Amid lockdown, South Africa’s waste pickers suffer most

Beauty Ncube is surrounded by large bags of paper, plastic and tin cans. Sitting on a broken office chair, she picks at her cuticles. The makeshift disinfectant she has been using has dried her skin.

“Lockdown changed a lot of things for me,” she says. “I was providing for my kids with the little money I’m getting, but now, I’m starving.”
Ncube is a waste picker, or reclaimer, in Johannesburg, and one of the tens of thousands of informal workers across South Africa who earn a livelihood by recovering recyclable materials from municipal waste.

For the first time in her more than 20 years as a reclaimer, Ncube has been prohibited from working in the streets due to a three-week lockdown imposed by the government on March 27 to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The measure has confined South Africans to their homes and allowed only for certain work deemed essential services to continue. While waste management was declared an essential service, the informal recycling sector was not.

Ncube admits she is “scared of this disease” but would like to have continued working, under certain conditions, to support her two teenagers.

“They told us we must not work with the rubbish, because we’re going to affect other people,” she says, with a wry smile. The irony of the rich, predominantly white suburbs where she collects waste being a breeding ground for the virus is not lost on her.

“Maybe we’re going to get infected, also.”
Workers like Ncube do not earn a salary – instead, they get paid for what they collect, usually about 70 South African rand ($3.85) a day. A typical day starts before sunrise, with waste pickers walking to suburbs far away from where they live to search through refuse bags and rubbish bins. After separating the recyclable materials, they load them onto their trolleys and haul them to waste processing and recycling plants to sell them for a small fee.

According to a 2016 report by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, these reclaimers are responsible for the recycling of 80 to 90 percent of South Africa’s used packaging and paper. It is also estimated that this informal sector saves municipalities up to almost 750 million rand ($42m) annually in potential landfill costs by diverting recyclable materials out of the waste streams.

While there is no official data, some estimates put the number of waste pickers in South Africa between 60,000 and 90,000. But with unemployment at more than 29 percent, the actual figure could be much higher in.

Ncube is one of some 250 waste pickers who live in an abandoned school in central Johannesburg. The community is aptly known as Bekezela, which means “to endure” or “to persevere” in isiZulu, one of South Africa’s 11 offical languages.

Over the years, Bekezela has withstood a number of violent eviction attempts, as well as pervasive prejudice and marginalisation. Ncube says she does not know why they are being treated this way – their work is important for their families, their society and their environment.Still, the residents of Bekezela have managed to work as a collective and fight for their rights, creating bespoke recycling programmes for the community and the areas they operate in. They have also been able to secure a truck to assist with the transporting of materials, which has helped to significantly increase their daily haul.All this has primarily happened under the banner of the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO), an organisation founded by the community in 2018. Their long-term goal has been to eventually open their own recycling hub and plastic processing plant – but the coronavirus pandemic has brought their aspirations to a jarring halt.

“One day of no work burns the pockets, especially in a community that lives from hand-to-mouth,” says Luyanda Hlatshwayo, ARO founding member. “Twenty-one days is going to be difficult,” he sighs, shaking his head.

More than a week into the lockdown, he says the effects are already being felt by the community. Behind him, graffiti adorns the walls under the bridge. A spray-painted rhino is framed by: “I won’t give up.” Next to it is another mural proclaiming Bekezela as: “A place like home.”

Past the graffitied walls, the usually bustling streets are quiet except for the occasional police and military patrols enforcing the lockdown.

People have been donating food, but this, Hlatshwayo says, is not enough. “Who do we give the food to? How do we decide?” Two toddlers nearby clumsily chase a chicken. His people are starving. “This is the true coronavirus crisis – here, at the bottom of the food chain.”

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