I am a reasonably law-abiding citizen of South Africa. I will “do the right thing” for the most part, and am the first to follow the rules, vs taking a short cut and bucking the system. I apologise (almost daily) to random people, for things I needn’t apologise for. I generally go about my day trying to please people and not cause conflict or adversity. It’s not an attribute I am particularly proud of, but it’s what it is.
So it was a bit of a shock to the system when I had someone call on law enforcement to oversee a meeting I had last week down at Noordhoek beach. Just in case things got heated … or if I took up arms and resisted!
“They” were ready and waiting to fine me, and if things got out of hand, arrest me.
Well, two months prior to this, I had attempted to get the buy-in of the relevant landowners, by emailing a very clear, well thought out proposal, suggesting an idea for a win-win waste management plan for a site where beach plastic was a challenge, with inadequate bin facilities. This was a day after a face to face meeting, where I had tabled a host of positive, action-oriented ideas around waste management. Ideas that were largely met with low energy or interest and claims of “no budget”, or “not our land”.
I received no acknowledgement to my email, and, of course, no reply. And, by default, no permission.
Therein lay my crime.
In those two months, I managed to acquire three different sources of funding for the local community/environmental project my partner and I manage. R14 000 on the back of an 80k trail run, R22 000 from a Charity Golf Day (run by our local Farm Village) and another R27 000 from a Table Mountain Fund grant facility.
The injection of funds motivated me to start up various local projects – all around the theme of removing plastic from the system, with worm compost dog poo bins, and a general injection of some circular economy thinking into waste management in our local community.
The funds were a welcome addition to community donations that feed the project coffers. These funds help pay the wages of two guys who keep the community’s main road verges and beach clean, who keep the toilets (at the ablution block mentioned below) scrupulously clean, and who also remove any dog poo that is not collected by beach goers and who fall through the cracks of our very successful dog poo worm bin initiative.
One of the burning ideas was to commission a local wire craftsman to build us a large wire whale. He worked off a sketch I gave him, with dimensions.
This themed installation, we thought, would be an excellent addition to our beach area – visited by many (locals and tourists) every day. The idea and thinking was to have this beautiful whale (who we fondly named Kakapo) to act as a receptacle for collected ocean-borne plastic. She would have an open “blow-hole” at the top, and no gaps anywhere else, so that whatever was placed in her, would stay there. She was designed to have a hinged jaw, wide enough to open and for my two guys (who do regular beach clean ups) to access the rubbish, and empty her when full.
The idea was to watch the whale’s belly fill up, and to get conversations going. The idea was for people to make their walks on the beach count. To gather up what they could hold in their arms and hands, and “post” it in the whale on their return.
When we were “installing” her, early one evening, we had more beach-goers than I could count pass by and comment positively. Everyone was fascinated. Excited. Enthralled.
Kakapo was mounted onto an otherwise dull, scruffy ablution block wall. My partner had special galvanised steel poles measured and manufactured. Engineer that he is, he made sure that the whale was suspended safely, the weight would be held as she filled up, and the integrity of the concrete wall would not be compromised. The job was neat, safe, secure and professional.
An announcement about our “new visitor” on our community FB forum was met with hundreds of likes and as many comments – all so encouraging and delighted at her presence and message.
A week later, she was one third full of collected beach plastic. Two weeks later, we removed a total of 10 bags full of trash from inside her.
Two simple signs spoke to beach users. They encouraged litter collection, but also spoke of the huge threat of ocean-borne plastic. It encouraged positive action. Kids from a local Earth school went down to make a movie about the whale, spoke of ocean plastic and how we can all make a difference. Tourists took selfies and showed them putting plastic they had collected into her.
A second sign spoke to the fact that we all need to consider our own role in the ocean plastic crisis, and to take these thoughts home, to consider a personal plastic footprint reduction.
The whole project was about making something more visible. For us to all wake up and see just how massive the problem really is, and how we are ALL complicit in it.
A week after Kakapo had been positioned, I received a call from the aforementioned conservation (state) agency. They are custodians of this particular strip of land. They are in place to “take care of it”, ensure ecosystem integrity. That sort of thing. You know.
After discovering the whale’s existence (a week after she had been installed), a section ranger (from this particular organisation) reported it to her seniors. There was a site management meeting, and the next day I received a letter as follows:
The whale structure was inspected on the 14/11/2019. The structure was found to be visually intrusive and untidy . The unauthorised mounting on the wall is also unsafe and might cause permanent damage to the wall and infrastructure used by members of the public.
Approval cannot be given for the structure and You are therefore advised to remove the structure (including tyres), fill up the holes , paint and clean the area by 20/11/2019 .
The announcement on the community forum that Kakapo had to be removed was met with a massive outcry and calls for a petition. People were dumbfounded – why would something that is so positive, that is helping keep the beach clean, generate awareness be removed? The community wanted answers, and they wanted me to provide them with a contact person – so that they could express their unhappiness.
What followed was not happy making. It doesn’t warrant much more detail here, as it all became toxic and motivated by power-play and nonsense.
In the end, I did remove Kakapo – under the watchful eye of two rangers, who felt it was important to hang about and ensure the unsightly, life-threatening wire thing was removed.
While standing alongside the freshly-detached, beached whale at the car park, I spotted the same two leave quietly in an unofficial vehicle, without saying goodbye. Shortly after that, the law enforcement vehicle drove off.
So. The whale has gone. The wall has been patched up, painted and is back to its good old self.
The community is unhappy. I am unhappy.
I am also sad and disheartened. By short-sightedness and bureaucracy. By time-wasting and an inability to think out the box.
The house is on fire. The oceans are choking.
Do we have the time to meet about meetings? To talk about meeting about meetings? To find the right piece of paper to stamp and approve and give permission? For something that is essentially proactive, positive and change-making?
Oops. Look, another forest just went up in smoke. Another whale beached itself with a belly full of plastic. Oops.
But we need to meet about a meeting. To discuss permission.
For a whale. That defaced a wall.
The clock ticks while “they” deliberate over who owns what land. Their land? Your land?
My land? Their wall?
IT IS OUR FUCKING PLANET!
AND SHE’S IN TROUBLE!