Colombia, like many other South American nations is a troubled country with its fair share of problems.
Bogota, the capital and largest city, has had more than its fair share of social challenges to face.
1995: Enter Aurelijus Rūtenis Antanas Mockus Šivickas. Tired of corruption, Bogota citizens elected Mockus as their mayor: an academic with no previous political experience. He had been the president of the National University of Colombia and has degrees in mathematics and philosophy. The son of Lithuanian immigrants, the eccentric academic was an unlikely choice to lead the tough, crime-ridden Colombian capital.
He had already gained some fame, or possibly notoriety, by quieting his arts class in an unusual way in 1993: by dropping his pants and mooning them instead of yelling. That caught their attention so he could proceed with his lecture. Professors often have a stuffy image, but certainly Antanas Mockus is not one of these.
During his two (non-consecutive) terms as mayor (he stepped down after his first term but made himself eligible for re-election in 2000) his innovative solutions to the city’s problems reduced the homicide rate by 70% and the traffic fatality rate by over 50%. Homicides were 80 per 100 000 in 1993 and dropped to 22 per 100 000 by 2003. Stars were painted on the roads where pedestrians were killed by impatient Latin drivers. Road fatalities dropped by around 1300 per year to 600. Water consumption dropped thanks partly to a TV campaign where he was shown showering , then switching the water off before soaping himself, only switching on the water again to rinse the soap off. This simple gesture reduced water consumption by 14% within two weeks. Combined with various other water saving incentives, a 40% reduction was achieved .
He had 420 mimes dress up and take to the street to monitor road users. They showed through gestures whether the city’s drivers were being sensible or selfish. Motorists who failed to abide by traffic rules were gently mocked instead of fined. Those who did the right thing were applauded.
During his two tenures as mayor (1995-1997 and 2001-2003) drinking water was supplied to all homes in the city (up from 79%) and sewerage to 95% (from 71%). Encouraged to pay a voluntary extra 10% tax (and we all know how difficult it can be to raise money for bureaucracy), 63000 residents in fact did so! This is an indication of the high approval which Mockus’ initiatives enjoyed.
In another revolutionary programme to show appreciation to the women of the city, three nights were set aside for them to enjoy some time off while their husbands stayed home to look after the kids. Naturally this programme was voluntary but many thousands of men gladly did so. During these evenings, the city’s policewomen were in charge of city security and a woman was the honorary police chief.
The city distributed some 350 000 thumbs up and thumbs down cards which citizens could use to peacefully demonstrate their approval, or otherwise, of their fellow residents’ behaviour.
I applaud the way in which Antanas Mockus has used humour and “object lessons” to improve the attitudes, hearts and minds of the notoriously violent community which he referred to as “a 6.5 million person classroom”. He has this amazing knack of connecting with people and making them think how their actions affect themselves and others.
In 1998 and again in 2006 and 2010 he ran for President of Colombia. However, it is very difficult to achieve success on a national stage without being a willing part of the Establishment and the corrupt lobbying that so often goes with it.
Since completing his two mayoral terms he has travelled all over the world to speak about his unique brand of pacifism and he was invited to speak at Harvard University about Democracy from Theory to Practise. He also spoke at the University of Virginia.
To him, knowledge is power and enables people to make informed decisions that benefit themselves as well as those around them. As an “anti-politician” his honesty and his willingness to acknowledge his own shortcomings has endeared him to the city he loves best.
Certainly the way Antanas Mockus goes about things is not the “neurotypical” way as he is truly able to think out of the box. We need more people of his honesty and calibre, whom are unfortunately a rare species. If only more politicians took a few leaves from his book and used them in their own cities and communities, the attitudes of many would change, slowly but surely. Not everyone likes his message, but they respect it.