South Africa


Mineral resourcers – Gqeberha’s secret salt harvesters turn to abandoned pans after losing jobs during pandemic

Mineral resourcers – Gqeberha’s secret salt harvesters turn to abandoned pans after losing jobs during pandemic
Many people who lost their jobs during the pandemic have turned to harvesting salt from abandoned pans outside Motherwell in Gqeberha. (Photo: Joseph Chirume)

People who lost their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic have found another way to put food on the table, although it has elicited a warning from the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality.

Melikhaya Sonca from Motherwell in Gqeberha left school in Grade 10 to start working because his parents could not afford to provide for him and his six siblings.

Since then, 30-year-old Sonca has relied on piece jobs to survive. When the pandemic hit in 2020, and jobs were scarce, a friend told him about harvesting salt from the abandoned salt pans just outside Motherwell.

Sonca is now one of dozens of people who harvest and sell the salt to local informal traders. They use a shovel to break the hard top layer and scoop out the salt using the shovel or their bare hands. A square metre can yield several bags of salt. The water is no more than 20cm deep and is surrounded by thick shrubs and prickly pears.

The salt pans where Sonca and others work are about 10km south of Motherwell, spanning an area the size of about six rugby fields. Not all the pans have matured salt, some have a red layer that cannot be harvested. A perennial stream flows into the pans from the Swartkops River.

When we asked the municipality and salt-producing companies in the area, no one accepted responsibility for the pans. We first contacted Cerebos in Gqeberha. We were told the company had not owned the abandoned salt pans.

We were then referred to Marina Sea Salt. We spoke to a person who identified themselves as SS Dandala, compliance and liaison director of Swartkops Sea Salt, a manufacturer of Marina Sea Salt products. “We can categorically state that the company or anyone affiliated to it has never owned, nor used or controlled any salt-producing pans around Motherwell,” said Dandala.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Baleni salt harvesters struggle to pull off tough balancing act

When we visited, Sonca and others were wading through the murky pans. Sonca sells his salt for R40 per 20-litre plastic container to informal traders.

He has two children who attend a primary school in Motherwell and his wife helps him find new customers to sell the salt to.

“It’s not an easy job. There’s also the safety risk because no taxis go that way so we have to walk there. I keep praying that criminals do not rob me. What keeps me going is that there is high demand and very few people are doing this. I’m even able to make sure my wife and children have healthy meals before bed,” he says.

“The salt is very heavy so I only carry one bucket per trip. I have to hire a car, which costs a lot. I’m currently saving to buy my own wheelbarrow.”

Bags of pain relief

Job Saraure, a Zimbabwean, started selling salt after he was retrenched when the company he worked for closed as a result of the pandemic. He says that by selling salt he is able to provide for his wife and child who live in Zimbabwe. Saraure pays R250 per trip for a bakkie to transport his bags from the pans.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Livelihoods of KZN South Coast strelitzia seed pickers under threat

A buyer, Nomonde Mark, says she uses the salt for cooking and in home remedies that help with pain.

When we asked the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality about the pans, spokesperson Mamela Ndamase said the City was not aware that people had been collecting and selling the salt. She cautioned the public against ingesting food and ingredients that had not been tested in line with health and safety laws.

Ndamase could not say which company had abandoned the salt pans. DM


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