The big agenda for South Africa is the national elections. File Photo: IOL

JOHANNESBURG – Christmas came and went and so has the New Year. Suddenly we are back to our routine. Our sense for the year has just begun. The big agenda for South Africa is the national elections. This will usher in the sixth administration. 

A historic milestone has just unfolded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which, for the first time in six decades, enjoyed what is adjudged to be its first democratic election.

The end-of-year celebrations seem to have been long for those on the twilight and fringes of society. 

The Tshwane Municipality had not collected rubbish for at least three weeks. This was from just before Christmas to January 8. The streets by then were literally over-flowing from the waste and wrappers of the silly period.  

By the way, most people in the Christian world are born in September and this affirms the significance of the festivities and the joyous indulgence. But it's not about births that this article is about. It's about people who maraud the streets for survival from the waste. 

Over the three weeks they were deprived of what had become their regular means of livelihoods. No sooner were the bins out in the streets than they were being opened. The contents were meticulously searched for plastic, metal and paper. In the light of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the Goalkeepers Summit and the Global Citizens Concert held here in December, this was a sad reminder of the challenges that have to be overcome, in particular as relating to SDG 1 on eliminating poverty and Goal 2 on hunger. 

But there was also SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities, as well as SDG 8 on decent work.  

One wondered, with these multitudes of men dragging massive loads to centres of recycling, whether reducing inequality, Goal 10, is within reach.  

The grime and grease on their bodies shining against the blistering summer sun suggested that clean water, Goal 6, could not be part of their worry as they strove to just tackle in ways too unsatisfactory to deal with Goal 2 on zero hunger. 

But the task these men are tackling through heart-rending non-choices they have to make is to teach us that a circular economy is possible, an economy of abundance wherein they cannot and need not live a life of misery. What it takes is responsible production and consumption, namely Goal 12. 

The toil of these men, now joined by a few women, begs the question whether it's not possible to make their back-breaking work lighter by designing rubbish bins in such a way that they could access paper, plastic and metal much more easily. 

When an entrepreneurial idea emerges to help these challenges, it should be such that it does not displace those who are living in the twilight and margins of society.  

Yet when the poor mingle with cars with their unwieldy burdens right in the centre of the road, one can hardly surmise that they are on the margins. 

These kings of the road are showing a different story about South Africa, one that suggests a society that should tackle the Sustainable Development Goals.  

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

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

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