South Africa: Women Make a Living Picking Through Scrap Metal

27 February 2020

"It's amazing what valuable pieces one can find ... Maybe one day l will even find gold"

Between Germiston and Benoni is an open metal dump where more than 20 women survive by collecting scrap metal. Daily they pick through heaps of metal waste dumped by companies on the East Rand, looking for copper, stainless steel, zinc and brass.

There are no ablution facilities and the women have to use the bush to change into working clothes, to freshen up after the day's scrap collecting, or to relieve themselves.

For hours they sit at different spots on top of heaps of scrap. With their bare hands they dig through the scrap to gather whatever they can sell for cash at the nearest scrapyard. Some sit in groups of three or four, chatting while they work. Others prefer to sit alone.

A typical day begins as early as 6:30am.

Aida Mainda says, "Passersby often stare at our greasy clothes and faces when we work ... But when I put on my makeup to go and shop in town, no one can even tell that I've earned the money fishing through a dirty scrap heap."

Mayamiko Gonan, from Malawi but now living in Boksburg, scrutinises each item of scrap, then sorts it into 20-litre plastic containers.

"It's amazing what valuable pieces one can find in this heap. Maybe one day l will even find gold," she laughs.

"Gone are the days when I used to worry about breaking my nails or my hands becoming rough. What's the use when what matters is making money?" she says.

Gonan did domestic work but couldn't make ends meet. A friend showed her the dump six months ago and she has been going there since. On a good day she can make R150.

Lina-Marie Shongo, from Mozambique and now staying in an informal settlement in Benoni, has been collecting scrap since September last year. She used to have a fruit and vegetable stand.

"Collecting scrap has changed my life. As a fruit and veg vendor l never used to make much. But now I have gained respect from my family because l am able to put food on the table," she says. "Here copper is like gold. Filling two or three buckets makes my day."

At first she could not tell the difference between metals, but the other women taught her.

Joyce Morau is South African. She started as a scrap collector, picking through the dump site, but now she buys the load of scrap metal from trucks brought to the dump by firms she knows, and she employs nine women to sort through it for her.

"People made fun of me when l started off as a scrap picker. They said I should look for something better to do, but now I am a business owner employing other people," says the single mother of five.

Morau pays her employees R80 to R100 a day and sells the scrap to big yards in Benoni.

"Sometimes the dump runs dry and we wait for trucks to come with material. If more metal companies come and dump here it can make our lives easier. The government should support our project by providing us with toilets and fencing our area so that women working here can feel safe," she says.

Women working for Joyce Morau sort through a truck load of scrap metal which she has bought.

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