Your trash – their cash

2011-08-06 15:48

Filth is Tobias Chauke’s business. Clad in a hospital gown and sporting a flashy ­earring, Chauke mines the Kwaggasrand waste site near ­Pretoria.

The 24-year-old earns between R14 000 and R25 000 a month – by extracting wealth from these loathsome mountains of filth.

His business assets include a heavy-duty scale, calculator, trailer – and a labourer.

“That’s my boy,” he says, pointing to a hireling twice his age.

Chauke charges R2.50 per kilo of scrap steel. He has no shortage of buyers, he explains, but “ha ha, I can’t afford a diamond”.

The earring is “for me to look ­attractive”.

The trailer parked near him fills up with bits of steel surprisingly fast – an entire engine, steel coverings, angle iron all get placed in the back – ready to be resold.

His red-and-blue striped hospital gown, de rigueur rubbish dump couture salvaged from a consignment of local medical waste, serves as protection against cold and dirt.

Chauke is the Midas of the dump. But not its elected leader. This position belongs to 47-year- old Paul Mathe, a convicted thief out on parole.

“I was naughty, I stole, I changed,” he says.

Mathe presides over a strange world inhabited by 300 human scavengers. The place resembles bombed-out Berlin in a second world war movie – courtesy of the tons of black ash delivered by a neighbouring steel plant.

Some of the more finicky entrepreneurs wear rubber gloves and masks to protect their lungs.

The reckless ones patronise the restaurant in the heart of the site.

The cuisine served by the owners of this emporium include pap, runaways and other versions of meat, boiled peanuts and Ricoffy in enamel mugs. Patrons sit on plastic Coke crates.

If you manage to sidestep the gruesome spots in the piles of waste, you soon pick up the logic of the place.

People who earn a living here own open-air warehouses filled with the salvaged paper, bottles, steel or whatever they specialise in. The whole caboodle is governed by the law of property.

Recycling companies, Mathe explains, dispatch buyers and lorries to acquire what they fancy.

The price of plastic bottles is two bucks per kilo, empty milk bottles trade at R1.60 per kilo, cardboard at 50c a kilo and white ­paper at R1.50 a kilo.

Mathe is a white paper specialist. A dump is definitely not a “lekker” place to earn his bread, “but my wife and children must eat”.

Apart from earning about R600 a month by selling white paper, he also salvages a lot of treasures which he takes home.

This includes bicycles and other toys for his children, TV sets, ­radios and “pretty” tables.

He repairs and uses them in his squatter-camp abode near Saulsville. His prize find is a complete set of golf clubs in a classy bag.

Having caddied for ­well-known South African golfer David Frost many years ago, he is an ­aficionado of the sport himself.

These days he practises and plays in the veld on the south side of the dump.

“I love it,” he says.

“Can you find me a sponsor?”

As chairperson of the committee that oversees activities on the site, Mathe is the arbiter of disputes.

He was called from this interview by spectators of a disgraceful scene at the edge of the site, where two ladies store their supply of white paper in huge plastic bags.

The heavyweight furies, Bettie and Namzi, cornered a suspect ­after one of their bags disappeared overnight.

By the time Mathe ­arrived, the young man was going down in a hail of vicious kicks.

Larceny is not the worst fate that can befall people who work here.

“That’s where we found the bomb,” said Mathe, pointing at a pile of rubbish. “We put it under that tree and called the police. They sent a van to take it away.”

Not all the human beings ­toiling among the rubbish bags are permanent “recyclers”.

Sporting a bright red, clean headscarf, Joyce Nkanyane (44) said she was searching for some “mahala” foam rubber because “I want to do my pillow”. Her wish was granted.

Out of a black bag tumbled a sheet of the stuff. Joseph Kobeng, an Atteridgeville squatter-camp entrepreneur, arrived in his bakkie to buy a supply of relatively clean Coke bottles priced at 50c a bottle.

He fills them with milk which he buys for R8 a litre and delivers to his neighbours for R15.

The contents of the black rubbish bags are as appealing as the people who upend them. A weary suitcase spills scruffy size-nine stilettos, Bollywood movies and Hindu DVDs. Om Shanti Om. Guru.

The scavengers will no doubt find some way of recycling or selling the bounty .?.?.

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