The Star Early Edition

Yebo, a subculture of proud independen­ce

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We like to say we work for a living, but to the naked eye… well, what I do is sit for a living. My head allegedly churns but the only organ put to visible use is the seat of my butt. The car-guard stands for a living. The advocate talks for a living. Ditch-diggers and profession­al athletes spurt for a living – a bit of muscle stretch and a longer bit of resting on the spade.

Come then to the trash barrow jockeys, who ferret the bottles and cardboard and broken irons out of your bin before the Pikitup truck gets there. For work, these guys take the gold medal.

Constructi­ng their contraptio­n is work, proceeding from “found objects” like discarded (?) castor-trolleys and wire fencing and with fingers as tools building a barrow that’d fit a score of suitcases.

Getting to their supplier is work. Stake your turf, defend it, wrestle your unwieldy empty barrow there, sleep in a culvert.

Reaching the market is stunning work, hard-to-believe work.

You’ve seen these guys, dear reader, perhaps you’ve cursed a bit when your hundreds-horsepower vehicle is delayed behind their two-leg-power barrow, but perhaps you admired them simultaneo­usly.

Which is what I did until I took time out to look at their lives.

After sweating to manoeuvre a mere half-laden contraptio­n along a smooth flat road, my admiration lobe leapt into supercharg­e while the outta-my-way sentiment evaporated.

What got me started was a fleeting sight, one fellow’s barrow. In big black letters on blue plastic he’d written “DOING FINE WITHOUT YOU”.

This was a two-edged message. One edge was a large unmistakab­le middle finger addressed at the world of rates and taxes and insurance premiums and comforts. The other edge said “I make my way”.

How refreshing, in an era where outstretch­ed hands redouble. (My defence becomes a ferocious message to the local beggariat: “Those who ask get nothing! Those who don’t ask, sometimes get.”)

Mr Doing Fine alerted me that I’ve never known the Barrow Brigade ask for anything. Anything. Ever. I wondered: Is there a subculture here, a subculture of proud independen­ce?

So I went to check. I somehow expected a dim reception. I should know better. This is South Africa. Hospitalit­y reigns.

In a trash warehouse to dwarf a boeing hangar, forklifts zooming every way at all times, recycler managers Ricky and Zondi and Mtutuzeli burst with pride.

They don’t only pay taxes, they also shrink the city’s clean-up bill. And they’ve created South Africa’s newest profession, self-employed barrow contractor­s as the ideal answer to the jobs shortage.

They tell me the inside stories too, how you get to know who deals straight and who tries tricks like weighting their loads with water in concealed cardboard or stones sewn into their sacking.

The weigher, Ruth, cheerfully joshing with barrowmen, reckons no one gets offered more bribes than her – such as to define a load as “clear plastic bottles” at R3/kg rather than “assorted plastic bottles” at R2.

A raft of cameras helps her stay on the straight and narrow.

Up the street, a bunch of barrowers are at convivial rest, smoking something that didn’t come out of a factory. Vito, Cyrus and Bongani sound like a UN and have big dreams – respective­ly of going to university, of rising to employ a team of sub-barrowers, and of “going to school, which unfortunat­ely won’t happen because I am a drug addict”. Whoops and cheers break out. A barrow is coming down the hill – some 200kg of debris being steered like a skateboard, by a shirtless youth shrieking exultation.

A subculture of proud independen­ce? You bet.

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