Waste not, want not…

Claire Mawisa
By Claire Mawisa | Follow @clairemawisa
Claire Mawisa is a South African television presenter, model and radio personality best known for being an SABC1 continuity presenter (1999-2001), as well as for co-hosting the SABC1 music variety show One, from 2002-2003. After many years working in radio and television, and opening her own business, Claire joined the [...] See full profile

To motorists, these people are a nuisance and an irritation. No, I don’t mean unroadworthy taxis or street hawkers of pirated goods; I’m talking about the waste picker and his trolley. We cannot drive a day without seeing the ubiquitous waste picker on the streets. It is inevitable that at some point during the day, you’ll have to try to manoeuvre your car around the waste picker’s bulky, heavily-laden trolley. Sometimes these wobbly, overburdened trolleys take up half a lane, forcing you to switch lanes on narrow suburban roads. Yes, they’re not just considered a pain in the neck, but also a danger and obstruction.

Claire Mawisa - Waste Pickers

I’ve always wondered who these men are, where they come from, and what they are doing. I obviously knew that they were recycling reusable goods found in our rubbish bins, but I didn’t know much else about these people who are so often at the receiving end of abuse from motorists.

 

being a waste picker was an opportunity for him to be his own boss and determine his own salary.

The best person to give us a better understanding of the waste picker was the chairperson of the South African Waste Pickers Association, who himself has been a waste picker, Mr. Simon Mbatha. Simon said that he quit his job almost twenty years ago to become a waste picker. When I asked why he would choose this seemingly more difficult way of earning a living, he explained that he wanted to take control of his life, and not rely on inconsistent contract work. He felt that being a waste picker was an opportunity for him to be his own boss and determine his own salary. He took pride in the fact that he would be able to support his family by doing this work. We met Simon at a landfill in Sasolburg, but as soon as we started filming his interview, there were objections from the waste pickers who were living and working on the landfill. Initially we were confused as to why there was suddenly an uneasy feeling among the group, but it soon became clear that they did not want to be filmed. They said that once the community found out that they were waste pickers, they would be ridiculed for doing a filthy and seemingly degrading job. They themselves were proud of the fact that they could support their families by doing an honest day’s work – even if it meant they had to rummage through other people’s nauseating rubbish. They wanted to ensure that the story we would be telling would highlight that they were a proud people, and that there was nothing wrong with working as a waste picker. Once we assured them of that, the tensions eased, and we were allowed to continue filming.

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Simon explained that there two kinds of waste pickers; the ones that you and I see pulling their trolleys on the streets, and the ones that work in landfills. The waste pickers who work in the landfills are predominantly women, because they cannot compete with the men who can pull heavy trolleys over long distances. For the women, it is easier to be based in the landfill, and sort the rubbish from the reusables on site.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a landfill, but it was my first time.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a landfill, but it was my first time. I went expecting the worst, and unfortunately it was as bad as I had envisioned. We couldn’t avoid walking and standing on heaps of rotting food, piles of steaming rubbish, pools of foul-smelling liquids, broken glass, twisted wire, with dust and ash blowing in the wind from the many fires that were burning nearby. It took a lot for us not to cover our faces to protect ourselves from the smells and the ash in the wind, but we did our utmost not to disrespect those who lived and worked there. So we pretended everything was fine, even though we could still smell the landfill stench on ourselves several hours after leaving the site.

Waste Pickers

We arrived on the landfill around 7am  on a very cold morning, but the waste pickers were already quite busy. Street waste pickers are up and about as early as 3am to rummage through our bins. Some need to walk several kilometres to the suburbs where they collect and sort the waste, and once they’ve filled their trolleys, another several kilometres further to the recycling depot to sell their recyclables. If they get started early, they’ll have enough time to go back out and collect another load. Every plastic bottle, cold drink can and cardboard box adds a few more cents to their earnings, so every bit helps.

 

What is not well known is that the waste pickers are not just earning a small salary from their individual efforts, but they play a major role in preserving our environment and saving taxpayers millions of rands. South Africa is fast running out of landfill space. But with the help of waste pickers who reduce the amount of waste going to the landfills, the lifetime of the landfill is extended by several years. Waste pickers also decrease the extent to which municipalities have to collect and sort waste, saving the municipalities up to an astounding R750 million per year!

Waste Pickers

When I asked the waste pickers what message they wanted to share with motorists, they pleaded for us to understand that they too are earning a living just like us, that they too wish that they had allocated space on our roads to push their trolleys. They may be an inconvenience to motorists, but their lives are in danger when pulling trolleys on busy roads. I guess, like everybody else, they just want a little more understanding and a lot more tolerance.

 

So next time you see these hardworking, resourceful men pulling their shaky trolleys up a hill, take a moment to appreciate that those men are not only helping make our country a better place, they’re willing to do the one thing many of us won’t…