They keep their heads low, always looking forward. Shying away from the sun, they pull a load larger than the cars that aggressively race past them. Sweat pours over their worn out shoulders as they struggle for breath. It’s tough work, but they need to eat, they need to live.
This is the daily struggle of informal waste collectors in Johannesburg. They are part of the city; but the city doesn’t appreciate them. They’re called walkers of the street, or the cockroaches of the suburbs.
The waste collectors, however, don’t have any other option. They do this work to survive.
“I had no choice. After [the Marikana massacre] I was retrenched. My mother died and I had no food. I heard here in Joburg that people were making money, maybe R100 to R150 per day. So I thought this is what I need to do to make sure my family and I have something to eat,” says Lebogang Rapoo.
He smiles when he talks about his five children, but his work means he hasn’t seen them in years.
“I haven’t seen my family in two years, but what can I do?”
Rapoo had no money to go home for Christmas last year.
“I would rather be dead at Christmas time than to suffer the way I did. There was no food, nothing at all. The dustbins were empty and there was nothing I could gather to exchange for food. I was so hungry I did not know what to do. I walked from door to door, the people chased me away thinking I am a criminal.”
Rapoo lives on less than R300 ($22) a week. The bulk of that money is sent home, the rest he uses for food. It is a daily challenge to find recyclable goods they can trade. Finding white paper is considered a treasure for them as one kilogram can pay about R5 (around $0.40). To make an amount worth their while, they need to find at least 10 cardboard boxes a day to earn about R1.20, depending on the sizes of the boxes. Twenty plastic bottles will get them about R5 ($0.40) and cans trade for up to R1 ($0.10) per kilogram.
They are slaves to their own survival.
“Welcome to my home,” says Rapoo, pointing towards a space next to a wall of an abandoned building where Corlett drive meets Oxford street, near the plush suburbs of Melrose and Illovo. He dusts off an empty bucket and spreads a dry washcloth over it, making a seat for me. Rapoo and his eight street-dwelling friends are all sitting on buckets around a small fire made of twigs and dried grass. He stirs a pot of rice and empties a packet of soup powder into a burned coffee tin. His bed is a couple of cardboard boxes stacked on a torn piece of industrial plastic. At night, he covers himself in the plastic to keep dry and warm.
The waste collectors are breaking by-laws by trading on the streets and by using the roads to transport their goods.
“Last week the police came; they chased us away. They burned our beds and all our blankets, telling us to go find another place to sleep. They say the residents don’t want us here. But what must we do? We have nowhere to go,” says Rapoo.
The unregulated informal industry works on a first come, first served basis. The collectors get up at 3AM every morning. They have to get to the dustbins before the municipalities take away their treasures. They walk without counting the steps; on Mondays they walk to Linden; Tuesdays to Rosebank, Melrose, Parkhurst and Killarney; Thursdays to Northcliff and Fridays to Blairgowrie. The routes they take to collect trash range between five and 20 kilometers. On Thursdays, Rapoo sometimes sleeps on sidewalks between Northcliff and Rosebank because his ‘house’ is too far for a day’s walk. For this, he earns less than R300 a week.
“I made my trolley into a double decker, so I can carry more waste to recycle. Sometimes I pull 180kg, and then I get more money. Sometimes I only collect 90kg. Every three days, when my trolley is full, I walk to the recycling depot in Alexandra. Then I get money; I can eat again,” he says.
According to Plastic SA, the umbrella organization for the local plastics industry, the informal waste collectors’ treasures make up more than 80% of all recycled material in the province of Gauteng. Without the informal waste collectors, companies like Plastic SA would be out of business.
John Xakaxa, a 50-year-old man from Soweto, has been relying on his eight friends for three months after his recycling trolley was stolen during the night. He says members of a rival group, who wear balaclavas, steal from them. When the men from the other group get to a dustbin and find Rapoo and his friends there, they fight them and take all the ‘goods’.
Supermarkets sell trolleys to the collectors at R150 ($11) each, but Xakaxa has not yet raised enough to buy one. His friend, Gerard Moloi, from Daggakraal in Mpumalanga, has been sharing his food with Xakaxa every night since his trolley was stolen. The eight men living at this very busy intersection also look after their friend Petrus Mpbunda who is wheelchair bound after he lost his leg in a shootout between drug lords in Diepsloot, one of Johannesburg’s largest townships. Mpbunda accompanies his friends on their daily walks from dustbin to dustbin in the leafy northern suburbs of the city.
Despite attracting the ire of many in Johannesburg, some residents and NGOs are reaching out to the waste collectors. WastePreneurs, an NGO in Parkhurst, a trendy suburb in the north, was set up less than a year ago to assist the waste collectors. The NGO provides custom-made trolleys to collectors and pays them R250 ($18.80) if they fill a trolley bin. The collectors deposit the waste at the plant next to the office that was established next to Pikitup, the governmental waste collection company. Godfrey Phakedi, manager of the WastePreneur plant, says the collectors bring the waste to the plant where it is sorted and packed by various employees, creating more jobs for street dwellers. The waste sorters are mostly female. From the 81 collectors, only two are female. The waste is then transported and sold to various recycling companies.
Sfiso Ngobese, a young entrepreneur from Germiston, has also started an initiative to help the collectors. Ngobese noticed a lady walking past his house every day to search for recyclable goods and decided to build her a reliable and safe trolley. The trolley is bigger and more stable than those from supermarkets and it even has brakes. Ngobese became so inspired that he started a business, called Abomakgereza, to specialize in building these trolleys. His trolleys can be used by waste collectors and be used by companies as mobile billboards. He also buys and sells the waste collected by the trolleys he hands out, thereby managing his own team of collectors. This might be a form of regulation that is much needed for the wellbeing and safety of the waste collectors.
For Rapoo, the journey to a stable life is long and arduous, but it is a walk that he has become accustomed to.