On Wednesday November 1st, 2017, more than 500 wastepickers from over 70 dumping sites within the City of Tshwane took to the streets in response to the City’s failure to employ 261 wastepickers who were displaced after the closure of Kwaggasrand landfill (1). They marched with waste-collection bags and garbage down Madiba Street until they reached Tshwane House, where they delivered a memorandum of their grievances (2). The overarching demand of the wastepickers was that they wanted the City to do more to support their livelihoods. The national movement of wastepickers, the South African Waste Pickers’ Association (SAWPA), and the environmental justice NGO groundWork also called for greater support in securing and dignifying waste picker livelihoods. They also emphasized how the threat of toxics exposure at poorly managed landfills makes informal waste recovery a major health risk that can lead to wastepicker accidents, injuries, and even death (1). As the hundreds of protestors marched behind SAWPA, they chanted, “We are fighting for our rights - we are fighting for our livelihoods (2).”
Eight months prior to the march, SAWPA had been attempting to make contact with the City with little success. The Waste Act of 2008 stipulates that waste reduction and diversion from landfills was going to be the government’s main priority (2). However, according to SAWPA chairperson Simon Mbatha, three landfills had been closed down over the past five years without the consideration of alternatives that would benefit waste pickers, who have provided a valuable service to the City and its people (2). Mbatha noted the important role that wastepickers play in waste management and in easing the burden of Tshwane’s unemployment. “We want to ensure the integration of waste pickers into the City's waste-management system. Wastepickers segregate, pick up and recycle waste, which ensures the prolonged lifespan of the dump sites (2).” The wastepickers’ memorandum also highlighted how their contribution to materials recovery at dump sites and along city streets goes largely unrecognized.
During the march, wastepickers called on the City to stop the privatisation of waste management projects that take away their only source of income, and demanded that the City develop local governmental capacity to engage with wastepickers and build co-operative managed materials recovery, composting, and biogas facilities (2). While Mbatha claimed that wastepickers had been working hand-in-hand with the Department of Environmental Affairs to ensure formal integration into the waste management system, the City still seemed to be distant and unwilling to come to the table, which is why they eventually decided to take their demands to the streets. At the end of the march, the memorandum was given to Mandla Nkomo, member of the mayoral council (MMC) for housing and human settlements, who assured the protesters that it would reach the relevant authorities (2)
On September 3rd 2017, almost two months prior to the protest, 200 Gauteng wastepickers at Mehlareng Stadium received motorized three-wheeled vehicles during Gauteng Premier David Makhura’s official unveiling and launch of an ambitious multi-million Rand wastepickers pilot project (3,4). A statement prepared by the Gauteng Department of Economic Development, Environment, Agriculture and Rural Development noted that the waste recycler’s project was launched to integrate informal recycling cooperatives into the mainstream waste economy, provide income earning opportunities to large numbers of poor community members, and pursue alternatives to landfilling by encouraging reuse, recycling, and overall waste reduction (3). With the intention of creating jobs, establishing new enterprises, and stimulating the local green economy, the project covers all five development corridors that make up the Gauteng City Region, namely West Rand, Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, Tshwane and Sedibeng (3). The department claimed to acknowledge the historical role of big monopolies across the waste sector while assuring that the project would be a significant step towards radically transforming the economy in line with the Gauteng Economic Development Plan’s strategic interventions. This would be accomplished by changing the face and ownership of the waste sector to include historically disadvantaged individuals (HDIs), providing the aforementioned 200 vehicles to local waste co-operatives and small, medium, and micro-sized enterprises (SMMEs), and providing 2,000 households with receptacles for sorting recycling at the source (3). Gauteng’s has approximately 50,000 informal wastepickers, who sort and recycle through the burden of more than half of South Africa’s waste (4). Unsurprisingly, most wastepickers have not benefited since the announcement of the waste recycler’s project, and many in the City of Tshwane still live in precarity and with the threat of eviction
For over 16 years, a group of nearly 100 resident wastepickers who refer to themselves as bagerezi (hustlers) have lived in Mushroomville, a small portion of land located just opposite the Supersport Park cricket stadium in Centurion, on the banks of the Hennops River (5,6). They construct modest shelters out of plastic sheets and cardboard, and make a living by selling recyclable goods and contributing positively to the environment (6,7). On Thursday December 13th, 2017, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) opposed an application in the Pretoria High Court on behalf of these wastepickers, who faced imminent eviction from their homes (5). The application was filed by Turnover Trading 191 (Pty) Ltd, the owner of the property, and contained an interdict against waste picking as well as an eviction order. They reasoned that the City’s failure to secure alternative wastepicker accommodation was a violation of their constitutional rights to access adequate housing. And while this argument was used in an attempt to justify the eviction, the real motivation behind Turnover Trading’s application was to use the occupied land for construction of a new hotel (6). Instances such as this are a testament to the disregard and dismissal that wastepickers in Tshwane deal with on a daily basis.
Prior to the eviction case, the City had submitted a report that included alternative accommodation options for Mushroomville residents, and it was not accepted by wastepickers because the two options it provided - Hennopspark and Sutherland - were 15 km away and already inhabited by other wastepickers (7). The report also failed to provide any details regarding how wastepickers were supposedly being included in the City’s waste management planning efforts. In response, LHR attorney Hlengiwe Mtshatsha told GroundUp that, “the City really doesn’t have a plan at this point and we are forcing the City to take responsibility (7).” Activists like Mtshatsha see how Integrated Development Planning budgets and policies, and municipal laws like those in the City of Tshwane, have adopted an anti-poor stance towards wastepickers like those in Mushroomville. She sees this case as being about much more than providing alternative accommodation. “This is not your average eviction case and it shouldn’t be treated that way by the courts … It is about the fact that these people have lived and worked in this area for almost 16 years. This is their livelihoods and taking them away from that area means taking them away from their means of survival (7).” She also said that instead of considering an eviction order, the court should interrogate why the City’s waste management policies have mostly worked to exclude waste pickers (7). She’s right, and in considering this point, it is important to note that this is an example of a larger socio-economic phenomenon in the region.
In South Africa, and in many African countries, people from surrounding countries and towns migrate to larger cities like Tshwane in search of economic opportunity. Without formal options to sustain themselves and their families, many migrants take up waste picking and recycling. Ernest Reletooane, a 59 year-old man born in Lesotho, left his wife and three children behind 33 years ago and moved to South Africa to find work in the mines in Rustenburg. He worked for Lonmin in Marikana, but after his contract was terminated in 2012, Ernest was unable to find work and returned to Lesotho, where he found the employment situation was even worse. A year later he went back in South Africa, where his brother told him about Mushroomvile (7). Once a construction contract he entered into after first arriving had ended, Ernest decided to take up wastepicking with no prior knowledge because he had few other options. As he recalls, “When I got [to Mushroomville], they [the wastepickers there] welcomed me … You see, most of us here are from Lesotho and we understand the situation back home when it comes to work so we support each other. Sometimes we can leave here at 6am and come back pulling empty trolleys … It’s not an easy life but I have to do it to support my family back home,” he says (7). Ernest has since become a father of the Mushroomville wastepicker community.
Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) officer Vanessa Pillay also understands how wastepickers in Mushroomville live there for socio-economic reasons: so that they can be close to the means of collection, which is the surrounding suburbs. Pillay highlights the gendered aspect of wastepicking, and how mothers and daughters often end up doing this work from generation to generation. She also notes how the City of Tshwane’s profit motive contributes to the City’s prioritization of recycling as a multimillion-rand industry rather than a socially responsible sector of the economy with the potential to incorporate and elevate ongoing wastepicker activities. She says that, “The City is equally guilty of criminalising the informality or poverty of waste pickers, so it needs to align its policy and its processes to recognise the work of waste pickers and integrate them properly into the City’s solid waste management system (6).” LHR candidate attorney Afika Nqeto says the City has shown how anti-poor it is by choosing locations far from the bagerezi’s economic activities. “The most glaring issue with all the identified land sites is that they essentially banish poor people to live on the periphery of the cities. This is a blatant attempt by Tshwane to kick out undesirables and reclaim the city for their wealthier urban counterparts.” Rather than offering support and better opportunities to these workers, local municipalities instead make efforts to push wastepickers out of metropolitan city centers (7). The case in Mushroomville is not simply about whether emergency accommodation is provided once an eviction order is granted. It is about the livelihoods of dozens of desperate people who have migrated internally and from neighbouring countries. Recyclers are entrepreneurs who are trying to make a living and they will naturally reside near places with high economic activity and where their clientele can easily access their services (5).
The wastpickers of Mushroomville are no longer facing eviction, at least not immediately (7).The Pretoria High Court has told the waste pickers, the City of Tshwane, and the owners of the property to make submissions on what they want. The court will then try to find a fair solution that suits everyone (7). City of Tshwane mayoral committee member for agriculture and environmental management Mike Mkhari says that the City wants to formalize the wastepickers, teach them about business and regulate them. But at the same time, Mkhari maintains that current waste pickers’ activities are polluting the area (6). These contradictory statements, in addition to the City’s history of wastepicker neglect and dismissal, indicate this conflict is far from over. Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) will argue that based on international law (i.e. the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified by South Africa in 2015) and the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, the informal reclaimers have a right to earn a living and the municipality has a duty to protect, promote and fulfil this right (8). As has been mentioned, wastepickers rely on their recycling activities as a means of survival for themselves and their families.
“In spite of the integral role they play in the recycling industry, informal reclaimers have been forced to deal with heavy stigma, precarious living and working conditions and continuous harassment by law enforcement agencies," says Thandeka Chauke, LHR legal counsellor. “This is largely due to the lack of adequate laws and policies that protect them and integrate them in the environmental and waste management systems of the various metropolitan cities, including the City of Tshwane.” Until things change, WIEGO and Project Zion will continue working closely with reclaimer communities in Tshwane towards a long-term integration plan (8).