Written by Megan MacLeod, Photo-essay by Tasmi Quazi
Without a doubt, Afrika Ntuli, leader of the cardboard recyclers of Palmer Street, is the star of AeT’s display at Durban’s Exhibition Centre for the 2013 Sustainable Living Exhibition (SLE). Indeed, he is a little hard to miss, with his homemade cardboard top-hat festooned with a jaunty Ostrich feather, cardboard shirt advertising the anniversary of his 26th year of cardboard recycling, and ear-to-ear grin. It’s difficult not to smile along with him.
This year marks AeT’s fourth and most significant in participating in the Sustainable Living Exhibition. They occupy eight stalls that display the diversity and colour of the informal economy sectors and member based organizations that they support. On one side, spread out across the folding tables, are the handicrafts and products of the Markets of Warwick: beaded masterpieces from Friday’s Bead Market, decorated pots that can be found throughout the various markets, and lime clay and impepho herbs from the Traditional Medicine Market.
Further over are the cardboard recyclers’ carts, co-designed with AeT and the recyclers themselves. Across from the Markets of Warwick display are the bead workers themselves, industriously threading thousands of multi-coloured glass beads into a myriad of different patterns. One of the bead sellers looks up from her work briefly to explain “God gave me hands and eyes, so I must use them.”
Tasmi Quazi, AeT’s Research Officer, says that this is the largest Sustainable Living exhibition yet. “The reason it’s so exciting,” she says, “is because it’s so diverse. We have people from so many different classes, races, ages and interest groups … all sharing ideas and mixing together with city and business officials.” Not a mixture that happens often in a city still struggling to overcome a long legacy of apartheid.
Most of the attention is on the cardboard recycling, however, and it is rare that Afrika does not have a group of entranced listeners, young and old, hanging on his every word as he gestures emphatically and strikes dramatic poses to underline his point. He talks about how in past he and the other recyclers could only get 5 cents for every kilo of cardboard. Often he wouldn’t even be able to earn that much as the Metro Police would confiscate the cardboard he’d collected, saying that his work made the city an “ugly” place. Now, however, with the support of AeT, Afrika is earning 65 cents per kilo, and, perhaps equally important, possesses a sense of pride in his work – a pride he wants to share.
When asked how he feels about where he is now, 26 years after he started, Afrika smiles to himself like he is holding a secret. He says that he is happy to be here. He is proud to tell his story and wants people to consider cardboard recycling as a legitimate way for people to provide for their families. Abruptly, he breaks into a huge grin, gestures to his cardboard attire and says “I’m happy to wear these – to show people how proud I am of the work I do.” He laughs, and those standing nearby find themselves laughing along with him.
Later on, the informal recyclers at the stall are approached by a young couple who have come here all the way from Tongaat, a growing township 37 km north of Durban that was segregated during apartheid and that is occupied primarily by an Indian population. To get here, the family would have had to travel 40 minutes on the public bus. The wife is cradling a child, a girl of about four years of age. They are dressed simply, but the man’s black leather shoes are polished to a high shine. The couple ask about recycling, who to go to for the best prices, how it all works. They are planning on joining the recycling profession, to collect and sell cardboard to support their family. As Afrika answers their questions, his demeanor changes, becomes more serious. He nods gravely and speaks in a low tone. His eyes, however, are glowing. And it’s easy to see that this moment right here is why, despite everything, Afrika stands as proud and as tall as he does.