Neftaly Malatjie runs a youth organisation in Diepsloot township, South Africa [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera]
From: The Slum

South Africa: A township state of mind

A young entrepreneur uses the skills he acquired as a scavenger to deliver hope and opportunity to his neighbours.

As part of the ‘Where I live’ series, the Al Jazeera Magazine asked people from around the world how their lives have been influenced by where they live. Meet Neftaly, a 23-year-old entrepreneur, bringing skills and training to one of the most impoverished settlements in Johannesburg.

Scattered bits of refuse line a long, winding ditch, near the ‘Waka Waka’ mini market in the centre of Diepsloot – a crowded settlement north-west of Johannesburg. Neighbouring table-top vendors sell cigarettes and sundry to pedestrians on their way to the sea of corrugated iron structures that punctuate the horizon.

“I used to rummage in there for old snuff [tobacco] tins when I was a kid,” 23-year-old Neftaly Malatjie says, gesturing towards the litter-strewn patch of land. “I was just 11, still a kid at school, and this women approached me and said ‘Neftaly if you can go to the rubbish bins and pick out these snuff tins, I will give you 20 cents per tin’.

“So I said I am starving here and decided to take this opportunity to look in the rubbish bins,” he recalls. “And every week the lady would come and then I would have $3 at the end of the week.”

But it was not an easy vocation. “Every time I saw people who were from my school, or people I knew, I would just hide in the rubbish bins so that they wouldn’t see me …. Every day in school I would be called names, and told how stupid I am. But I knew this was the journey I was on – I knew that I was not there to eat from the rubbish bins but just to find things that I could sell and make some money [from].”

Over a decade ago, this rubbish dump helped the aspiring entrepreneur earn his first income in a township where more than half of the community is unemployed. Today, he no longer rummages through litter to make a living, but he remains a scavenger at heart – reusing donated machinery, equipment and furnishings to train local people for jobs, and transferring the skills he learned early on to others through the Diepsloot Youth Projects, a venture he has run in some form or another since he was in high school.

Today, the community organisation receives 60 percent of its funding from the government, has formed its own board, employs 22 full-time members of staff and has trained more than 500 Diepsloot residents and helped over 200 other largely unskilled and financially strapped young people in the township find jobs.

“Diepsloot is very, very tough,” Malatjie admits. “I grew up in an abusive family. But it’s not only me; many young people have been in the same situation …. Growing up, on every third street, you’d hear a woman screaming on the weekend because she has been beaten by her husband.”

But he says it was these childhood realities, with his parents out of work and the family unable to afford such basics as groceries, soap and pens for school, that motivated him.

“I don’t think it is money that holds you back,” he says. “There was lots of poverty. I grew up in a situation where the neighbours even used to tell us how poor we are and how we’d never progress in life. But I decided to say, you know, one day I know I will be somewhere, one day I am going to be leading or doing something that will change the situation of my family and community.

“It’s mentality, it’s the level of thinking that holds people from moving forward. Because there are people who are also from the same area that have progressed in life; it depends on what you are actually telling yourself.”