Friday, September 7, 2012

Rescued from the trash-heap

 This is a true story but to protect the person concerned's identity and spare him further humiliation, we won't publish his name. But let's call him Thomas, so it makes the story easier to tell.
 1994 was a watershed year in South Africa's history. Nelson Mandela was elected the country's first democratically-elected president and millions of people looked forward to what they believed, would be a better, brighter future, filled with opportunities.
 Thomas, aged 34, at the time, left his small village near Mafikeng and journeyed to the bright lights of Johannesburg and the Reef where he hoped to find work. His travels took him to Randfontein where he did indeed find a job but, soon after, lost it. Illiterate and with no skills, he was unable to find any other employment, quickly ran out of money and had nowhere to live.
 This was how he ended up at the Randfontein Landfill site, the place where the town dumps its garbage. Around 350 people live there permanently, in hovels they construct from whatever materials they can scrounge amongst the garbage. That number swells to approximately 850 during the day, when people from the nearby township come to pick through the detritus, salvaging glass, metal, plastic and paper that is sold to recyclers.

Filthy, back-breaking work

 It's tough, filthy, back-breaking work and competition between the scavengers is fierce.
 "Every time Thomas built a shack he would return to find it either burned down or stolen," says Carryou, Programme Manager, Kenneth Malepe, "and at some stage he suffered a stroke and had no option but to live in the bushes near the dump site.
 "He had no identification documents or even a record of his birth."
 That effectively meant, in the eyes of the authorities, Thomas did not exist. Without papers he could not receive a government disability or social welfare grant.
 "We got to hear of Thomas's plight because Carryou is involved in a program to help the people at the landfill site," says Malepe. "Amongst other things we run a feeding scheme.
 "Thomas told us his greatest desire was to go back home and, because we are committed to doing whatever we can to reunite families, we decided to assist.
 "There was no record of his birth but we managed to track down his baptismal certificate which will help him eventually get an identity document."
 All was then in place to take Thomas home and everyone held thumbs that his family would still be there and would welcome him into their homes.
 "It turned out to be more difficult finding the house where he lived, than we initially thought," says Malepe. "But eventually we found his uncle's home.
He rushed to call Thomas's brother, who, when he saw his sibling, was overcome with emotion and burst into tears.
 "It was emotional and joyful, all at the same time," says Malepe, "and Thomas was immediately accepted. When we left, his family promised they would take care of him."

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