Desperate Unemployment Levels Cause South Africa’s ‘Hidden Hunger’

According to official figures, a quarter of all South Africans are out of work – although, even more worryingly, unemployment levels are believed to be a vast two in five across the wider economy.

To make matters worse, this high rate of worklessness has changed little over the last five years – and as long as low economic growth continues to stymie desperately needed job creation, things seem unlikely to get better any time soon.

To put things in perspective, the government estimates that GDP needs to increase by more than 5% a year to cut unemployment to a somewhat more manageable 14% by 2020, not least to try and avert social unrest.

But the fact that Africa’s second largest economy has been significantly underperforming since the 2009 recession means that it has also been struggling to create jobs.

A series of damaging strikes and rolling power blackouts earlier this year served to put a break on economic expansion, prompting growth forecasts to be cut to a mere 1.4% this year compared with 1.9% last year.

As a result, Statistics South Africa’s third quarter labour market report indicated last week that the number of jobless had remained more or less static, dropping by a mere 3,000 to 5.15 million or 25.4% of the total workforce, down from 25.5% the previous quarter.

But long-term unemployment is a particularly concerning issue here if both individual lives and communities are not to end up blighted.

The stats indicate that some 1.4 million people in the country have been without work for more than five years. A further 1 million have been unemployed for three to five years and another 1.1 million for one to three years, which when taken together make up a massive 20% of the jobless total.

While the state does offer some level of benefits – or social grants as they are known here – for around 15 million people, the money is barely enough to keep body and soul together, meaning that all too many people are living in desperate, grinding poverty.

But this situation, combined with relatively low average wages levels – the median income for a South African household is ZAR 3,100 (£174.16) per month, according to a national study undertaken by the Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit of Cape Town University’s School of Economics  – makes it no surprise that the country remains the most unequal in the world in terms of the wealth gap.

To put it in perspective, according to a 2013 Global Wealth Report cited by Oxfam at the end of last month as part of its “Even It Up” campaign on global equality, the two richest people in South Africa together possessed the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of the population.

Wealth gap

These modern-day Randlords are luxury goods mogul, Johann Rupert, whom Forbes values at $7.6 billion, and diamond magnate, Nicky Oppenheimer who is worth $6.7 billion.

By way of contrast, while the number of South Africans living in extreme poverty may have fallen slightly to 17% of the total between 1995 and 2006, we are still talking about nine million or so people.

And such deprivation makes itself felt in various ways. On the one hand, it tends to fuel often violent crime such as the high-profile murder of Senzo Meyiwa, captain of national football team, Bafana Bafana. He was killed a couple of weeks ago following an apparent attempted robbery at his girlfriend’s home near Johannesburg.

On the other, it also results in too many people going hungry in a land of plenty.

Even though South Africa is self-sufficient in terms of food production, which means that there should be enough to go around all of its 53 million citizens, it seems that a quarter of the population (14 million) regularly suffer from poverty-induced hunger.

This means that, on a day-to-day basis, they do not know where their next meal will come from as they simply do not have enough money to buy food, according to another Oxfam report released in October entitled “Hidden Hunger in South Africa: The Faces of Hunger and Malnutrition in a Food-Secure Nation.”

And this situation has only got worse over the last six years as high inflation levels have seen the cost of basic items leap by a whopping 40%.

As a result, a further quarter of the population (15 million) is now also at risk of hunger, meaning that any cut to a household’s meagre income is likely to prove disastrous in terms of its members being able to afford to eat.

The worst-affected communities are, unsurprisingly, found in the informal settlements, where 38% of people suffer hunger on a daily basis. But even in more formal urban areas, where hunger levels are at their lowest nationally, one in five are also affected.

One of the surprising things about these depressing statistics though is that hunger does not necessarily translate into a slim physique. In fact, quite the opposite is true here.

As can be witnessed by simply walking down the street, South Africa is a nation of fatties – a 2010 health survey by pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, found it to be the third plumpest country in the world.

Hidden hunger

A study published by medical journal, the Lancet, in May, also revealed that it was by far the fattest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, with a stonking 61% of the population being overweight or obese – double the global average.

But unlike in developed countries, the problem is one that afflicts women more than men. A massive seven out of 10 adult females display unhealthy levels of body fat compared with only two in five men.

The same is true for a quarter of girls and 20% of boys compared with a global average of 13% for both genders.

A key problem beyond the usual health concerns over increased risk of heart disease and illnesses such as diabetes though is that malnutrition is rife.

The issue is one of so-called “hidden hunger’, in which people eat regularly and put on weight but do not receive the nutrients and vitamins they need, resulting in long-term damage to their health.

Because money is scarce, all too many fail to eat healthily, opting instead for cheap, poor-quality, highly-processed food that tends to be carbohydrate-rich and full of salt, sugar and fat.

According to local news channel eNCA’s Checkpoint recent documentary entitled “Nutrition in the Black Community”, fat intake among members of urban black communities has jumped 60% over the last 50 years, leading to stroke rates that are double those of white communities. Half of South African children under the age of five are also malnourished.

As in developed countries, it seems that more junk food and less exercise are definitely taking their toll.

But the situation is also not helped by cultural perceptions among black communities. Big men are generally perceived as wealthy and successful, while large women are considered beautiful and healthy – and, if married, as having husbands who look after them properly.

Being thin, on the other hand, is often associated with having HIV.

So it seems that to really grapple with this time-bomb of an issue, the government is going to need to do more than simply set up yet another commission to talk about it.

Gandhi’s Satyagraha Philosophy Forged on Joburg’s Streets

Like most big cities, Johannesburg has had its fair share of famous residents at one time or another.

Probably the most well-known is Nelson Mandela who lived, among other places, in the nearby township of Soweto and the upmarket northern suburb of Houghton, depending on his fortunes at the time.

Then there was L. Ron Hubbard, the controversial founder of the Church of Scientology, who made his abode in the affluent neighbourhood of Linksfield Ridge for six months in the early 1960s in order to get his South African operations in order.

But another world-renowned denizen who also graced Jozi’s streets for a good 12 years or so was Mahatma Gandhi.

The human rights activist first arrived in Durban as a young lawyer in 1893 to handle the legal affairs of Indian merchants flooding in at that time to serve the needs of a burgeoning Asian population.

But by early 1903, as Gandhi’s clientele increasingly started moving to Johannesburg in the wake of the gold rush, he decided to follow the money, upping sticks and setting up his own legal practice at 15 Rissik Street in Joburg’s city centre.

There’s even a life-sized statue of him as a young man standing in his legal robes opposite the original offices, in what was one time called Van Der Bijl followed by Government Square but has now been renamed Gandhi Square.

Disappointingly though, it’s scarcely in the most salubrious, or picturesque, part of town. It is instead right next to a big, ugly bus terminal surrounded by scruffy, decaying tower blocks, which scarcely set the statue off to best advantage.

Nonetheless, the location is an appropriate one as it was where Johannesburg’s first court building once stood, a place where Gandhi first appeared as a lawyer and was also handed down various prison sentences for political activism before ending up in prison in the Old Fort.

Liberation figure

Now part of the Constitution Hill complex, which has housed South Africa’s Constitutional Court since 2004, the much-reviled prison, commonly known as ‘Number Four’, housed both common criminals and anti-apartheid protestors such as Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela.

Anyway to get back to the point, apart from a couple of short spells in England and India, Gandhi ended up staying in South Africa for a total of 21 years, only leaving in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War.

And the place certainly appears to have been key in moulding him into the influential liberation figure that he became. As Gandhi said himself: “Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now. My love for South Africa and my concern for her problems are no less than for India.”

So the country obviously had a massive impact on him – and not always in a positive way. Because the reason that he decided to stay here for so long was to fight the full-on racial discrimination that he, and other Indians, suffered routinely, with the perfectly reasonable aim of wanting to be treated as equals.

Although the noose of racist laws had been tightening for some time, the final straw came in 1906, following the proposed introduction of the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance.

The idea was that all Indian and Chinese people would be required to register their presence in the now defunct province of Transvaal – of which Pretoria was the capital – give the authorities their fingerprints and carry so-called passes as identity documents.

As a direct result, protestors got together at the Empire Theatre on downtown Commissioner Street, now the site of a cinema complex called the Kine Centre.

In fact, it was here that Gandhi first declared the very policy of passive resistance that served to rid India of British colonial rule. Based on the notion of ‘Satyagraha’, which means ‘truth force’ in Sanskrit, the idea is that violence begets violence and therefore ends up being counter-productive.

So, although the peaceful demonstration that followed the Empire Theatre gathering ended up in jail-terms for everyone concerned and was ultimately futile, it also made history, marking Joburg out as the birthplace of the philosophy.

Satyagraha House

Anyway, while it appears that Gandhi lived and agitated all over Joburg at one time or another, one former haunt of his really worth visiting is Tolstoy Farm, now known as Satyagraha House.

Built in what at the time was just empty veld far from the burgeoning metropolis by Hermann Kallenbach, a German-Jewish architect with whom Gandhi is said to have had a gay relationship despite an earlier vow of celibacy, it has now morphed into a guesthouse and museum in the south-eastern neighbourhood of Orchards.

And it’s lovely. So lovely in fact that it has just won a 2014 TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence and was listed as being among the country’s top 50 tourist attractions by leading South African online travel agency, Travelstart.

Although the House’s disconcertingly suburban approach makes you wonder what you’re going to find when you get there, once you move beyond the functional, little reception area, a tranquil haven of peaceful serenity and calm awaits you behind.

Set in a pretty, well-tended garden, the white-washed main house-come-free-of-charge museum, with its thatched roof, two bedroom rondavels and charming dining area leading onto a stoep, is simple yet stylish. It’s all about wooden tables, woven baskets, black ceramic pots and little panels with Gandhi quotes on them.

Run along similar communal lines to a kibbutz, at its peak, Tolstoy Farm was home to 50 adult satyagrahis and 30 children who tended the fruit trees, grew their own vegetables and lived an ascetic life of personal and spiritual discipline.

These days though, the museum and nine-bedroom guesthouse is owned and managed by Voyageurs du Monde, a French tour operator that invested about R20 million (£109,000) in purchasing and renovating the place, which opened for business at the end of 2011.

And it’s been careful to keep the spirit of Gandhi at least nominally alive. So the double rooms are all TV-, alcohol- and cigarette-free, although there is a smoking area out the back and WiFi on tap. The restaurant, located in the museum, serves only organically-grown vegetarian food and there are morning yoga and meditation classes for those keen to get into the vibe.

But with accommodation starting at E175 in low season and rising to E590 for a family cottage in high season, it isn’t exactly cheap and cheerful. Gandhi, presumably, would turn in his grave.

South Africa’s Progressive Gay Legislation Belies Reality on Ground

In a continent that has seen a huge upsurge in anti-gay legislation lately, South Africa appears, on the surface of it anyway, to be a little oasis of progressiveness – as can be witnessed by this coming weekend’s much-feted Joburg Pride festival (Saturday 25 October).

While some 38 of Africa’s 55 states now criminalise homosexuality, South Africa by way of contrast became the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation when introducing its new Constitution in 1996.

Under the apartheid regime, homosexuality had been a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison for men, although not for women whose sexuality, in line with other former British colonies, was not even recognised.

Laws protecting lesbian, gay, bi- and transsexual (LGBT) citizens from employment discrimination followed in 1998, while legislation permitting same-sex marriage and civil unions entered the statue books eight years later – although it is still up to individual civil servants and members of the clergy to decide if they will conduct such ceremonies or not.

But even though change to the legal atmosphere has undoubtedly made a difference to the lives of LGBT and intersex people over the last 20 years, Johan Meyer, health manager at Out, points out that “homophobia is still rife”.

“When laws change, it doesn’t mean that attitudes on the ground do. It often takes a bit of time for people to catch up,” he says. One of the key issues here is that South Africa remains a socially conservative country, with a “strong religious component”.

“Many people still believe strongly that being LGBTI is wrong,” Meyer explains. “It’s a traditional, conservative outlook on life that will take a while to change yet. But things are changing, slowly.”

For example, in rural areas or in the townships, most people would prefer not to advertise their sexual orientation or even choose to stay firmly in the closet. But in affluent white suburbs in big cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg, homophobia tends to be less marked and gay bars and clubs are not an unusual sight.

Slow transition

Nonetheless, Stefan Swart, managing member for the Gay Association of South Africa, estimates that as many as one in 10 LGBTI South Africans who can afford to leave the country do so, preferring the more liberal atmosphere of the UK, US and Australia.

“It’s hard to be LGBT in South Africa,” he says. “We’ve come a long way since 1996, but it’s been a slow transition. It’s much easier if you live in an upmarket area, but it’s really difficult if you don’t.”

In a bid to make things easier at least in pockets, Meyer’s Out put together a national training manual and peer education programme with the Department of Health as much as six years ago to try and boost staff awareness of LGBTI issues.

An advocacy group that provides physical and mental health services to the community, it has since rolled out similar schemes at the Department of Social Development and various civil society organisations.

A manual and associated training programme for the Department of Justice (DoJ), which includes the police and courts, is likewise expected to follow early next year.

But training is not the only involvement that Out has had with the DoJ lately. Because of the high incidence of so-called “corrective rape” among black lesbians in the townships, the NGO has been involved in advocacy with a DoJ task force currently in the process of exploring the issue of hate crimes.

Corrective rape, which involves violating someone in a bid to “cure” them of being gay, has become a critical human rights issue in South Africa over recent years.

The term was first coined in the early 2000s when charity workers first noticed it taking place, in a country that has been widely described as the rape capital of the world.

In real terms, this means that some 500,000 rapes occur each year – the equivalent of one every 17 seconds – leading to an incredible 50% of the country’s entire female population having been violated at one time or another during the course of their lives.

Hate crimes

But it is not only women who are affected by corrective rape. Although even fewer males than females report the problem due to the shame, humiliation and fear of victimisation that ensues, incident numbers are thought to be fairly similar.

So, while a Bill has yet to come before Parliament, Out’s goal is to see the introduction of legislation that would recognise corrective rape as a hate crime based on sexual orientation and would sit alongside murder, physical assault and verbal attack.

The second prong of the organisation’s strategy to deal with hate crimes among the community, meanwhile, entails offering legal, medical and counselling support to victims and their families with the help of five bodies, two of which are based in Joburg, two in KwaZulu-Natal and the last in the Western Cape.

But education, the third and final prong, is considered just as important. As a result, since last October when the initiative began, targeted communities have started receiving posters each month to help raise broader awareness of the issues as well as online or SMS newsletters to disseminate information.

But it also seems that a bit of consciousness-raising may be necessary among the LGBTI community itself. The theme of this year’s Joburg Pride, which is expected to attract more than 30,000 participants, is “I am human”, with a special focus on bi-sexual and intersex people.

Swart, whose Gay Association is actively involved in the festival – the country’s largest and longest-running such event – explains the rationale: “Even though bi-sexual and intersex people are part of the LGBTI community, there tends to be quite a lot of discrimination against them, with people often saying ‘we don’t know who you are’.”

Therefore, although the occasion to date has been “mostly about gays and lesbians”, the aim this year is to promote greater understanding and “encourage this part of the community to come out, get help and not be scared”.

Because, after all, as Swart quite rightly concludes: “They’re just normal human beings like everyone else.”

Energy will be Key to South Africa’s Future

One of the key things that economic and social development in sub-Saharan Africa hinges upon into the future apparently is the robustness of its energy sector.

According to a report just released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the current state of the industry and a lack of access to electricity by vast swathes of the population are, unsurprisingly, putting a break on economic growth.

But as the IEA’s chief economist Faith Birol explains: “The pay-off [of getting it right] can be huge, with each additional dollar invested in the power sector boosting the overall economy by $15.”

Unfortunately for South Africa though, its energy situation appears to be in a bit of a mess.

For instance, despite the damage to the economy caused by rolling blackouts across the country earlier this year, the National Energy Regulator has caused outrage by approving a tariff increase of an average 13% until 31 March 2106, up from a previously agreed 8%.

The figure is more than twice this year’s average inflation rate of 6.2% and fears are that it will put a damper on an already struggling economy that only missed going into recession last quarter by the skin of its teeth.

But the move, which is intended to help state-owned utility, Eskom, cover ZAR7.8 billion (£433.6 million) in costs that it failed to budget for in the three years to 2013, has also been met by dire predictions that it is simply a taste of more to come.

The issue is that the company, which supplies 95% of the country’s power, faces a further funding shortfall of ZAR225 billion for the five years to March 2018.

As a result, it is currently unable to come up with enough money to service the debt required to pay for the completion of two new, and very necessary, power stations in order to tackle the country’s chronic power shortages.

Last month, the government announced it would put together a financial rescue package, the details of which are due to be announced on 22 October. Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s will then decide whether Eskom’s debt situation warrants its bonds being downgraded to junk status.

Economic impact

To have any real chance of plugging its funding gap though, economists have estimated that Eskom will need to increase its tariffs by at least another 13% per year for the next five years.

But the worry is that this situation will make South Africa increasingly uncompetitive on world markets. It certainly won’t help inflation or manufacturers already hit by rising labour costs and low demand for their products.

Or consumers for that matter, who are struggling with rising food and fuel costs, high levels of personal debt and unemployment rates of around 25%.

So the situation is not good by anyone’s standards – and doesn’t get any better for reading the US Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook either, which would appear to back up the IEA’s report.

The Factbook indicates that South Africa’s economy will be unable to grow at more than 3% until Eskom’s new power stations come online, one by the end of this year and the other in 2017, which is obviously a while yet.

The problem is that to make a dent in poverty and unemployment, which both contribute to societal stability, it is widely accepted that GDP needs to increase at twice that rate.

Another contentious issue, meanwhile, is how the country’s electricity is to be generated in the first place.

South Africa currently produces 77% of its energy using coal. It is, in fact, one of the seven largest coal-producing and one of the top five coal-exporting nations in the world. This means that the mineral, being its third largest source of foreign exchange capital behind platinum and gold, is vital to the country’s economy.

But after getting a bad name for itself as the continent’s worst polluter and as one of the world’s top 20 carbon emitters, it pledged to take action, submitting reduction targets to the Copenhagen Accord in January 2010.

South Africa has now promised to reduce national carbon emissions to 34% below 1994 levels by 2020 and 42% by 2025 – should it get the necessary financial, technological and capacity-building support from the developed world, that is.

And so far it seems to be trying to honour that vow. Since December 2011, the country has signed off 64 renewable energy projects, including wind and solar, which equate to more than ZAR100 billion (£5.5 billion) of both domestic and foreign investment.

Energy mix

So while renewable energy accounted for less than 1% of the country’s energy mix in 2012, it is expected to hit a much more healthy 12% by 2020, jumping to 17% by 2030.

According to research released last October by analysts Frost & Sullivan, this scenario would place it among the top 15 countries in the world in terms of renewable deployments.

But it seems that President Jacob Zuma also has a controversial personal interest in nuclear. After promising to purchase a fleet of power stations in his opening address to Parliament in June, following similar statements in his State of the Nation speech in February, he made a mysterious visit to see President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last month.

Immediately afterwards, Russian energy company, Rosatom, announced that it had signed a $50 billion deal with Pretoria to build eight nuclear reactors that would generate 9.6Gw of power by 2030.

The pact was based on a “build now, pay later” vendor-financed arrangement that would see Eskom buying back energy at high predetermined rates for up to 20 years.

But the move led to an outcry, with concerns being voiced over everything from corrupt and un-transparent procurement processes to the sheer cost of the proposals, which some feared could cripple the country as tariffs skyrocketed.

The Department of Energy appeared to backtrack very quickly though, countering that the Russian compact was simply a preliminary agreement on nuclear cooperation as part of a wider tender process that would also involve other countries over the coming months.

The government has since confirmed that Eskom will not act as the owner and operator of the new power stations. This process will instead be led by the Cabinet’s energy security subcommittee, which is chaired by no less than Zuma himself – a man said to regard a nuclear power project as part of his legacy.

A businessman with historically close ties to Zuma has also intimated to South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper that the decision to award the contract to Russia has already been taken, essentially making it a done deal.

But no matter how murky such a set-up may seem, what is clear is that how these various scenarios play out over the next few months will be crucial in terms of the impact on the health of South Africa’s economy for years to come.

Waste Pickers’ Livelihoods Threatened by South Africa Going Green

Although I was aware that the pollution caused by landfill couldn’t be doing the environment much good, I hadn’t realised quite how much the methane from such dumps contribute to global warming.

According to Innocent Sibeko, managing director of waste management company, Exergy Enviro Group, and one of the African Climate Leaders trained by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, landfill accounts for a shocking 13% of all global methane gas emissions – and worryingly, methane is second only to carbon dioxide in terms of contributing to global warming.

Sibeko dropped his little bombshell during a presentation on possible African solutions to climate change at a recent ‘Green Drinks’ event in Johannesburg. Hosted by the South African branch of the former US vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner’s green charity, it – rather appropriately – took place in the garden of social and environmental enterprise, Food & Trees for Africa.

But it seems the whole issue of rubbish is an important and apparently underestimated one. The most recent (2012) National Waste Information Baseline Report indicated that, while South Africa generated approximately 108 million tonnes of waste in 2011, a shocking 98 million tonnes went into landfill, with a mere 10% being recycled.

To make matters worse, the Greenhouse Gas Inventory for South Africa, which was published earlier this year, found that total greenhouse gas emissions from landfill had increased by 72% from 2000 to 2010.

As a result, municipalities up and down the country are now being tasked with trying to find solutions, not least because many of their 1,327 documented sites are starting to hit capacity.

Two of Johannesburg’s five landfill facilities, for example, currently extract, combust and flare methane in order to burn it off and get rid of it.

But towards the end of this month, there are plans to install four 1MW generators at ZAR 10 million (£555,835) a pop at the city’s Robinson Deep site near Turffontein in a bid to harness the gas and generate electricity. The scheme will be the biggest landfill gas-to-energy project in South Africa.

Gas-to-energy

Once the generators become operational early next year, Ener-G Systems Joburg, a consortium that won the 20-year build-own-operate contract, is expected to sell 5MW of power to state-owned monopoly power provider, Eskom.

This new energy source will provide electricity for 4,000-5,000 homes and cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 149,000 tonnes per annum.

But when all five landfill sites come online in future, the amount of power produced should rise to 19MW, providing enough electricity to supply a significant 12,500 middle-income households.

This situation will no doubt prove a welcome respite for Eskom, which is currently struggling to keep the country’s lights on, a situation that led to rolling power blackouts across the country earlier this year.

In a bid to stop rubbish being dumped in landfill in the first place though, the government is also keen to kick-start the recycling collection schemes now so familiar to everyone in the UK.

To this end, the goal of the Department of Environmental Affairs’ National Waste Management Strategy is to ensure that all large towns and metropolitan areas have recycling-friendly separation-at-source schemes in place by 2016.

In the case of South Africa’s biggest metropolis, Joburg, the objective is to save 20,000 tonnes of rubbish from going into landfill each year by rolling out a pavement collection service by the end of 2015.

But 20,000 tonnes would appear to be a drop in the ocean compared with the 1.6 million or so tonnes that currently end up in City dumps. It is also a far cry from the country’s pledge to divert three quarters of its recyclable materials from landfill by 2022, a promise made on signing up to the Polokwane Declaration in 2001.

While the whole municipal recycling situation is obviously still a work in progress, the City has nonetheless set up 10 “buy-back” centres to deal with what material is reclaimed.

Waste pickers

The centres house 25 co-operatives, small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs), which together employ about 500 people, while a further 42 garden refuse sites, about half of which are also operated by SMMEs, accept recycled waste too.

And it is on this kind of model that Sibeko’s Exergy Enviro Group operates. Based in the Vaal Triangle, an urban area about 60km south of Johannesburg, Exergy employs 27 “waste pickers” to reclaim recyclable material from landfill sites or people’s rubbish bins in order to sell it on to bigger recycling companies.

Workers are provided with training to help them identify waste suitable for the market and are encouraged to form cooperatives in order to work more effectively together.

In fact, the South African Waste Pickers Association, which is in the process of being registered as a trade union, estimates that there are about 60,000 such informal workers employed across the country, each earning on average about ZAR120 per day (£6.66).

And certainly they are a common sight around the suburbs of towns and cities in South Africa, emerging out of nowhere with their huge bags and shopping trolleys before the bin-men can arrive to see what they can find of value.

But there is growing concern among this community that, as municipalities increasingly hand out contracts to more formal waste management companies, they will be the ones to lose out – a situation that obviously threatens their livelihood and their ability to feed their families.

While former Minister of Energy Dikobe Ben Martins promised that waste pickers would be considered as part of all government waste-to-energy projects, apparently no reference has been made to them in the National Waste Management Strategy.

But there are already reports of worker numbers being cut at landfill sites – and that is even before pavement collection kicks in properly.

So it appears that the old Yorkshire adage of “where there’s muck, there’s brass” could definitely be under threat for these waste entrepreneurs who, when all is said and done, are simply trying to make a living in a country where unemployment levels remain desperate.

Kruger’s Time Bomb: Rhino Poaching and Too Many Elephants

This coming Saturday, Johannesburg and London will be among 125 cities worldwide to host demonstrations demanding action to curb exploding levels of rhino and elephant poaching.

In a measure of just how emotive the issue is becoming in South Africa, between 10,000 and 20,000 protestors are expected to turn up for the Jozi march to call for harsher penalties against poachers and traffickers in ivory and rhino horn.

Petitions will also be handed to the embassies of 19 countries, including key end-destinations such as Vietnam and China, which are accused of failing to do enough to tackle the problem.

Each year, the African continent sees a massive 35,000 or so of its elephants slaughtered for their tusks. But between January and 6 August this year, South Africa alone had already lost 631 of its estimated 21,000 rhino to poaching, according to Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa.

A shocking 408 of the creatures were butchered in the world-famous Kruger National Park, a distressingly high percentage in an environment believed to house between 8,400 to 9,600 white rhino and about 2,000 or so critically endangered black ones (South Africa National (SAN)Parks).

But, sadly, this year’s death toll already compares unfavourably with 2013 when about 1,000 of the creatures – a scary three times the 2010 tally and 10 times the 2007 one – were killed in total.

Demand for their horn, believed by traditional medicine advocates to cure everything from fever to cancer, has continued to soar over the last seven years in line with noticeable standard of living increases in South East Asia.

As a result, the horn can now fetch as much as $65,000 per kilogram on the black market, making it more expensive than gold or cocaine.

Unfortunately for South Africa though, being home to 82% of the continent’s entire rhino population and 93% of the world’s white rhinos, it is now at the epicentre of a poaching time bomb.

In fact, the fear is that if such activity continues unabated at current rates, the animals will end up becoming extinct in the wild within 10 years. Therefore, a number of measures are now being introduced in a desperate attempt to address the situation without having a negative impact on tourism.

According to the SanParks Times magazine, a key initiative involves the creation of a so-called Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) in the south of Kruger, where 60% of the Park’s rhino population lives.

Intensive Protection Zone

The 4,000km2 IPZ, which is equivalent to about a fifth of Kruger’s total landmass, is intended to concentrate the beasts in an area protected by the latest hi-tech gadgetry.

The goal is to make surveillance, early warning and detection easier and take pressure off the mere 400 or so rangers trying to safeguard vast swathes of territory.

For example, one aim is to fit boundary fences with motion sensors that can pick up movement. GPS coordinates will then be sent back to an operations centre so that rangers in either trucks or a helicopter can be deployed in the event of a security breach.

In particularly vulnerable areas such as the Park’s 220-mile eastern border with Mozambique though, fences will also likely be equipped with a new gunfire-detection system.

California-based SST’s “ShotSpotter” is currently being pilot-tested for the first time outside of troubled US urban neighbourhoods, where it has to date been used to alert police of firearms-related activity.

Instead microphones have now been planted in different spots in the Park in order to triangulate the origin of gunshots fired as far as two miles away, with coordinates being relayed to Kruger’s operations centre within 30 seconds.

As to how the IPZ came about, meanwhile, it was all made possible thanks to a ZAR255 million (£14 million) donation by the Howard G Buffet Foundation in March. Work is expected to commence this month (October) and take about two years to complete.

But these are not the only measures in the pipeline. According to Environmental Affairs Minister Molewa, there are also plans to transfer rhino to safe havens in lower risk parks and reserves both inside and outside South Africa. Discussions are already taking place with nearby countries such as Zambia and Botswana.

The only downside is that, at an estimated $45,000 per animal, the exercise could prove prohibitively expensive unless additional funding can be found.

But something has to be done, not least because an estimated 80% of all rhino poachers come from the impoverished villages of South Africa’s neighbour, Mozambique.

Hot pursuit

One of the world’s poorest countries with close ties to China, its Limpopo National Park has been linked to Kruger via the cross-border Giriyondo Access Facility since 2006. The two form the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which will also include Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou Game Reserve over time.

But there is now talk of erecting a fence along the Kruger-Mozambique border in a bid to prevent poachers entering the Park through the bush.

A ‘hot pursuit’ agreement signed by the two countries in May could also help. The aim is to allow police officers to pursue poachers across borders so that they do not simply disappear under village protection after committing a crime as is currently often the case.

Interestingly though, while the poaching of species such as antelope and wildebeest for bush-meat is not uncommon in Kruger, elephant poaching has not been an issue for the last 10 years – although with one incident in July and another three months before, there is concern that the problem may be starting to rear its ugly head again.

If anything though, the challenge in Kruger is simply having too many elephants. With numbers estimated at between 13,000 and 16,000, the population is around twice what it should ideally be – and growing.

And sadly, the situation is now causing considerable environmental damage. At the very least, elephants help to keep indigenous flora healthy by bumping into trees with their huge behinds, knocking them over and thereby thinning them out.

But once there are too many, they can end up just destroying the habitats of other Park dwellers. Southern ground hornbills, which build their nests in deep hollows in very old trees, for example, tend to breed successfully only once every three years and are now endangered in Kruger, largely due to elephant behaviour.

Although culling was banned by Park management in 1994, rumours are now circulating of possible moves to reverse the decision. But a key inhibitor is likely to be the international outcry, not least because it becomes necessary to kill entire family groups, including babies, due to the distress and dangerous aggression generated among survivors.

One possible way to try and alleviate pressure on the elephant population though would be to go ahead with a planned wildlife corridor. The goal is to connect Kruger and the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park with South Africa’s first ever World Heritage site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Wetland Park itself is in the process of becoming part of a new Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area, which will include a number of reserves in Mozambique and Swaziland.

But the international border fences have yet to come down – and seem unlikely to do so any time soon until the rhino-poaching situation can be sorted out once and for all.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse Fuel South Africa’s Rising Violent Crime Rate

South Africa’s dreadful international reputation for violent crime will certainly not have been helped by the latest statistics released last Friday (19 September).

While overall crime levels may be falling, the most scary offences such as murder, attempted murder and aggravated robbery are all on the rise, according to Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko.

For example, the number of homicides during 2013/14 rose for the second year running, this time to 1,7068, a leap of 5% on the previous 12 months. This means that the equivalent of 47 people were killed each day last year.

Just as worryingly though, it appears that social unrest is also on the up in the form of protests against poor or non-existent service delivery in the townships as well as strike action, particularly in the mining sector.

Interestingly, the number of sexual offences against women and children was down slightly though, with rape levels falling by 6.3%, something Nhleko attributed to a “higher consciousness” in society as a result of government and media campaigns.

But the country is far from being in a position to pat itself on the back. It still has one of the highest rape rates on earth and to make matters worse, the estimates are that only one in 25 incidents is ever reported.

As to the cause of this increase in violence, meanwhile, Nhleko attributed it at least partially to high levels of substance misuse. “The prevalence of drugs and alcohol abuse in our community is extremely concerning,” he said. “They tend to a production point for criminal activity.”

Of particular concern these days is a cheap narcotic known as ‘nyaope’ in Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, and ‘whoonga’ in Durban – an illegal drug to which President Jacob Zuma warned earlier this year the nation’s youth were becoming “slaves”.

According to the United Nations, this heady cocktail of heroin, dagga (marijuana) and other substances ranging from milk powder to even anti-retrovirals and rat poison to pad it out, is unique to South Africa.

Although it first emerged in Durban in only 2010, its use has spread like wildfire among impoverished township dwellers over recent times, particularly since Afghanistan started flooding the world market with heroin following bumper opium poppy crops.

Whoonga

Sean, an addict who spoke on African news channel eNCA’s recent Checkpoint documentary, ‘Whoonga Addicts Special’, indicated that, in Durban, where heroin is smuggled in via the city’s port, the drug costs as little as ZAR20 (£1.10) a parcel or straw, which can be either smoked or injected.

Hence his decision to move there from Joburg, where the price is more like ZAR100-200 (£5.50-11) per hit, of which most addicts need several a day.

Sean was, in fact, one of the thousands of people who were cleared out of the slum-like King Dinuzulu Park near Durban’s city centre – now dubbed Whoonga Park by locals – in July.

The police arrested some 2,000 addicts, including girls as young as 15 who were involved in prostitution to fund their habit, following gang warfare by two rival groups the previous year.

Worryingly though, says Ishara Poodhum from the South African National Council for Drug Abuse and Alcoholism, the number of nyaope addicts is growing by 10% year-on-year, and its dreadful withdrawal symptoms, which include diarrhea and vomiting, make it a particularly difficult habit to break.

Even worse, statistics show that the average age of drug dependency in South Africa is now 12 years and dropping, a figure that is shocking by anyone’s standards.

But if Sabelo Qwabe, a resident of Clermont township in Durban, is to be believed, the sheer ubiquitousness of whoonga, which people can become addicted to after a single hit, is part of the problem.

He told Checkpoint that it was possible to buy the cream-coloured powder almost anywhere – in “the food shop, clothes shop, supermarket, even the tuck shop because they see it gives them money”.

Sadly, Qwabe’s 13-year old brother died smoking it after having been an addict for only six months.

While the government has already built seven rehab centres across the country to cope with all kinds of addiction and plans to build six more, waiting lists are huge and addiction rates mounting.

Alcohol

But despite the dreadful toll that nyaope is taking on the townships, it is alcohol that is the single most abused drug in South Africa, according to Quintin van Kerken.

A former addict himself, van Kerken heads up the Anti-Drug Alliance of South Africa to provide education and support services to substance abusers and their families.

Alcohol, he says, accounts for roughly 20% of all addiction at the national level, while drugs of all types come in next at another 20%. The remainder is made up of a heady mix of prescription medication, gambling, sex and porn.

In fact, it turns out that, according to this year’s World Health Organisation report on alcohol and health, South Africans are actually the heaviest drinkers on the continent and the 29th biggest topers in the world – although they behaved better than the Brits who come in at number 25.

In real terms, this means that the average person here consumed just over 27 litres per annum in 2010, about 10% higher than the global average.

But it is also important to bear in mind that, because three out of five South Africans do not drink at all, the ones who do are making up for the rest, particularly in binge-drinking to get drunk terms.

One of the most shocking things I have come across in relation to the whole alcohol thing in this country though is the so-called ‘dop’ system (Afrikaans for a drink).

Now mostly but not entirely defunct, the system, which was widespread in the Cape Winelands until relatively recently, saw local wine farm workers being paid a portion of their wages in the form of daily measures of cheap, low quality booze.

The practice, which was made illegal in 1961 although prohibition was not enforced until the end of apartheid in 1994, led to large numbers of people with serious addiction problems.

And they are problems that, sadly, are still being played out in all too many families today.