Lockdown tale of an enterprising recycler and vegan

Thulani Msibande moved to Johannesburg in the early 2000s in search of economic opportunity. He was on the verge of a business breakthrough when the coronavirus struck.

My name is Thulani Maxwell Msibande. I am 36 years old, from Mutale in Limpopo province, but I have spent most of my life in Johannesburg. I came to the city in the early 21st century.

We all travel to secure a better life or in search of knowledge and wisdom and it was the pursuit of entrepreneurship that brought me here. Folovhodwe, the community in Mutale where I am from, was doing absolutely nothing to try and combat unemployment, with the government corrupt. I was 16 years old but had big dreams, big goals, with no support structure.

Growing up in the rural areas, you never get to know the options you have in life. At a certain point in life you are told to wake up, eat, bath and sleep. A few years later, you are now being woken up to go to school, and told to stay away from girls until university. After a few years, you start working before even travelling the world. The same people who told you to stay away from girls start asking, when are you getting married? In my early childhood we had one pot cooked for all, we had no choice but to eat what had been cooked.

My father’s teachings and the odds of life have made me who I am today. 

6 June 2020: Thulani Msibande tries out the wheels on his trolley after servicing it. The wheels are the most crucial part, enabling recyclers like Msibande to haul massive loads over long distances.

My first stop to try my ability was the Jozi streets. It was a totally different environment back then. We were only a few recyclers and the drug pandemic was not there. That’s where I first learnt about recycling: we had to work in the morning and evening daily. I also offered handyman services, all thanks to my father, may he rest in peace. He taught me how to work using my hands. I am the eldest in a family of four children. My brother is in the Northern Cape, while my sister is in Pretoria and the last-born is staying with my half-sister. I have a seven-year-old son who stays with his grandmother in Klerksdorp.

6 June 2020: Thulani Msibande smashes glass bottles in the garage of the abandoned building on  Delvers Street in which he lives and works.

I grew up an aspiring vegan, so that l even had to start my own vegetable garden when l was young, with the help of my father. No one in my family ever dreamed of or even mentioned being vegan, l was born with meat lovers. My parents always told me that l was different and l was very choosy. When my eyes started to open, l knew l wanted to be vegan.

When I moved to Johannesburg, l was able to explore and try the way of life l have always wanted. This was not an experiment but a fulfillment of a prophecy. It’s not what you put on that will give you good skin, good health, long life… it’s what you put in that will take you to your destiny.

6 June 2020: Thulani Msibande prepares to head out and try to sell his load of glass in the neighbourhoods of Marshalltown and Jeppe.

City of Gold

6 June 2020: Thulani Msibande pulls his trolley through the streets of central Johannesburg, with the Hillbrow Tower looming in the background. Despite his daily challenges in the city, Joburg has provided hope and opportunity for him.

I started recycling on 24 December 2004, when l learnt the biggest lie that no matric, no employment. Education was or is painted as the only key to a good life, if not the best. With recycling, you will never go a day on an empty stomach if you are not locked down, simply because recyclables are everywhere, especially in the City of Gold. When l started recycling in 2004, l would make a minimum of R60 a day, which covered my meals, accommodation and other basic needs. When l started, l used to collect only boxes because they were easy to transport and involved less labour.

Delvers Street is my current place of residence. The owner of the building I live in went overseas, left someone in charge. Some people came and took over the building and apparently there is a committee and a lawyer in charge. How it works is you buy a room from anyone who is selling, but you have to check if the room belongs to that person. We have had instances where people bought rooms only to discover a few months later that the person who sold the room was a fraud. Some discover this when the real owner comes to occupy their room, as the majority of the owners are from KwaZulu-Natal. The rooms start from R700 once-off, depending on the size and location and the nature, because some of the rooms are inside rooms with no windows and most of the rooms are made out of partitioning boards.

My building has no toilets or electricity. We have to make use of public toilets at emaXhoseni three streets away, towards Absa Towers. Alternatively, Carlton Centre. But during this Covid-19 lockdown the centre is only open for shoppers and toilets are closed. As there is no electricity, candles provide light and paraffin stoves are used by many. Only a few working people use gas and rechargeable lights for lighting and cooking. Delvers Close is a home for many old, young, single, married, families, sick, disabled, unemployed and waste pickers who are trying to make ends meet in the City of Gold, and of course a few tsotsis.

6 June 2020: Recyclers from around the city bring their loads to recycling depots in Jeppe and Marshalltown. One of the reasons Thulani Msibande chooses to recycle glass is because it is less competitive than other materials in a market that can turn violent.


The lockdown is one of those unforeseeable disasters that happen when we least expect it and are least prepared to deal with whatever it will be throwing at you. It’s a matter of survival of the fittest and making ends meet despite the odds. Actually, it tested if l can survive and swiftly shift from one kind of life to another. Spending a night with an empty stomach is not the first and won’t be the last, you just have to have your survival skills on standby. As difficult as it is for every human being in the world, can you imagine being a reclaimer who survives from hand to mouth? It is now a matter of each man for himself, God for us all. We had to stop collecting recyclables because of the lockdown.

6 June 2020: Thulani Msibande inside his single-room accommodation in an abandoned building in Delvers Street. It is fortunate the room has windows, which let in light. Many others do not, although broken windows let in the cold. Msibande writes inspirational messages to himself on his walls.

On 1 May, South Africa moved from level five to level four and most people in my community didn’t have masks. Food is still a big shortage. I love cooking. There is nothing that brings joy in my life like touching the souls of many through a plate full of love. When you make a meal out of love, you are sharing the love energies with anyone who will partake in that meal.

Cooking is an opportunity to share my skills and recipes with fellow vegans and non-vegans, hoping they will turn to the vegan way. A kitchen is a place of healing not killing, which makes cooking an art. Vegetables boost your immune system. Vegan meals are easy to cook. It’s only the mixing and portioning of the vegetables that make most people fail the vegan route, or the love of meat.

The government hardly helps people in need. Since the lockdown, the only help we got for food parcels would not even last a person staying alone a week. It was a drop in the ocean. The South African Social Security Agency contact number for food parcels is always busy. l have tried it several times with no luck. Our government does things for publicity. Most people who really need help end up getting help from non-governmental organisations, churches, individuals, etc.

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As for the police, the South African National Defence Force and private security guards, they were dogs off the leash. They would come in at high speed firing rubber bullets at anyone in the street. I saw no need for that. This was a time for them to educate the public, because most until today still don’t really know what is going on. People don’t need to be scared but educated. Not everyone has access to updates of what is really happening. Some people get news updates from our own people, who add their own info to the information they have received.

As a recycler, being locked down means no work, no pay, no money, no food. I am one of the few lucky ones, where l am staying l don’t pay rent but that comes with the environment. Not being able to recycle is like being in a prison cell. I have failed so many times in my life, but the lockdown felt like the biggest failure as I was at the peak of registering, planning and researching Mzobanzi Recycling, my own enterprise. Entrepreneurship is jumping off the cliff without a parachute and you make one on your way down.

6 June 2020: Thulani Msibande in the garage of the abandoned building where he lives and works.
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