Our Burning Planet


Gauteng’s Green Army — cleaning and greening as they fight environmental degradation

Gauteng’s Green Army — cleaning and greening as they fight environmental degradation
Spinach is among the vegetables grown at the Rev Motlalepula Chabaku Food Garden. (Photo: Sandile Nkomo / GDARDE)

The Green Army employs more than 6,000 people in Gauteng who clean illegal dumping sites and clear open and green spaces while promoting communal and household food gardens.

The Green Army, an initiative by Gauteng’s Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment, has been a lifeline for unemployed young people in the province, but also for the environment.

gauteng green army

An array of tomatoes alongside chillies, kale, umhlonyane and cabbage, among other vegetables. (Photo: Sandile Nkomo / GDARDE)

Across the province, the Green Army employs more than 6,000 people who clean up illegal dumping sites and clear open and green spaces, while promoting communal and household food gardens. 

The Green Army is part of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), which mainly operates in townships, informal settlements and hostels.

Daily Maverick recently spent a morning with the Green Army in Moroka, Soweto, as they cleared waste from illegal dumping sites and worked in community food gardens.

gauteng green army

The Gauteng Green Army in Moroka, Soweto, is an initiative by the Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment to keep township spaces clean while also boosting gardens in the areas. (Photo: Sandile Nkomo / GDARDE)

Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment MEC Mbali Hlophe told Daily Maverick that the programme was part of the province’s effort to promote sustainability while addressing the scourge of youth unemployment.

“On the environmental side of things, we are aware that we are dealing with the issues of climate change and air quality. So the brigades assist in terms of cleaning our environment and planting trees to create a better environment for our people and our children.

“We have also been able to establish food gardens as part of our priority of addressing food security, particularly among vulnerable groups such as old, disabled and destitute people. We endeavour to make sure they are able to be self-sustainable over and above a food parcel as this programme assists them with home gardens,” Hlophe said. 

gauteng green army

Spinach grown at the Rev Motlalepula Chabaku Food Garden. (Photo: Sandile Nkomo / GDARDE)

More than 25 households in three wards in Soweto had established food gardens as a result of the programme, which began in May 2023. The MEC said her department had helped homes with spatial challenges to establish vertical gardens. Some of these gardens have been established in elderly and child-headed households. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Community food systems can help alleviate the scourge of hunger, say activists

Statistics South Africa has found that only 6.4% of households in Gauteng are engaged in agricultural activity. 

Research published in the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development found that more than 80% of households that received government support from an initiative in Gauteng in 1997, the Homestead Food Garden programme, continued to cultivate their gardens.

Matshidiso Koena (39), a supervisor for the Green Army in Soweto, told Daily Maverick there had been a difference in her community since they began operating there.

The group collects about 800 refuse bags when it focuses on cleaning from Monday to Wednesday every week. They spend Thursdays and Fridays on gardening activities. 

gauteng green army

The Green Army clears waste at an illegal dump site in Moroka, Soweto during a clean-up operation in the area. Food has been found to be one of the major items dumped in the area. (Photo: Sandile Nkomo / GDARDE)

“There is a difference in terms of waste. There is also an impact that we have in the community, even with the gardens. We are seeing more families coming to collect the vegetables that we have planted, especially the spinach, cabbage, potatoes… I have established more than 10 gardens in the wards that I am supervising. Whatever we have planted is shared with the community or is donated to those who need it,” Koena said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Food gardens in schools can harvest a sustainable future for communities through organic farming

Boy Chiloane, the manager of the Rev Motlalepula Chabaku Food Garden, said some of the produce — spinach, kale, tomatoes, chillies and cabbage — was taken to the nearby crèche.  

gauteng green army

Cabbage at the Rev Motlalepula Chabaku Food Garden in Soweto. The Green Army also works in the garden, lending a hand with planting, maintenance and harvesting. (Photo: Sandile Nkomo / GDARDE)

He said Gauteng’s Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment (GDARDE) had been of great support and had supplied compost, seeds, hosepipes and pesticides, among other necessities. 

Gunned down

While the programme has breathed new life into the greening initiatives of townships, hostels and informal settlements, it hasn’t been without its challenges.

Last month, a Green Army member was gunned down while on the job at Jabulani Hostel. The motive was unclear but was said to be unrelated to the job. Last year, the department faced payment challenges with some of its workers.

Mbuso Mthenjwa (25), a team leader of the Moroka, Soweto, Green Army, told Daily Maverick that the setbacks with Joburg’s waste management service provider, Pikitup, had resulted in the rise of illegal dumping sites as people didn’t know where to leave their waste. He said he and his team had been engaging with the community and educating them on the importance of maintaining green spaces.

“It has been a learning experience and also very productive. Thanks to GDARDE, the area is developing in terms of greening, vegetation, waste [management] and employment — there is a difference. It has really, really helped young people the most.

“The programme has positively impacted the participants. We have learnt a lot. We have learnt about waste management and separation, even in our own homes there has been a change thanks to the training we received.” DM

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