To eat or not to eat the cow: That is the question  

As the world creeps closer to climate crisis D-day, will a moo-ve to a plant-based diet really make a difference 

Old MacDonald had a farm, Ee i ee i oh… And on his farm he had some cows, Ee i ee i oh. With drastic effects on land here, and drastic effects on air there… Here some CO2, there some methane too, everywhere a moo-moo. Old MacDonald had a farm, Ee i ee i oooh.

Nursery rhymes, they say, have hidden meanings. They are a form of satire; folk songs used to tell, subversively, tales of historical events and the (often) bad people who brought them on.  Are these going to be the songs we share with the children of our questionable future? The truth is, no run-on line or rhyming couplet will ever be able to depict the devastation we see today in the throes of climate change

There can be no denying that planet earth is on fire. Eye-witness accounts of the devastation caused by the crisis are becoming more numerous by the day. Floods, cyclones, tornadoes, extreme weather patterns, famine, drought and increasing species extinction are all in evidence. In 2022 we are living in what climate scientists decades ago painted as a worst-case scenario.

To the average person, assuming responsibility in tackling the issue can be overwhelming. Something every individual on the planet shares is the need for food. What people are consuming, however, has and will continue to have a disastrous effect. It is here the solution may lie. If every individual can take responsibility for their eating habits and switch to a more climate-friendly diet, a real difference might be viable.

“I do not think the answer is in getting the big guys to change. People need to stop being passive consumers,” says food systems researcher and business strategist Michele Sohn. Therefore one must ask:  ”To eat the cow, or not to eat the cow?”

Why the cow? For Old MacDonald, back in pre-industrial days, cattle and other livestock used for food may not have been the biggest issue, but in the 21st century they seem to be a leading cause of climate change.  A 2009 study by Scientific American concluded: “Worldwide meat production (beef, chicken and pork) emits more atmospheric greenhouse gases than do all forms of global transportation or industrial processes.” A study published in 2013 in the South African Journal of Animal Science said, “Cattle are a major source of methane emissions from the livestock sector in South Africa, contributing approximately 72.6% of the total livestock greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The livestock greenhouse effect occurs in two ways. The first is in their feed, which requires year-round cultivation of land. This means trees and grasses that absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) are not given a chance to be grown. The second is the methane released by the animals in their waste and as they digest their food.  

The more humans consume these animals and their products, the greater the demand to raise and farm them, which leads to higher need for land. In a 2018 study by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek, an estimation of emission per serving of different foods was made, and the results were staggering. Beef has the biggest carbon footprint, while non-animal products such as beans and nuts seem to have little to no emission. 

conducted a two-week experiment that tracked emissions from vegans, vegetarians and omnivores. The results revealed that: vegan CO2e emissions per week were 9.9kg (equivalent to 39.6km driven in a petrol-powered car, or 1 204 smartphones charged); vegetarian CO2e emissions per week were 16.9kg (67.4km driven in a petrol-powered car, or 2 056 smartphones charged); and omnivore CO2e emissions per week were 48.9kg (194.7km driven in a petrol-powered car, or 5 948 smartphones charged).

Software developer and vegan Hanno Brink told Wits Vuvuzela, “I always used to think vegans were people who ‘cannot face the real world’, but I now realise I was the one not facing the brutal reality of the consequences of my actions.”

It seems this food choice is attached to a lot more than some animal-loving form of protest. The diet holds real benefits environmentally, financially and nutritionally, but how viable is it in South Africa?  

There has been a rise in vegan culture in South Africa over the past few years and plant-based brands are pulling in significant numbers in the South African market. South Africa is one of the top 30 countries where veganism is most popular, according to Google trends. According to Uber Eats, the country is fifth largest in the world in vegan takeaway orders. 

A 2021 study conducted in the journal of Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems found the likelihood of consumers in South Africa adopting plant-based and cultivated meat as a pathway to a healthy, sustainable and equitable food supply was quite high. Sixty percent of born-frees, 62% of millennials and 53% of Gen X were highly likely to purchase plant-based meat. Fifty-five percent of born-frees, 55% of millennials and 46% of Gen X were highly likely to purchase cultivated meat. The study concluded, “Both plant-based and cultivated meat could be viable market-based options for improving the food system in South Africa.”

From an economic perspective, being vegan is not so straight-forward. In South Africa food security is a daunting issue. According to a 2020 report by Stats SA, nearly 23,6% of South Africans had moderate to severe food insecurity, while almost 14,9% experienced severe food insecurity.  Jessica Lazar, a registered dietitian at The Green Dietitian, told Wits Vuvuzela, “If someone is food insecure and they are vulnerable to malnutrition, they do not have a choice over what they eat; they can only eat what is available and affordable to them. We need to work to combat food security and malnutrition before we can have the privilege to decide what type of diet we want to live by, because it really is a privilege.”

Veganism has been through a bit of a greenwash over the past few decades. What was initially a clean and relatively cheap lifestyle turned into “a trend that companies and brands jumped on and used as a marketing tool”. Lazar says a lot of products are expensive, but a basic vegan diet made up of grains, fruits, vegetables and oils is not expensive; it is actually cheaper than animal products.

“I always used to think vegans were people who ‘cannot face the real world’, but I now realise I was the one not facing the brutal reality of the consequences of my actions.”

Nutrition-wise, Lazar says veganism can be a helpful diet meeting all nutritional needs. “I do not think it’s valid to say veganism is the healthiest or is healthier than any other diet patterns, but it is among the healthiest,” she says. “Cutting down animal products and replacing them with more plant food is a healthy way to live.”

Dalya Gerson, also a registered dietitian, disagrees. “You are not really living a healthy lifestyle being a vegan because you are losing out on the key nutrients (specifically B12, which can be found only in animal products, fortified foods and supplements) that you should be getting,” Gerson says. ”I would not necessarily say a vegan diet is healthier than a Mediterranean diet.”

Arabella Parkinson, who has a master’s in sustainable development and is a food consultant and vegan chef, told Wits Vuvuzela, “I am not an advocate of a fully vegan diet, because a lot of the time people tend to sacrifice the healthier side of things because veganism is so strict, people tend to eat junk food based on the fact that its vegan rather than it being healthy. It is a very strict way of eating, and to do it properly you need a lot of time, energy resources and access to a variety of healthy, good food.”

Most of the people Wits Vuvuzela spoke to mentioned culture as a point of contention. Food is an emotional aspect of people’s lives and it is often difficult for people to change the way they eat, especially when it is embedded in indigenous cultures, says Parkinson. Lazar adds, “We need to respect culture specifically around food. Usually meats are used for celebrations, not daily consumption. A solution could be if we say, ‘change your daily diets and leave the meat for the bigger events’.” She notes, however, that a plant-based diet is nothing new to many Africans, who for centuries have been living off fruit- and vegetable-bearing lands.

From an agricultural perspective, Heinz Meissner, an adviser to the dairy and meat industries, told Mail & Guardian in a 2019 article that South Africa is complex when it comes to production of fruit and vegetables. “Just 12% of the country has the right mixture of soil and water to grow crops, whereas livestock can live on marginal land,” he says. A lot of water is mostly used for high-value crops such as grapes, citrus, avocados, nuts and blueberries, and these are usually exported overseas. Meissner says the resources needed for optimal crop growth that would suit veganism throughout the country ”will not be used for grains, vegetables and fruit production to feed the population”.  

The department of agriculture also seems to side with the meat. In June 2022 it threatened the vegan industry with a ban and seizure of all foodstuffs not in line with Agricultural Product Standards Act regulations. This includes that if it is not processed meat in a packet, it cannot be labelled as such. This caused a stir, as renaming products would have been economically crippling to producers, Daily Maverick reported.   

South Africa’s relationship with the meat industry is very complicated, says Parkinson. “The meat and dairy industries are huge and subsidised and have a lot of bargaining power,” she says. In a 2022 op-ed for Daily Maverick, Jason Bell, a researcher at the Centre for Competition Regulation and Economic Development, says, “The market power that [the meat and dairy] industries possess was facilitated and has continued to be supported by government subsidies, protection and support to ensure that these industries survive competition and shocks.” He adds that the vegan industry’s growth threatens the meat and dairy industries’ market power; thus, regulations such as that mentioned above were implemented.

Parkinson tells Wits Vuvuzela it is about planting and producing fruit, vegetables and grains that are seasonal and indigenous to the country. She says plants such as sorghum and beans, which are superfoods, are highly nutritious, resilient to terrain and climate, affordable to grow and buy and do well with little water.

To make a change we must learn to eat the rainbow. We don’t need to buy expensive fruits and vegetables, even growing your own garden can make a massive difference.  Photo: Elishevah Bome 

Sohn says if government and farming corporations do not come to the party, the South African public can and must take it into their own hands: “It’s about consumers becoming producers. Everyone should grow something, either in their own backyard or in a community garden.” According to Stats SA, fewer than 20% of households were involved in agricultural production of food between 2017 and 2020.  Sohn further says, “We need more urban farmers to grow organic food close to where people live, and to buy from small local farmers.”

Parkinson and Sohn bring up regenerative growing practices. “If the farming sectors could shift the way they produce the meat to [these] farming techniques, they can also have a positive impact on reducing the effects of climate change,” says Parkinson, adding that the meat and dairy farming industries will not just disappear. With regenerative farming, animals graze in rotation and help pull carbon back into soil. This strengthens resilience against climate change, droughts and floods. By doing so, meat will be produced in a better way. 

So to the question of ”to eat the cow or to not eat the cow”, it can be derived from the people Wits Vuvuzela consulted that there is no clear answer. What is clear, however, is that climate change is exacerbated by the meat and dairy industries. Lazar says, “At the end of the day we cannot get everyone to be vegan, but if one million people cut down on meat it will make more impact than if a couple of hundred thousand go fully vegan.”

Parkinson echoes this, saying that two to three percent of South Africans are vegan and the global trends of meat consumption are growing only in lower-income countries. ”I believe we do not need everyone to be vegan, but we do need people to eat less meat,’’ she says. She encourages campaigns such as Meat Free Monday and Sustainable Sunday.

Sohn says, ”The trick is not to be too purist about it; to eat beyond labels. Eat more veg, more fruit, less chemicals, less preservatives and, if possible, less meat.’’

Old MacDonald had a farm, Ee i ee i oh. And on his farm he had some cows, Ee i ee i oh. With some moderation here and a meat-free Monday there, here some fruit, there some veg, now a controlled moo-moo… Old MacDonald may still have a farm in 2030, Ee i ee i oh.

FEATURED IMAGEThe growth of the vegan industry in South Africa may be a solution to the climate crisis, but is cutting out the cow the remedy? Photo: Elishevah Bome


Water scarcity leaves residents reeling

by Busisiwe Mdluli | October 24, 2022

A long-standing water crisis in Johannesburg affecting areas such as Brixton, Hursthill and Crosby has resulted in residents being dependent on roaming water tanks and filling up buckets with water from taps for their daily activities.

On September 26, 2022, Johannesburg Water released a media statement that announced a power failure at Rand Water’s purification works. High demand for water resulted in Johannesburg Water’s infrastructure being at critically low levels as storage capacity decreased from 52% to 38%. Rand Water, being a bulk supplier to Johannesburg Water, announced stage-two water restrictions in Gauteng on October 4, 2022.

The Brixton reservoir supplies water to Brixton and Mayfair West. When there is little water in this reservoir, these two areas suffer. Wumi Adekunle, a hair stylist from Brixton, said her business is negatively affected when there is a shortage of water. “When the client comes, you [cannot] wash their hair. You [cannot] do anything, even to relax the hair. You [have] to use water to rinse the hair and you have to rinse thoroughly,” she said.

Adekunle added that when there is no water, she loses out on generating profit. When a roaming water tank is dispatched to the area, Adekunle gathers two buckets of water. She explained that this process is long and inconvenient.

Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital in Coronationville, near Brixton, is also hit by water scarcity. The acting CEO of the hospital, Dr Arthur Manning, said that due to water shortages the hospital has had a problem with flushing toilets. “There has been limited access to flushing toilets in the outpatient sections. This has caused inconvenience as staff and patients were directed to other facilities to use toilets. Manual flushing of toilets using buckets was required in a small section of the hospital.”

Despite this inconvenience, Manning said the hospital has been supplied with water tankers from Johannesburg Water and the hospital makes use of an on-site borehole. In addition, the hospital has received donations of water. Manning also said, “Portable toilets were hired for usage in some patient areas. The estimated cost of contingency plans amounts to R100 000.”

A resident of Mayfair West, Shazia Mamdoo, expressed her concerns about the water crisis. Mamdoo said water shortages had been occurring for more than five years in the area. She also stated that she would boil water to wash dishes and take baths. She said boiling water has an impact on their electricity bill, due to increased usage of the kettle. In relation to taking baths, Mamdoo’s husband, Nazeer Mamdoo, usually wakes up each day at 5am but has to wake an hour earlier to boil water and bath in a bucket to save water. Shazia’s daughter, Sumaya Mamdoo, said she would take her baths at the homes of family members with adequate water supply.

A man washes his hands at a tap in Crosby, Johannesburg. Photo: Busisiwe Mdluli

To cope with water scarcity, Shazia Mamdoo installed a Jojo tank in her yard. The cost of a Jojo tank ranges between R2 000 and R5 000 and an additional expense may come from installing the tank and plumbing it. Mamdoo said although the tank may not necessarily be affordable to some, it may grant one “peace of mind”. Mamdoo is also assisted by community WhatsApp groups that communicate when water shortages will occur, and access to boreholes and roaming water tanks. Before water shortages occur, Mamdoo fills buckets of water from the tap for domestic use, as water from a Jojo tank collects rainwater that cannot be used for drinking and food preparation.

There are various contributing factors to water scarcity, and high demand is one of them. Mamdoo believes two contributing factors that result in water scarcity are overpopulation and underdeveloped infrastructure. In Mayfair West, Mamdoo said, there are many people living on one property. Some homeowners have built rooms on their property and rented them out. This has caused a strain on the scarce water resource. Mamdoo said, “The infrastructure has not been upgraded with the population in this area…. If there was a much bigger system, a holding system to hold the water, [the issue would not be so dire].”

Johannesburg Water has established projects to address the water crisis in Brixton, Hursthill and Crosby. These include a new Brixton reservoir, tower and pump station, new Rand Water supply line, reconfiguration of the Crosby reservoir and a new Crosby pump station. According to the projects and infrastructure manager at Johannesburg Water, Nqobezitha Ndimande, these projects may take about four years to complete. The estimated cost of the projects is R326 million.

The councillor for Brixton, Hursthill and Crosby, Bridget Steer, said the implementation of new reservoirs is “something that we have been fighting for since 2016. These projects to augment supply to [these areas] are long overdue.”

A borehole and water tank in Crosby, Johannesburg provide water for residents during water shortages. Photo: Busisiwe Mdluli.

The spokesperson for the department of water and sanitation, Sputnik Ratau, argued that the department and government are trying by all means to address water scarcity in South Africa. He said the government is trying to raise the walls of dams to increase storage capacity and provide more water to citizens. According to Ratau, the dams that are yet to see an increase in their wall structure include Hazelmere Dam, Tzaneen Dam and Clanwilliam Dam.

Ratau said the government is looking at the process of desalination. Desalination is the process of removing salt from oceans so that individuals may be able to use the water for drinking purposes, but the process is costly.

As stated previously, water scarcity has a variety of contributing factors and may also be caused by climate change, which is a result of a large increase of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere. The increase of heat warms the earth in an unnatural way, which ultimately alters weather patterns over a long period of time (Joubert 2008 and Matuszewska 2009).

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but many do not understand the term, along with the consequences associated with it. Associate professor of physical geography in the school of geography, archaeology and environmental studies, Jennifer Fitchett, said climate change is often viewed as a future problem. She said climate change is not publicised sufficiently or presented to the public in a manner that is understandable.

“There has been limited access to flushing toilets in the outpatient sections. This has caused inconvenience as staff and patients were directed to other facilities to use toilets. Manual flushing of toilets using buckets was required in a small section of the hospital.”

Fitchett said only a small proportion of climate change is included in geography school textbooks. She believes a way to educate people about climate change would be through expanding information about climate change and its consequences more extensively in the school curriculum. “If we can weave [climate change] into all of our school curriculums, [students can learn about climate change] in English [if] they are reading stories that involve climate. In Mathematics [they can] solve problems that involve climate change. That would be a very good way to ensure there is a more educated population.”

The relationship between climate change and water scarcity is established through rising temperatures, evaporation and low precipitation. When there are extremely high temperatures, water evaporates at a much quicker speed and water may be lost. Ratau said, “[South African] dams are very flat and wide so the surfaces lend themselves to a high rate of evaporation that unfortunately is something we should live with. The issue of climate change is a reality.”

Spring has sprung in South Africa and the country has experienced heat waves in all provinces. According to Accuweather (2022), in the month of October 2022, maximum temperatures in all provinces range from 25°C to 38°C. In November 2022, maximum temperatures are expected to range between 26°C and 34°C. In December 2022, maximum temperatures are expected to range from 26°C to 35°C in all provinces. Provinces with the highest temperatures include Limpopo, Northern Cape, Free State, North West and Mpumalanga. “When you have a heat wave, you are going to have huge demand because people need water to cool down,” Ratau said.

Hardy (2003) predicted that rising temperatures and low levels of precipitation may cause water scarcity or shortages. Moreover, climate change may influence the supply of water as changes in the earth’s climate may essentially alter the availability of usable water. For example, in a case of flooding water may be contaminated with bacteria, industrial or agricultural waste, sewage and chemicals (Vermont department of health, 2022).

Water is a critical element of life. Water scarcity may result in a number of consequences, such as the demise of fauna and flora, dehydration of humans, reduced sanitation, food supply and agriculture, economic instability as businesses require water for their daily operations and conflict among individuals may arise for the scarce commodity. According to Unicef (2020), approximately four billion people experience severe water scarcity for one month each year and half of the world’s population could be residing in regions that experience water scarcity as early as the year 2025.

In Johannesburg, daily minimum and maximum temperatures are predicted to increase between 2046 and 2065. Minimum temperatures from January and March are predicted to increase to 2-2,7°C, whereas minimum temperatures form April to December are expected to increase to 3,5°C (City of Johannesburg 2008, Golder Associates Africa 2008 and Matuszewska 2009). From 2070 to 2100, minimum summer temperatures will increase between 1 and 3°C whereas minimum winter temperatures will increase between 1 and 2°C. Maximum summer temperatures are likely to increase between 3 and 4°C and maximum winter temperatures between 2 and 4°C.

Rainfall patterns between 2070 and 2100 for Johannesburg are predicted to increase by 20% between December and February. However, rainfall between March and May is likely to decrease by approximately 30%. Rainfall between June and August could possibly increase by 5-10mm. September may experience a decrease in rainfall of between 40% and 80%. However, an increase of 40% may happen in November (City of Johannesburg 2008, Golder Associates Africa 2008, Matuszewska 2009).

Water scarcity in South Africa is a critical issue that has plagued the country, but what can contribute to the detriment of this already strained resource is water pollution. Dr Heidi Richards, a director at the Centre for Water Research and Development at Wits University, believes water scarcity can be addressed through tackling pollution, because it is costly for heavily polluted water to be treated.  Richards said there is a large number of informal settlements along the edges of river systems. These river systems include the Jukskei River and Hennops River in Johannesburg.
According to News 24 (2019), The Jukskei is heavily polluted with bacteria that causes cholera, plastics, metal and rubber. The Hennops River was found to also have plastics, condoms, bags, beer crates and dirty nappies (Infrastructure News 2020). Richards said there is a lack of sanitation systems in these informal settlements that would serve to remove solid waste. She also said, “When people have no other option, unfortunately, they start illegally dumping and throwing their waste into the river because it is the easiest way. [Communities] need municipalities and local government structures to come on board. Our national department should be aware of this so that people have alternatives [to dispose of waste].”

Richards also said, “Pollution on a larger scale is the cause of climate change [due to] gasses being produced during these manufacturing processes and burning of fuels.” She said various individuals are unaware of the impacts of pollution, therefore people need to be educated about it through educational systems. She said Wits needs to conduct more outreach campaigns in schools that are centred on pollution. This may help students understand the consequences of pollution extensively and what can be done to prevent pollution.

As a measure to tackle water scarcity, Ratau encouraged South Africans to stop polluting water. He also said the department of water and sanitation intends to hold people to account for polluting water. People may be held accountable by facing criminal charges. In an effort to govern the use of water, Ratau said, water licenses may be issued to individuals who use large amounts of water for economic gain. This could regulate the amount of water being used. An additional solution that may also be critical is to educate individuals about climate change, water scarcity and the importance of saving water.

FEATURED IMAGE: Residents of Crosby collect water from a tap during one of Johannesburg’s water shortages. Photo: Busisiwe Mdluli 


Alexandra residents live on the edge of a health hazard

Dump sites come back to bite the residents of Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, as air-borne and vector-borne diseases rise and living conditions deteriorate. 

 Construction rubble piled up in a heap, 

disused household items and office furniture,  

branded cardboards ripped out of their commercial life, 

crinkled-up paper carrying designs of ink from one end to another.  

Empty takeaway containers greased with oil from an indulged meal,  

plastic and glass bottles weighted by the last drops of fizzy beverages in all their funky colours. 

All of this basking in the sun as though waiting to restore their purpose… 

This is and has been the back-yard view of thousands of residents living in Alexandra township, proudly referred to as Alex or Gomora, north of Johannesburg, for several years. Within 10 minutes of riding the Gautrain from Park Station, many privileged people overlook this toxic wasteland from the comfort of an air-conditioned express commuter train shunting through a system worth more than R30 billion. 

If lucky, one can even spot an element of the waste cycle in action. It’s either a resident throwing out a bucket filled with rubbish without a second thought, or a truck offloading construction rubble and industry debris right outside the rusty shacks as children, some as young as two years old, play on the dumps.

Depending on what time of day it is, one could also watch as a scattered group of recyclers sifts through waste to collect what will be their bread and butter at the end of the week or month. These are normalised day-to-day activities in the informal settlements of Setswetla, Jukskei View and the new EFF settlement.

The dire state of dump-living 

Densely packed shacks in these settlements now form a guard of honour on the banks of the waste-clogged Jukskei, the narrow 50km-long river feeding the Hartbeespoort dam in North West. Nurtured by apartheid spatial planning, Sandton (Africa’s richest square mile) neighbours one of the continent’s poorest communities, while the ever growing waste in illegal dumping sites remains unacknowledged. An area of 144km2 in Sandton is home to 220 000 people, as found by the 2011 census report, while 180 000 people occupy the land in Alex’s 6.8km2 – which means every square kilometre houses about 26 000 people. Simply put, one Sandton resident has the same sized space as 17 Alex residents.  

“When we started working on cleaning the river and its banks in August 2021, the river was flowing. It does not anymore [it’s clogged with rubbish].”

This inequality, South African human rights commissioner Philile Ntuli contends, is “continually reproduced and sustained [by] the apartheid social and political order [as] the hostels, ghettos and tight corners are an endless confrontation with colonial perceptions of the incompetence and sub-humanity of African people”. To date, the sub-humanity Ntuli speaks of explicitly plays out in two ways: trucks unloading building rubble right outside people’s houses in Alex, when the nearest construction site from which it is collected is in Sandton; and the multitude of municipal service shortcomings. These shortcomings include raw sewage, poor sanitation, inadequate housing and abundant refuse that is neither collected nor catered for with the provision of refuse bags and containers. This is according to a SA Human Rights Commission report prompted by the township’s “devastating” service delivery protests in 2019.  

During these protests, former Gauteng premier David Makhura promised to urgently stop the building of “illegal structures” – people’s houses being made of concrete palisades or rusty corrugated metal sheets. Typically, this call for an urgent halt to illegal land occupation was not accompanied by strategies for the housing backlog, which has persisted since the early 2000s when the township began seeing an influx of residents. 

Not only have things remained largely unchanged, but more people have occupied the vacant land near illegal dumping sites. This has brought on the growth of the illegal dumping economy. On the day Wits Vuvuzela visited the area in October 2022, truckers could be seen unloading waste and then paying an unemployed male resident R50 to unpack the waste, shovel it out and dump it in the Jukskei River. All the while, patient waste recyclers watched, marking their next haul which they would attempt to rescue from drowning.

The newest settlement in Alexandra stretches across the river from Jukskei View. Photo: Keamogetswe Matlala

Making a living from the dump 

For waste recycler Seijo Joaquim-Neves, collecting plastic bottles from the riverbank dumps is “ukukhereza (hustling)”. “Ngikala amasaka ngenyanga. iR2 000 ngiyay’thola noma ngikhereze kahle (I recycle about four sacks a month. I earn R2 000 when I say I’ve hustled well)”, the Mozambican national said. From his earnings, Joaquim-Neves is able to “bhatal’irent, theng’ukudla (pay rent, buy food)” and “qash’imoto (hire a van to transport his bottle-filled sack to the recycling depot)” for R200. Although he collects a haul of waste every weekday on the Jukskei banks, Joaquim-Neves does not work oblivious to the health threats. He wears a face mask and hand gloves to protect himself from microorganisms that could potentially carry viruses. Less than a year since he took a leap into waste recycling, the young recycler admits this is a lucrative livelihood in Alex. 

It is not only plastic bottles that carry the livelihoods of Alex residents. Used bricks are also recycled in the bid to put food on the table. Bongiwe Msimanga collects such bricks to sell at R1 each to people to build houses within the informal settlements that sprout like mushrooms across the township. She says, “Work is scarce and food is expensive.” The 50-year-old mother of one claims that living in Jukskei View is cheaper and she has easier access to the dump site from which she makes a living. Although dumped bricks alleviate the struggle of raising her now 21-year-old child, Msimanga admits it was wrong of them to occupy land so close to the Jukskei River and contribute to its dire state with illegal dumping.  

Seeing that people rely heavily on these dump sites to put food on their tables, will illegal dumping ever end in this community?

Although he is deeply involved in efforts to ensure an end to it, chairperson of the Alex Water and Sanitation Forum, Janky Matlala, admits the problem of illegal dumping is getting out of hand. “When we started working on cleaning the river and its banks in August 2021, the river was flowing. It does not anymore [it’s clogged with rubbish],” he says. Matlala adds that there is still a lot to be done, in addition to their cleaning project (Water Warriors), which runs for two to three days each week at seven points of the river cursed with dump banks.

The health effects of living near a dump site 

In a forum lecture titled ‘Climate change: the greatest global health threat of the 21st century’, Stellenbosch University head of the family and emergency medicine department, Professor Bob Mash, tabled pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change under the ecological drivers of the growing burden of diseases on the country’s healthcare services. The possible causes of this burden include compromised air quality, no access to fresh water, infectious disease exposures and natural hazards, while factors mediating it are, but not limited to, governance as well as the culture and behaviour of a community. Unlike many theoretical assertions, this tabulation is evident. 

Given the fact that informal settlements are hardly ”recognised” by municipalities because the residents are considered illegal occupants, they do not receive basic services such as electricity, water supply and sewage systems. As a result, it is normal to have residents of Jukskei View resorting to relieving themselves in buckets and throwing the waste into the river. Meanwhile, in the new EFF settlement, a woman with a crying child strapped to her back cooks pap on an open fire near that same river bank. It is the only space where she can do this, as shacks are packed so close to each other. This screams ”health hazard”. This not only explains why, in the afternoon, it starts smelling like “sun-baked faeces that have dried up after rain has fallen,” as Msimanga describes it, but also why another resident, Shelly Mohale, battles so much with house flies. Mohale says she has to clean pots right after cooking and transfer the contents to plastic containers to avoid having house flies contaminate the food.  

Commonly known as “filth flies” for their infamous diet, which includes animal waste, faeces and rotting organic waste, these flies release pathogens – microorganisms categorised as viruses, parasites, worms and bacteria that cause diseases and illnesses. These range from common cold, flu, meningitis and measles to yellow fever. A senior health sciences student from Sefako Makgatho University, Lighton Sombane, confirmed that these ailments (together with typhoid fever, cholera and tuberculosis) are a few of the 65 diseases flies can transmit to humans. It is therefore reasonable to attribute this to what another Alex resident, Jeffrey Mashigo, whose gate is less than seven metres away from the dump banks, says is an all-year-round flu. “They [children] always have the flu and taking them to the clinic doesn’t help because every two weeks, the flu comes back,” the father of four said. Since warm temperatures exacerbate house flies, Gauteng’s frequent heat waves have residents needing to close the doors and windows of their homes to avoid the flies, hindering ventilation in the process. 

According to Mashigo, it becomes unbearable at around 3pm, when the smell of all the dumps becomes worse. At this point in the waste cycle, the greenhouse effect takes charge as a consequence of gases from the dumping contents such as methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide concentrating in the atmosphere. As found by the Natural Resources Defense Council, this concentration “absorb[s] sunlight and solar radiation that have bounced off the earth’s surface”. Instead of escaping into space over time, these pollutants “trap the heat and cause the planet to get hotter”.  

All the while, people inhale this toxic air and many more residents like Msimanga, who cough all year round, blame the dust that sweeps through their yards for their dry throats. Even though carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas people are generally exposed to, research that nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent as it depletes the ozone layer, exposing humans to UV radiation which could potentially cause skin cancer and permanent damage to eyes. Additionally, “UV radiation causes a decrease in immunity and makes the body more susceptible to infection with viruses or parasites,” says environmental journalist Sabrina Shankman. Nitrous oxide can also live for an average of 114 years in the atmosphere. Methane, on the other hand, is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the United Nations environment programme, and is naturally released by decomposition, a common dump feature. It also reduces the amount of oxygen available for people to inhale, consequently causing headaches, vision problems, nausea and a change in heart rate. Although these were not revealed in interviews with Alexandra residents, the potential is not ruled out.  

In some instances, as accounted for by an academic look into the effects of landfill human exposure in Thohoyandou, Limpopo, pollutants form acidic moisture in the atmosphere which results in acidic rainfall. Falling victim to this, people stand the risk of “reduced lung function, asthma, ataxia, paralysis, vomiting, emphysema and lung cancer when heavy metals are inhaled or ingested”. As research found illnesses such as high blood pressure and anaemia to be caused by heavy metal pollution, Msimanga’s confusion seemed to have cleared. Before moving to Jukskei View, Msimanga says, she was never as sickly as she is now, with constant foot aches and chronic hypertension.  

While cleaning the Jukskei River in Alexandra as part of the Water Warriors’ initiative, Mandla* also collects plastic bottles to cash in at a recycling depot. Photo: Keamogetswe Matlala.

What now?

Without the greenhouse effect, the average temperature of Earth is scientifically proven to dip as low as -18 degrees celsius from 14 degrees celsius. Furthermore, almost four trillion metric tons of ice from glaciers in Antarctica have melted since the 1990s. This is not only a significant loss of the world’s fresh water but also an indication that sea levels are gradually rising. In the next rainfall season, the Jukskei could potentially break its silence by washing away hundreds of homes that stand in its way. The occurrence of devastating floods used to be something far from South Africa’s reality, but it has become evident with floods this year in the coastal provinces – KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and Eastern Cape – that they are closer than it was thought.  

Water Warriors volunteer Betty Mano, who was born in 1971 and has since lived in Alex to witness the deterioration of it, believes the problem of illegal dumping would not have grown as bad if the government had provided the community with waste containers. Despite the fear that aborted human embryos – the worst ”waste” they have found dumped – would be found more often, Mano says direct human exposure to toxic pollutants would be kept at a minimum. 

When you disembark at the Marlboro Gautrain station and walk into the township, you are met with two clean open fields: the Water Warriors’ attempt to put vacant land to good use. In the next few months these fields will become recreational parks, and not places where traditional healers and churches perform their rituals as they were a year ago.

*Not their real name

FEATURED IMAGE: Mandla* fills a sack with recyclables after a day of cleaning the Jukskei River. Photo: Keamogetswe Matlala