Johannesburg – Mimi Ngalula never imagined cardboard boxes, cans and bottles would save her five children from hunger during lockdown, but over the past four months, digging through Johannesburg’s trash cans has become her lifeline.
Ngalula, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is one of hundreds of people in the neighbourhood of Lorentzville who joined a project to exchange recyclables for a digital currency that they use to buy much-needed groceries.
Run through local charity Love Our City Klean (LOCK), the project gives recyclers a card with a unique barcode that is used to load their recycling points. They spend the points at a weekly “Swap Shop” on essentials like beans, soups and rice.
“I didn’t used to like recycling, but this taught us how to fish so we can feed ourselves,” said Ngalula, 42, as she sorted her cardboard haul at a makeshift depot in Lorentzville, a neglected suburb in the South African inner city.
“I don’t know what I would have done without this,” said Ngalula, who was a domestic worker until she was let go during the country’s coronavirus lockdown.
The nation-wide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus was announced in March and by April, 3 million South Africans had lost their jobs and one in five were going hungry, noted a survey by several South African universities.
Charities, businesses and the government have all launched feeding schemes, soup kitchens, community gardens and food voucher handouts to help feed the millions impacted by the lockdown.
But LOCK wanted to find a sustainable solution that let people receive food in a way that also empowered them.
In June, the charity’s co-founder Zwelihle Magwaza paired up with Makers Valley, a community-run project in Lorentzville, to create a recycling programme that would fight hunger and clean up the city at the same time.
LOCK sells the collected recyclable materials to bigger depots, or private buy-back centres, and that money is used to fund awareness campaigns and city clean-ups.
“I love Joburg,” said Magwaza in the reception of Victoria Yards, a former nappy factory that now acts as the Makers Valley headquarters, made up of art studios, community vegetable gardens, a clinic, the new recycling Swap Shop and more.
“We started this initiative because we see so much potential for the type of city Joburg could be,” Magwaza told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
City spokesman Nthatisi Modingoane said Johannesburg is also working to help feed hungry residents during lockdown.
People who have undergone a rigorous assessment to gauge their level of need are put on the “indigent register” of the city’s Department of Social Development, which qualifies them for monthly vegetable packs, Modingoane said.
“Foreign residents are included provided they are registered with valid documentation to be in the country,” he noted in emailed comments, adding that nearly 30 000 residents are on the register.
South Africa’s most recent government figures from 2016 show that about 3% of the population – or 1.6 million people – are foreign-born.
But estimates vary widely, and researchers say it is difficult to collect reliable numbers or to know how many people have proper documentation.
Magwaza said that of the 1 750 people who have registered with LOCK to become recyclers, about three-quarters are foreign nationals, and only half of those have proper documentation.
Several Swap Shop customers said the recycling scheme was the only food assistance they were receiving during lockdown. “Undocumented migrants fall through the cracks of government food aid, and food is a human right for everyone,” said Brittany Kesselman, a food security researcher.
But, she added, food relief is a short-term solution, as donations may dry up or demand for recycling from depots may decrease.
“In the long run, we need the government to regulate the food sector and make it accessible to those who can’t afford it,” said Kesselman.
“The recyclers are finding agency, which is great. But, at the same time, there is a need for bigger political and economic change to alter the circumstances in which communities undertake these kinds of initiatives.”
Swap Shop team leader Lerato Mamabolo, 33, organises the food and volunteers who distribute the goods every week.
“This pandemic has been tough,” she said, arranging the food donations neatly on the tables.
“But it has also made us a community.”
Every Friday, recyclers queue up outside the Makers Valley headquarters to spend their hard-earned points – mothers with babies strapped to their backs, limping grandmothers and tired toddlers trying to find shade from the blazing sun.
Myriad accents and languages can be heard in the line, with women from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the DRC all waiting to buy groceries with this new currency, the only one they can afford right now.
Many of the shoppers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they had left their countries because of civil unrest or in the hopes of finding better job opportunities in South Africa.
The diversity of the customers is mirrored in the Swap Shop team, made up of volunteers who speak nearly 20 different African languages to better serve the shoppers.
The donated groceries come from a range of charities and wholesalers who have excess food they cannot sell.
One bag of recyclable materials equals one point, and most recyclers gather about 35 points a week, which gets them a bag full of essential goods, said Mamabolo.
Thandeka Sibanyoni, 49, a recycler who was first in line at the shop that morning, pointed to the bag of vegetables she was going to buy.
“I am not sure if we would be alive without this,” she said.
“And look how clean our streets are,” Sibanyoni added, as she picked up her heavy grocery bag, said goodbye to her fellow recyclers and walked out onto the street.
* Thomson Reuters Foundation