t’s my new word of the month, and if you, much like me, didn’t know its meaning, a quick Google search has had me spending hours researching the country where it is practised, and it’s my new must-visit country.

In fact, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s big launch of the Good Green Deeds programme on Friday has hints of Umuganda in it, and I’ve now got my spade and shovel ready.

Ramaphosa will officially launch the programme, which aims to encourage individuals and organisations to come together to “conduct clean-up centred activities across South Africa”.

In his State of the Nation Address debate reply, Ramaphosa said the campaign would mobilise all South Africans to become environmentally conscious and change behaviour towards littering and waste in general.

“It is part of our call and our commitment to clean up South Africa, to make our cities, towns and rural areas safe and healthy for all to live in. Because of environmentally insensitive human action, the forces of nature conspired to set in motion the dramatic process of climate change. It is by conscious human action that its effects can and will be mitigated and ultimately reversed,” said Ramaphosa.

My initial thoughts were that I do enough cleaning at home, now I must clean the whole neighbourhood too?

The Department of Environmental Affairs explained that the programme was meant to keep public spaces clean and tidy. It said if it were possible for countries such as Rwanda, which has a lower GDP than ours, yet is one of the cleanest in the world, it should not be difficult for South Africans to duplicate the noble practice of cleaning up.

So back to Umuganda: the word loosely translated means “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”.

It was a deep-rooted system in Rwandan culture of helping each other, practised long before the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 500000 to a million Rwandans were killed in about 100 days. Tutsis made up 70% of the victims. In one of the initiatives to help heal the nation, the government punted the practice of Umuganda. President Paul Kagame, who has been in office since 2000, pushed the programme.

Umuganda is law and apparently you are fined if you do not take part, but the system appears to work. The last Saturday of each month is Umuganda Day and citizens take part in set activities between 8am and 11am.

Visitors to the country are also encouraged to participate. The activities are largely focused on greening activities, but some doctors offer free examinations, elderly people are helped, and farms are ploughed.

Today Rwanda, and its capital city Kigali, is known around the world for its cleanliness. It’s also credited with social cohesion and nation building as people learn to work together for a common goal. Enviro-friendliness is big, and the country banned plastics in 2006. If you travel into the country, empty plastic packets are confiscated!

Could Ramaphosa’s Good Green Deeds have elements of Umuganda?

In SA, it would be as though we organise a monthly Mandela Day, in the spirit of caring for one another.

Whether it’s Mandela Day, Umuganda Day, or Good Green Deeds day, I say helping each other, much like a mass team-building effort, will go a long way towards nation building, rather than simply talking about it at grand conferences. And we could finally kick that Dirtbin nickname in the process!


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