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Under an overcast Johannesburg sky, an army of more than 150 City of Johannesburg workers and Region C officials descended on the Kloofendal Conservation Area in Ward 85 in Roodepoort, on the West Rand.

The chilly morning weather and the threat of rain did not seem to discourage them from undertaking this important mission of ridding this environmentally significant area of an assortment of waste material that made it unsightly.

The area – which stretches from the corner of Jim Fouche and Christian de Wet streets right up to the service station near Clearwater Mall – lies in rough terrain: rocky and steep, and very difficult to access.

The road is framed by rocks on one side and a ravine on the other, with barriers to stop speeding cars from going off the road.

Summer rains in recent weeks mean that the conservation area is overgrown with grass and trees. So the grass had to be cut, trees trimmed, damaged barriers repaired and faulty street lights replaced. Deep in the gorge the army of workers had to find and collect rubbish, pack it into bags and bring it up to the road, from where Pikitup trucks would remove it.

Phindile Lakaje, Deputy Director of the City’s Integrated Community Outreach Programme, led the clean-up exercise.

Kitted out in a workman’s suit top, work boots, gloves and a bin liner, Lakaje, her colleagues and the Community Work Programme (CWP) workers got down to work at around 9am.

Veronica Tsotetsi, leader of the 22-strong CWP workers, organised her colleagues as they prepared to go down the steep ravine to clean up the conservation area.

Across the road, several Johannesburg City Parks & Zoo workers were already cutting the grass along the road and down in the gorge. The grass cutters also trimmed the trees whose branches were hanging too close to the road.

The Johannesburg Roads Agency was there to replace the 20 faulty street lights along the road, while the Johannesburg Metro Police Department officials busied were seen ferrying the workers to the site and leading them into the ravine.

Distinct in their bright orange work suits, CWP workers buzzed around like bees. Divided into groups, they picked the litter and placed it into the plastic bags. Then they sorted the abandoned bags of recycling bottles, plastics, paper and other materials that littered the area.

Several surprises awaited the workers and officials in the ravine – a community of more than 10 homeless people who had put up illegal shacks.  “We found at least 10 homeless people there. One of them ran away. We found stolen also cables and recycling materials,” said Lakaje.

The homeless people were taken away by the Department of Home Affairs officials to have their status verified. One person escaped and officials suspected he was wanted for some crimes. “We have to establish whether they are South African citizens or not. The police will do the paperwork and if they are in the country illegally or if they have overstayed their visas, we will send them to Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp, from where they will be deported,” said Tebogo Motseta a Department of Home Affairs official.

Her colleague, Pumeza Caga, said it was common to find illegal immigrants during such operations. She added that locals would be referred to the Department of Social Development for assistance.

They also found a small kitten. Lakaje was so worried about the kitten that she called the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) personnel to ask if they could take the kitten in. “It’s so small and it’s been crying all the time. It’s probably hungry and cold,” she said. The kitten was later dropped off at the local SPCA.

Tsotetsi and her CWP colleagues were brought in from Davidsonville in Roodepoort, where they normally work. “There are 22 of us in this group. We normally work two days a week. What we earn is not much but it makes a huge difference because it puts food on the table. We clean up streets, graveyards and schools. We have been doing this for three years at least,” she said.