What Lies Beneath

Macfarlane Moleli
By Macfarlane Moleli | Follow @macmoleli
Macfarlane Moleli has over 14 years’ experience as a journalist in the media and entertainment industry. Recently he worked at Kaya FM, eNCA and SABC 3. Well-versed in in-depth interviews on current affairs, contentious issues in politics, business, sports and environmental issues, Macfarlane now brings his presentin [...] See full profile

The phrase “I was never ready”, became a reality to me when I went down a sewer for the first time in my life.  There is no amount of preparation that one can do to deal with the noxious fumes that greet you when you descend into a manhole. The stench comes into your nose, down your throat and straight into your stomach, when it reaches your stomach, it starts rumbling.  This causes your insides to turn and the body, almost instinctively forces you to throw up. However with a facemask covering your mouth and nose to protect you from the fumes and pathogens in the sewers, you dare not allow that to happen. The heat down there is unbelievable and exacerbates the smell, as you go down 1.8 metres into the belly of the beast.


With sweat dripping from my forehead, intoxicatingly dangerous fumes all around and pathogens in the air, I found myself living out the life of a sewer zama zama. This is the term used to describe brave men who are making a living by scouring the filthy, sewage water running in the underground canals. Their office space is twelve thousand kilometres of sewerage infrastructure below the city of Johannesburg,. These men are searching for what they term ‘treasure’ lying in that muck.

I had the pleasure of meeting one of the sewer zama zamas who took me with him on this treasure-hunting expedition in the sewers. This 60-year-old father, husband and breadwinner comes from Mpumalanga. He is a former plumber and was retrenched more than ten years ago. He is known as “Minister” in Diepsloot, an area near the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. A stark contrast from the lavish million-rand homes in the suburbs of Dainfern and Steyn City which are just a stone’s throw away from the poverty which is seen in this informal settlement.

Minister says people throw all sorts of things into the sewerage system. He says he has found rings, necklaces, watches and hundreds of coins. He uses a powerful magnet, which he puts into the sewer water and he comes up with his “treasure”. On a good day he can make fifty to eighty rand, which he can use to buy oil, mealie meal, cabbage and milk. Minister says as hard and tough as this may seem, it’s much better than doing crime.

We will never understand what it must take for a dignified man to leave his family every day to go searching through feces- and urine-infested water, just to feed his family. My heart broke when I met him, because this could have been my uncle, my brother, my family who, due to unemployment, resorted to diving into the sewers to put food on the table. I have an immense amount of respect for this man and as much as the city says this is illegal, you can only feel sympathy for a man who has to resort to this, just to earn a living. Hopefully there can be a solution which can help these poor souls restore their dignity.