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Cape Town - Nokhwezi Masakhana is at work at 6am. But her work doesn’t involve a desk and a telephone.
That’s because Nokhwezi works on the streets, collecting food and scrap materials from rubbish bins to ensure her and her family’s survival.
She and husband Mnyamezeli are a common sight on the streets of Mitchells Plain, their trolley stacked high with cans, plastic bottles and cardboard boxes.
There is some leftover macaroni cheese in one of the bins. Nokhwezi wipes away the ants covering it and says she’ll save it for their lunch.
Every weekday morning for the past five years the couple has pushed their trolley from their Philippi shack to Mitchells Plain to scavenge through rubbish bins, arriving before the refuse removal trucks.
It’s Wednesday morning, and that means it’s collection day in Lentegeur.
The Masakhanas are far from unique, with dozens in this area alone arriving early to rummage through the bins. Some have started even earlier, in a bid to get the “best” of what’s been tossed out.
People like this couple are a common sight to many Capetonians, who barely glance at them.
Nokhwezi, 41, and Mnyamezeli, 48, say they collect plastic, scrap metal or cardboard in their bid to take care of their four children, aged 13 to 21, all of whom are still at school. Leftovers found in the rubbish could be their lunch or supper for the day.
“We go through the bins and try to find whatever we can. Depending on the area and time of the month you can get some really good food, but what we want most is the recyclables so we can sell them for money,” Nokhwezi explains.
They earn an average of between R30 and R40 a day by turning over their “treasures” to a local scrapyard.
“It’s not a lot of money but we get by on it. We pay for whatever our children need for school, clothes, electricity and whatever else we need.
“Sometimes we do odd jobs here and there, but going through the bins is our main source of income and food,” she says.
They admit to having been embarrassed at first when they started sifting through bins, but “when you have children hungry at home, you quickly get over it”.
Knowing that so many people are having to do the same also consoles them.
The couple quickly comb through a few more bins before dashing off to the next road, always staying one step ahead of the approaching refuse truck.
Thursday is another rubbish collection day, this time in the city centre.
Here the work includes combing through the bins of malls and hotels.
“John”, who does not want to reveal his real name, needs the help of five of his friends to go through about 20 bins in one street.
He explains that they have met through their mutual “work” over the past 20 years, and decided to join forces by sharing the scrap they collected, giving themselves a better chance of survival.
The bins from a nearby hotel provide them with four bags of food.
“A good take for the day,” says John.
The men are in a rush to get through all the trash, not because of an approaching rubbish truck, but because the hotel security guards are not impressed with the idea of them leaving a mess in their wake.
John says the real reason they’re being chased away is because their scavenging is bad for business.
“We don’t really care, but because those bins are our lifelines, and as long as we do what they say, we can come back the next week.”
Their loot includes half-eaten microwave meals and DVDs along with pieces of cardboard and plastic.
The guard gives a last warning for John and his friends to leave. They grab their bags and head down the road.
They’ll take their earnings to a scrapyard in Woodstock.
At the time John said he was looking forward to the opening of Parliament, which took place on Thursday.
“They have the best food, and a lot of it is just thrown away.
“We just live off the scraps they leave behind.”