Waste pickers reclaim their power

Luyanda Hlatshwayo’s and Steven Leeu’s phones are perpetually dead. They are members of the Johannesburg-based African Reclaimers Organisation and have had to spring into action during the national shutdown.

The lockdown has threatened the livelihoods of the reclaimers, who each year separate and collect between 80% and 90% of the country’s recyclable waste from people’s bins.

The government does not regard them as essential workers, which means they cannot work during the lockdown. Yet they save municipalities between R309-million and R749-million a year “at little to no cost” by diverting recyclable materials away from landfills, according to a 2016 study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Each reclaimer moves between 16 and 24 tonnes of waste every year, the study notes.

And while the government has announced a number of measures aimed at providing relief to non-essential workers, none of these cover the country’s almost three million informal sector workers.

On Tuesday, Lawyers for Human Rights argued at the Pretoria high court that reclaimers provide an essential service to the country.

Hlatshwayo says the reclaimers are used to being left out of government’s plans. “What’s going to make it any different now?”

But he says: “We will do our part.”

The organisation’s activists have been working tirelessly to support Johannesburg’s more than 3000 reclaimers and their families by ensuring they don’t go hungry or get sick during the 21-day lockdown.

Reclaimers who continue to work risk being exposed to Covid-19 as they sort through people’s trash. Hlatshwayo says, on top of everything else, the lockdown has caused the prices of the recycled materials they sell to plummet.

 Waste reclaimer Ntate Mashini. (Paul Botes/M&G)

The organisation’s members, who have managed to get permits to move around during the lockdown, delivered food parcels, soap and bleach to reclaimers all around Johannesburg over the weekend.


Hlatshwayo says knowing he can help in some way “makes me sleep much better at night”.

“I wake up jumping every day. If it’s in my blood, I don’t know. We can’t continue letting the government continue making decisions that affect the livelihoods of people.”

Leeu says some reclaimers have decided to continue working “because they feel they can’t just stay doing nothing”.

“And at the same time, they are hungry. At least when they are out, residents are able to give him something to eat.”

Beyond the difficulties of losing his income, Leeu says he has been overwhelmed by the stress of trying to reach as many reclaimers as possible during the lockdown.

It is difficult to organise the reclaimers. They work alone and many of them don’t have cell phones because they will get stolen anyway.

“We get calls from different people. They say: ‘Can you come and help, we’ve got problems. We are being harassed by police.’ And we go there and try to find a solution,” Leeu says.

“It takes a reclaimer to organise another reclaimer, because we know each other.”

Leeu has been a reclaimer for more than a decade. It’s tough work, he says.

“Can you imagine pulling a trolley from Newtown to Rosebank. And then by early morning I must get to Northcliff. I am here in Newtown. I am pulling a trolley and I must wake up in the morning at least by three o’clock. I start walking going to Northcliff and then I come back with a trolley weighing between 200 and 300kg.”

Like many others, he started reclaiming out of necessity: “I had nothing else to do. My father was not working. My siblings were suffering. I had made some friends in town who were doing waste picking. And then I got myself a trolley and I started doing this. And then I got too much involved in it. Once you are stuck into waste picking it is not easy to get out.”

Leeu says his “wish is that through all this — through this crisis that we are facing — we are able to come up with solutions. And I really hope that reclaimers can now be seen as doing work that is essential.”

To assist the African Reclaimers Organisation raise money to distribute food, sanitisers and other supplies, go to backabuddy.co.za/aro-solidarity. If you have questions, contact [email protected]

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
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