Twenty-seven-year-old Kagiso* and three of his companions scramble to scale a 16-wheel heavy-duty truck as it speeds its way around a corner in Vanderbijlpark.
Every second matters, as they have less than a minute in which to grab and toss as much scrap metal as they can into industrial bags before they are eventually hurled off the meandering vehicle or shot with paintball guns by private security officers.
On a good day, this modus operandi can guarantee Kagiso R150 or more to take home to his partner and two children.
“It was the situation at home that brought me here. There were no jobs and I had to eat,” he says.
He began this trade when he was just 16.
Despite the fact that at least 10 men have reportedly died and several injured this year on this dangerous daily mission, none of the men The Citizen speaks to seemed in the least deterred.
Along Nobel Boulevard, one of the roads leading to a metal recycling plant, Vusi, who is routinely assisted by a scrap metal dealer to transport the metal he “hijacks” from wherever he eventually jumps off, says the danger is exciting to him and not unusual at all.
For the group of about 20 men who operate on Nobel Boulevard, this is their primary source of income, but it seems the odds against them are stacking up.
“It has been happening all week. On Monday someone died and on Tuesday another one was run over on the left side of his body. He is in hospital now. Yesterday one was run over and broke his leg,” Vusi explains, referring to the death of one of his associates, who was run over by a truck during one of their operations.
He says the drivers purposely veer the trucks between lanes in a bid to throw the men on to the road. The targeted trucks are usually headed to and from surrounding metal and steel manufacturers such as Cape Gate Wire and Steel Manufacturers, and smaller establishments.
Since police are a rarity at the several intersections notorious for these “hijackings”, companies such as Cape Gate rely heavily on private security guards to deter the daring perpetrators.
Vusi has several anecdotes of this peculiar crime.
“The other day, around March, someone was hit (by one of the paintball guns) and his body was flung away from the truck,” he chuckles.
“He ran back and managed to clutch on to the bottom of the truck with the back of his body dragging across the ground as he held on for his life. He is out of hospital now; he’s walking on crutches.”
But Vusi says he understands why the truck drivers are so hostile towards them.
“What we are doing affects them because when they get to their employers with a truck that has the wrong weight, they get into trouble, they get charged.”
A security guard, who does not want to be named, tells The Citizen it is a daily occurrence. When delivery trucks are weighed as they enter the scrap metal facilities, they weigh far less than they do at the pick-up points where scrap is collected.
Drivers often have to pay a fine or produce written statements if they can prove the scrap was stolen from them.
Not all of these men’s activities are criminal, however. When they fail to steal enough metal from the trucks, they strike a deal with the drivers after they make a delivery, to scrape off whatever is left before it is taken to the nearby dump.
Scrap metal, legally and illegally acquired, is a booming micro-economy in the Emfuleni municipality.
Cape Gate on Nobel Boulevard is situated across from the largest of over 70 dumping sites in the district.
The Boitshepe dumping site provides informal work for more than 370 men and women who scour the piles of rubble for valuable scrap metal, plastic and glass. The dump is situated in the poorest region of Vanderbijlark near townships such as Boipatong, Tshepiso and Sharpeville, where Kagiso hails from.
Amid the mammoth dunes of waste at the site, clouded by toxic dust and smoke, 54-year-old Matshidiso Mofokeng, secretary of the committee that governs all informal activity and trade at the dump, proudly points out a 10-litre bucket of metal components she sorts by type, value and weight.
Having abandoned her job as a domestic worker in the early ’90s, this has been her lifeblood and, while she never completed high school, she has her trade down to a science.
With her industrial scale and a sharp eye, she is able to sort her polypropylene from her polystyrene, her aluminium from her steel and copper … but by the end of the day, she takes home far less money than her daring counterparts across the road.
“Sometimes you only work for bread for the children to eat,” she says.
*Not their real names