As I huffed and puffed on the treadmill at gym this morning, the elderly man running next to me asked if I was feeling hot. Concerned this might be some kind of strange come-on, I said yes anyway, because it was. He said he had already asked the management to turn on the air conditioner. They clearly hadn’t done so. He continued to speak about other issues he had with the gym, and asked that I put in a complaint, with my name and number and a request for someone to call me back. He suggested that we keep complaining until something is done about our concerns.
A couple of minutes later the air-con kicked in and I felt no need to complain to management. I also think “complain” might be the wrong term. To complain comes with connotations of nit picking, grumbling, whinging and whining – the kind of dinner-party criticism for which affluent South Africans are infamous. I think what the gentleman meant was that we should report things that don’t work. And to me, this is not complaining – this is active citizenship.
We need more active citizens. I’ve joined a number of Facebook groups which represent the suburbs in which I live, through which I regularly drive or in which I frequently spend my money. There is definitely something valuable in these groups in terms of spreading information, community spirit initiatives and charity drives.
Some people choose to use these platforms for whinging and complaining. In fact, I left one group after the administrator continuously complained about some local businesses that spread onto the pavements of Westdene, despite the fact that our little community is desperate for good businesses in the area. The tipping point for me, however, was when he asked people to stop posting pictures of (that terrorist!) Mandela after his death, when the whole country was mourning, because he didn’t want his page to be used as a political platform.
I was recently privileged to hear Topaz Page-Green speak at a speech evening. She grew up in Johannesburg and attended a private school, and then sought her fortune on the catwalks of New York. However, when she returned home and took a trip to Soweto, she noticed that at lunchtime, some of the children sat apart from the others and didn’t eat. Her heart broke when she learned that they didn’t want to see the other children eating because they themselves had no food. She immediately started making plans to feed hungry children in South Africa’s townships and rural areas. The Lunchbox Fund was born a short while later, an initiative which 10 years down the line provides 1 000 000 meals a year.
Being a beautiful, well-spoken model probably didn’t hinder Page-Green’s efforts to get funding for her charity – and she has in the past and currently many of the world’s most well-known celebrities as donors and board members of The Lunchbox Fund – Elton John, Joaquim Phoenix, Bono, Desmond Tutu, Jamie Oliver and Francois Pienaar, to name a few. The non-profit organisation has initiated huge changes in the areas they serve – food growing and cooking have created jobs for adults, children attend school so that they can be fed, and children who are fed are better equipped to tackle the challenges of the classroom.
Page-Green said that we are irresponsible if we sit by and don’t do anything about injustices in the world. I have to agree. It’s easy to be an armchair activist – and I think there something to be said for sharing information which enlightens people about issues they might not have known about otherwise. A simple retweet or reposting a plea or request or an article which highlights a news story is a start. But the real magic happens when people actually get off their butts and do something.
Last week saw a devastating fire rip through the informal settlement at Kya Sands. A couple of Facebook requests later, and I was able to drop off a couple of bags of goodies donated by some angels in my life at Indulgence Café, where Mandi had already collected boxes of goods from her friends and customers – enough to send a bakkie load of much-needed food, clothes, toys, toiletries etc. for people who lost everything.
I’ve also noticed that if one makes a call to City Power to report a streetlight not working, within a few days the streetlight magically works again. Likewise, I’ve taken to tweeting @jhbwater (Johannesburg Water) every time I see water pouring out of a road – and within a few days, they start working on the problem. The same goes for reporting potholes or traffic lights out of order to @myJRA (Johannesburg Roads Agency) – although their road fixing people are a little slower to respond.
The Lunchbox Fund recently launched the Feedie App (available at your App store). It works like this – at participating restaurants, if you take a photograph of your food (as many people love to do these days), the restaurant will donate R2.50 to The Lunchbox Fund – enough to feed a child for a day. That’s a great combination of armchair activism and making a real difference.
The point is, it’s easy to whinge. It’s easy to moan about the government and service delivery. But if you are reading this, I guarantee you have experienced relatively few real service delivery issues compared to most people in our country. I’m not talking about the great alleged-drought of 2014 or the load shedding fiasco. These are major concerns, which suggest huge infrastructural chickens which are coming home to roost. But it’s not all doom and gloom.
I know it’s a pain in the neck to sit on hold at a call centre to report a problem. I know we don’t all have a lot of spare time – or a telephone on our desks during office hours. But if we just keep complaining, we are being irresponsible citizens, because to complain is not to report a problem. If we report issues, maybe we will have less cause for complaint. And if they don’t know it’s broke, how can they fix it?