By: Alice Stevenson
When I first arrived in South Africa at the beginning of January, the summer holidays were in full swing. The city was bustling, music was loud, energy was high, and, after a few red eye flights, I was feeling decently overwhelmed (fun fact: I was also so sweaty that I was 99% sure that the plane had been rerouted to the face of the sun). Here we are two months later and, though the holidays are over and everyone has returned back to work, that same fun-loving energy is still very much alive and significantly less anxiety-inducing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still learning how to cross the street without getting pummelled by a minibus and I am perpetually overheating. But Durban and its contagiously happy people have embraced me and made this world away from home feel comfortable.
Until the end of June, I’ll be working with the eThekwini Municipality here in South Africa. I don’t know what the next four months will hold, but the first two have been pretty eye opening. Within the municipality, I am working with iTrump, which is the inner Thekwini Regeneration and Urban Management Program. This program was established as a more permanent expansion of the Warwick Junction Project that was developed in 1995, a year after the end of apartheid. During apartheid, Warwick Junction was a transport hub for black people coming into the inner city from the surrounding townships for work. The Warwick area then began to see the appearance of markets where individuals could buy fresh produce, cosmetics, clothing, and whatever else they needed on their way home from work with their daily wages. Needless to say, this area and the markets were largely ignored in terms of basic service delivery and urban management. And that’s where iTrump came in. It sought, and still seeks, to increase economic activity, reduce poverty and social isolation, make the inner city more viable, effectively and sustainably manage the urban environment, improve safety and security, and develop institutional capacity. I’ve been thoroughly exposed to the Warwick Junction area and can safely say it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There is culture and tradition, social cohesion, art and music, cow heads, and live chickens. Through a strong commitment to community engagement and consultation with the thousands of informal traders, iTrump and the other relevant departments and stakeholders have taken immeasurable strides to enhance this area and embrace and support the informal economy. But there is still crime, severe poverty, and a palpable history of discrimination that demonstrates the work that still needs to be done.
So where do I fit in to all of this? In the first month, I did a lot of listening, wandering, and Googling. But now I’m working mainly on one project that supports the informal recyclers within the inner city. These recyclers spend the day pushing a trolley around the city and collect cardboard from businesses, households, and the streets. They then bundle it all up and sell it to buyback centres (which were established in the early years of iTrump), which then sell it to recycling companies. In addition to saving approximately 150 tons of recycled materials from going to landfills daily, the informal recyclers are creating a (relatively) viable form of income for themselves. The social, economic, and environmental benefits are immense. There are significant challenges, however, associated with being an informal recycler, including mistreatment by the police, an unpredictable income, and a lack of appropriate facilities to carry out their tasks. This project, then, seeks to right some of these wrongs by creating a “pick-up station” where the recyclers can bundle their cardboard safely, forming a reference group in which various departments come together to discuss relevant issues, and addressing the associated urban management issues in a sustainable manner. Easier said than done, of course, but with the wisdom and the perseverance of the amazingly passionate individuals involved, I’m sure this project will have a lasting effect.
I could probably write for days about Durban, but I’ll stop here (for now). So if you need me between now and July, I’ll be here working hard, inhaling salt water and drowning my instructor while attempting to surf, eating bunny chows aka the food I never knew I needed in my life, smiling and nodding when spoken to in Zulu, and having a pretty amazing experience overall.