The curious case of the black litterbug

“What is it with black people and littering?” a white, male acquaintance asked me on a recent trip to Cape Town.

“Why?” I responded, trying to think of the profiles of the people I’d seen littering over the past few months.

“Because wherever I go, I see black people throwing cans, chips packets or sommer entire KFC sakke on the ground.”

I sniggered, recalling how I tossed a cigarette butt right out the window while driving the previous night. Still, I was compelled to research the issue.

The most intriguing part of my investigation happened unexpectedly when I spent about 20 minutes talking to strangers just outside Lichtenburg at one of those irritating stop-and-wait points for roadworks.

I won’t repeat what the guys — all inhabitants of the North West — had to say about their roads minister; when it comes to swearing, all South Africans are the same. In fact, a swearword should immediately be incorporated into our national motto for the sake of racial harmony.

As we were waiting for our turn to use the province’s roads-in-progress, my black fellow passenger and I began to make small talk about the fields next to the road that were littered with cans, beer bottles and cigarette butts.

I asked the man why he thinks people throw their empty stuff on the ground rather than in a steel bin. “Because some Africans believe you create work by littering. If I throw a bottle on the ground, somebody will be paid to pick it up tomorrow,” he said, half-laughing, shaking his head.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Creating work by littering?

Back at the office I immediately consulted a black colleague.

“No!” he reacted angrily, “it’s so easy to say Africans this and Africans that. My mother’s house is the cleanest place in the world. I wouldn’t dare throw stuff around.”

Then another colleague from Obamaland revealed how a white, male acquaintance of hers regularly used to get rid of his McDonald’s wrapping while driving, also believing that he was creating jobs that way.

South Africans just love stereotypes — right after football and rugby, they would attract enough votes in a national referendum to be proven our third biggest national sport.

Of course not all stereotypes are false or bad and God forbid that one of our Indian colleague’s mother ever stops making her hot lemon pickled achar!

Somehow I believe that we can be very happy by sharing our biltong, umqombothi, lemon pickled achar, sushi and chicken curry day by day, slice by slice, sip by sip.

And would it really be so bad if white men kept off the dance floor for another decade or three?

Adriaan Basson is an investigative reporter for the Mail & Guardian

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