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South Africa: Bedsheets to shirts for some of Cape Town's poorest children

School in Cape Town   -  
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South Africa

Discarded bedsheets from some of Cape Town's finest hotels are finding a new life, transformed into school shirts for some of the city's poorest children.

Posh hotels throw away their bedsheets before they show signs of wear and tear. Danolene Johannesen takes thousands of those sheets and brings them into her company's sewing workshop to make the crisp white shirts that schoolchildren across South Africa are required to wear.

"We wanted to look at a way, how we keep our children in school, how we get them dressed for school, and how we just... boost their self-esteem," Johannesen said.

The project runs through her company Restore SA, using the popular abbreviation for South Africa. Since starting in 2015, Johannesen and her team have dressed almost 100,000 children using old linen.

From one king-sized bedsheet, they can make five shirts. South African public schools require children to wear uniforms, one small way of bridging the country's glaring social divides.

A journey from rich suburbs to poor slums

From the richest suburbs to the poorest slums, primary children dress in white shirts, grey shorts or skirts, and knee-high socks.

But in the poorest families, even these simple outfits can cost too much. South Africa's dismal unemployment rate of more than 35 percent was worsened by the Covid pandemic.

But through recycling old linen donated by hotels, Johannesen keeps children in school. "Every year we do at least 10,000 shirts, and that is about 1,800 sheets that we cut up and make shirts from," she said.

In Tamboerskloof, one of the city's most desirable neighbourhoods, Pamela Nayler runs the Parker Cottage boutique hotel on the slopes of the iconic Signal Hill. The beds are picture-perfect, piled high with throw pillows. The sheets have to be replaced often to meet their guests exacting expectations.

Nayler learnt about the sheets-to-shirts project through her linen suppliers, and "we are giving them the old linen now, to make school shirts".

Nearly 200 kilometres (120 miles) away in Bonnievale, Lemiese Pieterse's daughter attends a local school.

With simple blue buildings and modest gardens, Bonnievale Primary School is humble but far better than many in South Africa. Still, life is expensive and Pieterse says the shirts from bedsheets are a lifesaver. No one can tell the difference from store-bought shirts. "I came here to collect a shirt for my daughter and I am very blessed," she said.

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