A day in the life of a municipal sewerage worker
“When I started I had to fight off nausea”
Hamilton Mkhize, 45, earns a living by cleaning Cape Town’s blocked municipal sewers, a job most people would prefer to avoid.
When residents see him in action in the midst of overflowing raw faeces, they spit on the ground. But, he says, he manages to keep his spirits up throughout the workday.
When GroundUp spoke to him on Wednesday his protective garments, rubber gloves and coat, were dripping raw sewage. Excrement was stuck on his beanie and even on his face as he worked on a blocked main sewer in Dunoon’s Waxberry Street.
He removed the manhole cover and jumped inside to start removing foreign objects. Then he and his colleague used a high-pressure jet to remove build-up and obstructions in the sewer.
Because of the growing population in Dunoon and frequent sewage flooding, the street is a familiar sight for him.
Mkhize has been working for a City contractor, Quetzal Trading, for ten years, cleaning and unblocking sewers.
He says he has got used to the smell over the years. He has to do this work, he says, to feed his family. “For me, fixing blocked sewers, touching raw faeces is my bread and butter.
“When I started I had to fight off nausea and it was not easy to have a meal after work,” he says. “I could not eat for three days in a row.”
But now, Mkhize says, he is used to it. He enjoys his meal soon after cleaning up after work. “I am used to this job now. It is my daily bread. Without this, I can’t do anything. I am proud of this job.”
He earns R3,200 fortnightly, more when he works overtime.
“We get provident fund benefits, medical aid and a food parcel at the end of the year which for me is good enough.”
His day starts at 7:20am and ends at 4:20pm and he can visit three sites within that time. Asked if he gets sick, he says the sewerage workers are inoculated.
When unblocking the sewers, he says, they find dead dogs, cats, sheep heads. Sometimes they find a foetus. “We have found a nine-months, fully developed baby. It is very traumatising.”
“The community needs to be educated about the importance of sewer manholes. They remove the cover and throw in foreign objects.” Overpopulation is also contributing to ongoing sewer problems in Dunoon, says Mkhize.
His colleague, Morris Ngadu, is a refugee. He fled political violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2002. In the DRC he was an accountant, but in South Africa he first got a job as a security guard and three years ago joined Mkhize. He supports his wife and two children.
“We use antiseptics. There is nothing to worry about. I clean my hands before eating,” he says.
Mkhize says his children know what he does but he isn’t sure if they understand. “They have never seen me in action. If they were to see me in action with their friends … I don’t know if they would point to me to say ‘that is my father’.”
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