-man autocracy - to fully appreciate the need and necessity of simple cleanliness remains a mystery. Don't we have any national pride? If any example or model for a cleanup campaign were needed, there's one nearer home here in Johannesburg, where mayor Herman Mashaba has been running a crusade to encourage residents to take care of their environment.
Also, Mashaba has already stolen a march on Ramaphosa. He sent his people to Kigali a while ago to gain first-hand experience. But Ramaphosa was obviously not about to cite Johannesburg as a good model to follow. That would be giving too much credit to the opposition, especially so close to an election. Also, some of his people have been making unkind and disparaging remarks about the Joburg CBD. Derek Hanekom, one of the more reasonable members of a party that's almost lost its marbles, and Ramaphosa's biggest fan, suggested the other day that Mashaba should be cleaning his grubby back yard instead of poking his nose into national issues. Tito Mboweni weighed in with a picture of a rickety shack bang in the middle of the CBD by way of making an unfavourable comparison with the clean environment in Kigali.
But the state of our streets, our back yards, our towns and cities, children merrily playing on dump sites, villagers drawing water from polluted dams and rivers, are a metaphor for the condition of our soul, or the plight of our mindset. It is a physical reflection or manifestation of our pathologies. We've lost respect for ourselves, our self-esteem, and that's reflected outwardly in how we treat our surroundings and everything dear to us.
It is no coincidence, for instance, that Rwanda, apart from being clean is also free of corruption and crime and the government is responsive and competent. I'm no fan of Paul Kagame. He's an autocrat who doesn't hesitate to assassinate his political foes. But his admirers will tell you he's given his people - who've been through an unspeakable genocide not so long ago - a sense of purpose, direction and national pride. All our leaders are good at is stealing from us.
Another reason which may make the Rwanda model difficult to implement here is the fact that Kagame has powers of persuasion and doesn't hesitate to use levers of coercion. His word is the law. Our leaders are in a bind. People don't listen to them any more, let alone respect the law.
Someone suggested some time ago - it may have been this column for all I know - that we've been through a hell of a lot; we are a damaged people and therefore need a shrink. Such an exercise is not only impossible, it's a cop-out. Bad behaviour or a culture of impunity is changed or reversed by a strict application of consequences.
The burning of universities, for instance, which incidentally started in the North West, has not abated because there have been no consequences. It was a shock when it happened the first time. We can have as many summits and commissions of inquiry, but we'll have wasted our time if nobody is finally called to account.
Amid all the verbiage about cleanup campaigns, two words are sorely missing: Don't litter. Consequences are what's missing. And leadership to enforce them.