By Thandiwe Matyobeni and Phillip Nyalungu
Whenever faced with systemic destitution lingering from oppressive political systems, such as monarchies, dictatorships, or capital-driven nation-states, the poor and working-class resort to informal economic activities to survive. These activities are what keep these communities alive, peaceful, and stable.
Unemployment across South Africa is at an unprecedented high, resulting in many households relying on elderly, child, or disability social grants. Informal economic activity helps to supplement grants or, in some cases, help when social grants are not available. Informal activities of various kinds are the backbone of the economy, yet these communities are systematically ignored, berated, outlawed, harassed, or jailed. The waste pickers working and living at the Makana Municipal Landfill in Makhanda have come a long way under these conditions, demonstrating such endurance. In an eerie similarity to apartheid policing, post-apartheid management is hostile towards waste pickers. The wastepickers’ only crime is to try and make an honest living under difficult circumstances.
There is a longstanding history of working class and poor communities resorting to the landfills or dumpsites to look for food and varieties of goods they cannot afford. Waste pickers started going to the dumpsites during the apartheid era. In those days, they had to wait until the landfill closed to enter, risking getting arrested, tortured, or shot. Waste pickers were only legally allowed to enter the landfill sites after democracy, around the time Thabo Mbeki was the president between 1999 and 2008, and only as recycling gained acceptance to mitigate climate change. The waste pickers were mainly from the townships specifically created by the apartheid government to separate Black communities from White communities and, most importantly, to exclude Black people from socioeconomic benefits as townships are generally far from formal economic activities.
This apartheid spatial segregation has unfortunately persisted in post-apartheid South Africa. Many Black working-class and poor communities remain in abject, deep, and abysmal poverty. Within these communities, waste pickers are at the bottom, most vulnerable and exploited.
Waste pickers have been recycling since long before anthropogenic climate change was formally recognised by mainstream global organisations, and the first Climate Change Conference (COP) took place in Geneva in 1979. COP has since become an annual event where governments meet to debate the best policies that can save the environment against pollution, putting pressure on many countries to consider environmental protection. In South Africa, The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) promotes and recognizes recycling as a holistic and sustainable approach to mitigating plastic pollution. This act has resulted in public-private and government incentives for individuals, groups, or firms in recycling activities.
In this context, we believe that if any formal waste management initiatives are to emerge with state support, the waste pickers at the Makana Municipal Landfill deserve to be the first people considered.
In Makhanda, waste pickers were only allowed entry to the municipal landfill when the Makana Municipality awarded some land to a formal company, Masihlule, to process recycled materials. Masihlule processed waste into various materials like heavy-duty plastic planks to make structures like outdoor benches. Some of the products produced were sold to private and public institutions like Rhodes University. Waste pickers were then allowed on the premises to serve as underpaid and unrecognised labour for the company. Under the auspice that Masihlule and the waste pickers were equal partners, the firm was funded by the Social Development Department (SDD) with public and private approval. The pickers were not allowed to sell to anyone but to Masihlule. The wages paid to waste pickers were miserable; they had no safety precautions, no employee benefits, and no worker rights.
Masihlule has since closed and vacated the land, but the waste-pickers remain and continue recycling as they have anywhere else to go. Since Masihlule’s departure, the municipality has started harassing the pickers again and has also demolished the structures Masihlule left behind, which waste pickers used to escape the excruciating hot weather. Masihlule has abandoned the project, leaving waste pickers empty-handed and suffering at the hands of the municipal officials. They are entitled to the land and have the right to use it and manage it on their terms without being intimidated or harassed.
Besides being kicked out and harassed by municipal officials and private entities, Waste pickers vow that they are not going anywhere. They are the rightful owners of the land the municipality originally awarded to Masihlule.
The land waste pickers believed should be theirs was previously awarded to Masihlule. Photo: Nicholas Mpayipheli
On numerous occasions, the Makana Municipality has been taken to court by residents of Makhanda for negligence regarding the landfill. In 2020/2021 the municipality awarded a R20 million, three-year tender to a private company called Mpele Engineering without any consultation with waste pickers already on the site. Since the company has taken control of the site, waste pickers have largely been excluded, and the makeshift structures in which they reside while picking and sorting waste have been demolished. They want to continue to build and stay in these structures to save time until they’ve saved enough money to take home.
According to government tender agreements, any company that is awarded a tender must employ and improve the lives of people already in the area. The current management company only employs one of the waste pickers to instruct vehicles entering the site or picking waste along the fence. Since the management of landfills changed, waste pickers’ lives have gotten worse.
A collective of waste pickers on the municipal landfill have organised themselves as Waste Pickers Movement Makhanda. The movement aims to break the cycle of poverty. They organise and implement projects that can improve their safety and security on the landfill, improve their livelihoods, and transform the dysfunctional waste management in the city. The waste pickers are currently working with invested stakeholders, including the current managers of the landfill. There are also collaborations with Rhodes University through its Anthropology Department.
The collective was formed in 2017 and aims to expand its activities, including further research collaborations with Rhodes University researchers. Their current short-term goal is to restart their community garden on the landfill to improve poor nutrition and potential.
Thandiwe Matyobeni is a Journalism and Media Studies PhD student and Phillip Nyalungu is Sociology student researching the dumpsite. Both Thandi and Phillip are members of an NGO called Grassroots Resilience Stories working with the Waste Pickers Movement Makhanda.