The women who sleep next to the road, playing a risky scrap metal game

On the road, in a desperate attempt to earn a living, Vuyiswa Pikini collects scrap metal in Elliotdale and sells them in Durban. Picture: Lubabalo Ngcukana
On the road, in a desperate attempt to earn a living, Vuyiswa Pikini collects scrap metal in Elliotdale and sells them in Durban. Picture: Lubabalo Ngcukana

Vuyiswa Pikini, a mother of four, has been sitting on her pile of scrap metals for two days, trying to catch a lift from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape to Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, where she is hoping to sell her old scrap materials.

Armed with a blanket and a small cardboard sign with “ND” on it, indicating that she wants to go to Durban, the 55-year-old has spent the last two days along the N2 in Qunu, just opposite the home of late former President Nelson Mandela, hoping to catch a ride.

Pikini, one of the women who spend days sleeping next to the road, spoke of their daily struggles and the harsh economic conditions which have forced them to collect scrap metal in and around Mthatha, and then hitchhike to Durban to sell it.

She said she made about R2 200 the last time she went to Durban two weeks ago to sell her scrap metals, which she collects around Elliotdale, where she stays.

She said everything depended on how much factories paid for a kilogram in Durban, which changed from time to time.

“It’s not easy being a woman as you have to stay long hours on the side of the road and sometimes days and even weeks,” she said. “It is also an expensive exercise and we don’t really make much money. For instance, I paid R600 for a bakkie to take me from Elliotdale to Qunu [25km].

Man hitchhiker standing on a road. Adventure and t

“On top of that I have to pay R500 for a truck ride to Durban and another R250 for a taxi coming back from Durban to Mthatha. This means if I have made R2 200, the difference is what I am left with after all that trouble that I went through,” she said.

Pikini said she had, however, managed to support her family, which included two grandchildren, through the little money she made from collecting scrap metal.

Two other women, one in her late sixties and another in her late fifties, who did not want to be named because they were too embarrassed, said they had been collecting scrap metal for many years.

One of them, a retired teacher, said she was forced to join other women so as to make an honest living and feed her children and grandchildren.

She alleged that when she retired as a teacher she did not get enough to sustain her life throughout retirement.

“I started working as a teacher in 1971 but my pension was counted as though I started in 1990. So, it means all the other years before that government had robbed me of my money. I used my labour for nothing. I was a permanent teacher all those years but come out with nothing to show for it.

“I left the education department with peanuts when I retired in 2014. That is why I decided to collect these old things and sell them in Durban. It was not an easy decision but, what can one do? Our children have their own children and there are no jobs; someone has got to stand up.”

She described what she was doing as painful, that it was mostly women who were collecting these scrap metals and making the trip of almost 500km at the back of a truck, where it was dark and without chairs to sit on.

“Even the money we’re making here is not enough. For instance, someone like me comes from Ntsundwana in Ngqeleni [31km away] and you hire a bakkie for R1 200 to bring your load from there to Mthatha, then from here you go to Durban and the truck charges you another R500 for your load.

“When you reach Durban you might sleep another night outside the factory that buys these scrap metals, depending on the queue, then, if you are lucky, depending on the weight of the load, you can make up to R2 000,” she said.

She said they spent days and nights sleeping next to the road, covered only with blankets. She said it was unbearable in winter and even worse when it rained.

“We are also in danger of criminals because we spend the whole day and night here sleeping. We are at the mercy of those trucks which have travelled to Mthatha and East London to deliver, because when they return they are empty and they pick us up and drop us where we sell the metals near Isipingo in Durban.

“To illustrate how dangerous it can be, some time ago one lady was bitten by a snake inside the truck; it had been hiding inside the piles of scrap metal she had been carrying. They only discovered her lifeless body when they reached Durban,” she said.

The retired teacher said she had two adult children and five grandchildren to feed.

Another woman (59), from Ntlaza near Libode about 20km from Mthatha, said she had already spent R1 000 to hire a bakkie to take her to Mthatha where she was now waiting for a truck to Durban.

She said most of the time the trucks pick them up between 7pm and 8pm. They would sit there next to their scrap metals, taking turns to hold up the cardboard ND sign.

For me metal is not something dirty that I look at and just ignore. It is money.

The single mother of three and four grandchildren said it was worse if one arrived in Durban on a Saturday after 1pm, as the factory would already be closed, meaning they would have to sleep two nights outside next to their metal load, waiting for Monday, because the factory did not open on Sundays.

“I am collecting everything I see. For me metal is not something dirty that I look at and just ignore. It is money. But at the same time, if you look at it, we are also helping to clean the environment,” she said.

Sonwabo Mampoza, King Sabata Dalindyebo municipality spokesperson, said the Mthatha-based council was aware of the situation of those collecting scrap metals.

He explained that “The municipality is looking at ways they can be assisted in doing their business smarter, and also looking at inclement weather conditions and their safety, in terms of how they can be helped to improve their conditions and plight.”


What would be a better way for these women to earn a living from the scrap metal, or otherwise?

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