69-year-old woman scrap collector sleeps by the roadside

Eastern Cape women spend weeks on the road collecting ferrous metals

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Photo of a woman
Mbungwa Mkoki with the scrap metal she has collected. Her arms were burnt while burning the metal, she says. Photo: Yamkela Ntshongwana

On the busy R61 road, between Lusikisiki and Port Saint Johns, Nomvalo village has become home to a number of women who sleep out in the open. They wait for a truck to take them to a company in Isipingo, Durban, where they can sell the scrap metal they have been collecting.

Nowelile Latakisa, 64, and her 34-year-old daughter Zimasa Latakisa are among the scrap collectors. They take turns going to Durban to sell it.

Mbungwa Mkoki is 69. “We sleep here on the roadside for weeks. We are at risk … [but] we cannot leave our scrap metal here because some people with bakkies might steal it,” she says.

Their children bring them food in the late afternoon. They wash in a nearby stream.

“Even though I am old, I am still forced to bring food to the table for my children. None of my older children is working,” says Mkoki.

Mkoki gathers old tins, zinc sheets, any scrap metal or iron she can find.

She sells the metal to The Reclamation Group, where she says “everything is put on a weighing machine”.

The women burn the scrap metal for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to GroundUp. Recently, Mkoki got burnt in the process. Her face was burnt, hurting her eyes, and her arms are still bandaged.

“We don’t make much money. Sometimes you come back with a maximum of R1,200.” Mkoki says she has to pay for the truck to Isipingo out of this. She also hires a bakkie to take her to Port St Johns where she can collect discarded cans. These costs can be R650. So she still depends on her social grant.

If it is raining, the women sometimes stay with Vuyani Mdlazi, a man who owns a brick home he built within sight of their piles of scrap metal beside the road. He has six children to look after, so he charges the women R10 a night to sleep on mattresses on the floor.

“I saw these struggling women sleeping outside in the cold. I pitied them. On the following day I went to them and had a chat with them about their business,” says Mdlazi.

The women say they can end up camping for up to three weeks waiting for a truck.

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