Pali Lehohla
Pali Lehohla

Maybe it’s time to embrace the concept of a circular economy

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Dec 5, 2019

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JOHANNESBURG – The challenges of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) unfold before us daily. One of its concepts has been circular economy.

The concept affirms the established scientific fact that matter cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change form. So matter is inexhaustible and thus contributes to challenging capitalist greed-driven accumulation and consumption.

A circular economy is one that recognises retention of energy.  

Last week I drove to Mafeteng, in Lesotho, my home in the Mountain Kingdom, to see family. What enriched me from the Lesotho visit ended up being something else entirely.

Mafeteng streets are litter-free.

About two decades ago, my sister saw men collecting scrap in the streets of Mafeteng and she would lament their plight. These men had been retrenched from the mines and the only livelihood they could make was to scavenge in the streets amid the dirt in order to make ends meet.  

In South Africa, and Gauteng in particular, scores of men and increasingly women scavenge dustbins and streets, cleaning every piece of plastic, paper or tin they can find. 

Without the notorious and marauding hordes of rent-seeking tenderpreneurs, our streets have become exceptionally clean, albeit through actions driven by despair.

Daily we witness people pulling loads of trash to recycling depots.  

It is borne out of tragedy, but it is delivering on SDGs. Mafeteng and Gauteng are 400km apart, and they have converged organically on how to deal with litter.

To drive from Pretoria to Mafeteng, one of the routes goes through Mangaung in the Free State Province.  

Driving through Mangaung is emotionally draining. It is dry, dusty, very dirty and upsetting.  

Upon entering Mangaung I saw a group of 10 boys with white cream on their faces. From the white powder on their face and blankets as well as the way they donned them, these were male Xhosa initiates.

After taking the Dewetsdorp off-ramp, I also saw a group of youngsters, some as young as 9-years old, laden with wet wood, freshly decimated from the trees. From the way they donned their blankets – they were Basotho initiates.  

For heaven’s sake, it was not school holidays and these kids are being deprived of their future. How on Earth do we imagine that they can catch up with their peers and the likes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or even survive it. 

This world of the future is not for the uneducated.

The kids I saw out of school were no doubt children that came from poor families. Few middle-class parents would allow their children to miss school to be trapped in this practice. 

Most legitimate initiation practices occur during the school holidays.

There is a major resurgence of this practice in Lesotho, and seeing it in Mangaung sent a chill up my spine. This culture is influenced by capitalist developments in South Africa.

As a young boy of four, you are expected to herd your father’s calves, goats and sheep.

By six, you graduate to go to school, but on alternating days. One day you herd livestock, the other you are in class. This continues up to when you are just about 14. 

With class repetition because of alternating days of participation in herding livestock, the boys are about halfway where they should be in terms of progression.  

At best, therefore, they are in standard two instead of standard five. They are now ready for circumcision after which they are off to the mines. The social contradictions of this resurgence is felt in the economy and gender-based violence.

Harold Wolpe, Martin Legassick and Ben Magubane provide a rich analysis of the deceptive ways of capital in that it dissolves the typical traditional ways that would disrupt capitalist production and preserve the trappings that produces and reproduces labour from the hidden hinterland. This they term the dissolution-conservation dichotomy.  

Mafeteng and Gauteng have the litter of plastic bottles, steel, paper and cans resolved.  

Mangaung is far from doing so. It appears the recycling bug that struck Lesotho towns two decades ago and Gauteng five years ago has yet to diffuse itself into Mangaung and point the way to how the very poor have decided to teach the rich how the circular economy can work.

What have these observations on my trip to do with IUSSP, a 17-hour flight away from the theatre of interest?

Perhaps a sense of guilt of failure to appreciate the enormity of the challenges faced by many by us the elite. Like going to church to recite Hail Mary, or seeing Prophet Lukau raising the dead, or Major 1 prophesying riches to the poor, politicians dishing out T-shirts before an election, the great dance and song and so on.

Something is terribly wrong in how we perceive problems, design strategies and implement them.  

The young men with their grease-filled skin and clothes, who perform an important function of cleaning our environment and bring the notion of a circular economy home, perhaps provide for us the key lessons.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and a former head of Statistics South Africa.  


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