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Mother City informal reclaimers connect to reclaim their livelihoods

The life of a reclaimer is not easy. There are the daily issues of transport and storage of collected recyclable materials, not to mention unhygienic conditions and many safety hazards. While their entrepreneurship adds an essential recycling collection and waste management service to an overburdened waste management system, informal reclaimers are not receiving the compensation nor the recognition they could or should be.

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
Reclaimers are often seen with heavy-laden trolleys as they traverse roads in search of recyclable items.
Connecting reclaimers in two major metros

Born out of necessity and sometimes desperation, many unemployed South African citizens have turned their hands into their tools. It is said that South Africa has about 90 000 reclaimers – also known as waste pickers. According to research concluded in 2021, reclaimers play a substantial role in the waste management system by diverting 51% of “post-consumer paper and packaging” from landfills towards the recycling economy each year.

But I fast learnt that the reality for reclaimers on the ground is very different to what is discussed in board rooms, reports or project plans. This was a key learning from a one-year project in which my WWF colleague – and a few reclaimers – shared the journey, small joys and the many challenges.

“Not much can change in a year,” affirms Lethabo Pholoto, the WWF project officer behind a project to connect informal reclaimers in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

She went on to tell me that in the Joburg metro, there are over 5 000 reclaimers united and organised under the name of ARO, the African Reclaimers Organisation. In Cape Town, prior to 2022, reclaimers were mostly working independently – largely in isolation – and with no collective body for support or advocacy.

© WWF South Africa / Stef Bosch
Members of Johannesburg’s African Reclaimers Organisation and WWF South Africa gather at a dump site in Soweto.
Meet Mpumi, Cape Town’s leading reclaimer

Nompumelelo “Mpumi” Njana is a 61-year-old reclaimer from Khayelitsha. To support her family, she started working as a reclaimer in 1996. She previously used to sell meat and ice cream in her neighbourhood, but when loadshedding started happening more often, the ice cream melted, and the meat went off quickly. She saw reclaiming as a reliable way to earn an income even though she got very little money in return for the items. While her children have formal qualifications, they are not working which places additional responsibility on her shoulders.

Mpumi now organises reclaimers around the Western Cape with more focus on communities within the City of Cape Town. She works with about 1 500 reclaimers between the ages of 18 and 80 – all of them formally unemployed. 

Lethabo also told me that Mpumi always carried a small bag with her to their meetings or workshops. Her reason was simple. She had told Lethabo that she has learnt to make every opportunity count – to maximise her income!

What an inspiration that is, to always be on the lookout for recyclables as an income opportunity!

“It’s not just rubbish that we collect, but cash! We feed our children and take them to school with the money. Plus, it keeps our residential areas clean and saves us and animals from pollution.”

© WWF South Africa / Dimpho Lephaila
Mpumi Njana is a reclaimer from Khayelitsha who makes a living from collecting recyclable materials.
The downsides of reclaiming

Mpumi always encourages her fellow reclaimers not to sit down and wait to be fed but to stand up and collect items for recycling in order to survive. While some community members respect the work of the reclaimers, most people look down on them because they don’t understand that they reclaim to make money. Nor that what they are doing is helping to remove waste items from going to the city’s already congested landfills.

But life is hard as a reclaimer. Mpumi told us, “We still have a long way to go as we have many problems. We do not have safety clothing when we reclaim the materials, and we store the recyclables in our homes which is unsafe for children. Kids do not have space to play at home because we keep materials there.” 

For most reclaimers, they must walk long distances to the nearest buy-back centre. In some instances, they resort to giving their materials to “bakkie brigades” who pay them even less because they subsidise the transportation fee. A big problem is that while they only get paid for the material they collect, they also get inconsistent prices from different buy-back centres. 

The upsides of organising

Mpumi shared that she and other reclaimers have been submitting letters to the municipality and government for years, asking for a piece of land where they can sort their recyclables. Prior to the project, they received little to no response when engaging with the city. Mpumi appreciates that this project has filled this gap as they are now able to make such requests in person through the meetings and workshops created from the project engagement.

During this year-long project, many Cape Town reclaimers have connected and even registered on the South African Waste Picker Registration System. The Cape Town reclaimer organising group and other reclaimers have also shown interest in becoming local members of ARO and potentially becoming a branch under the name of ARO. In 2023, ARO will facilitate a membership process for reclaimers in Cape Town.

I also learnt that the official “organising process” is about dealing with all the issues that impact and affect informal reclaimers.

Eli Kodisang, a coordinator with ARO Johannesburg, explained: “Organising is about looking at the total needs of the humans involved in recycling, from uniforms to access.” He adds, “Registration is one of those key moments that will assist in the organising process. It allows us to have a national focus, and towards this, the flexibility of the WWF project has been beyond helpful.”

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
Eli Kodisang, a coordinator for ARO Johannesburg, shared learnings from the WWF project (with WWF’s Lethabo Pholoto in the background).
Facing local challenges together

In October, a few reclaimers and other stakeholders, including representatives from the City of Cape Town, gathered to share learnings from the year-long engagements. While they didn’t attend, various producer responsibility organisations were also invited as they are important stakeholders who need to actively work with the reclaimers.

“The issues created by apartheid are alive and well,” shares Eli.

He went on to say that historically people in Cape Town are reluctant to engage and work in solidarity with each other. He also shared that based on geography and the physical landscape around Cape Town, it is hard to move materials around. Eli also affirmed that resources are needed for people to work safely: especially appropriate protective gear.

All of this is against a backdrop of ongoing changes in the landscape, for example, cardboard is no longer accepted in Cape Town. And price fluctuations are an ongoing concern.

It is evident from this project that the learnings and support of fellow reclaimers has been valuable. However, the challenges remain, progress is slow and daily struggles continue for the informal reclaimers who live hand to mouth. Yet the hope of change is still a glimmer on the horizon.

The Cape Town organisers, like Mpumi and her husband Zola Njana, hold the vision and the hope that things can be different. They are patient and keen to engage around price offerings. They are keen to be part of the solution, a co-created one of “reclaiming the future”.

© WWF South Africa / Eloise Burger
Eli Kodisang (ARO), Lethabo Pholoto (WWF) and Eva Mokoena (ARO) at the “Lessons learnt” workshop in Cape Town.
Building trust, one reclaimer at a time

“The challenges have become a little bit easier for us now since the collaboration between ARO and WWF,” says Zola. “But there are still challenges and sometimes they seem insurmountable.”

Since the Waste Picker Integration Guidelines were introduced in 2019, whereby municipalities must integrate informal reclaimers into their waste management plans, it is evident that everyone is waiting to hear the official line from the city – from the mayor – on the way forward with integration.

In addition, I learnt how proper implementation of the 2020 Extended Producer Responsibility regulations will also be of great significance in addressing the compensation of reclaimers for the service they provide: the collection of post-consumer materials on behalf of these producers. And in the global face of growing plastic volumes overwhelmingly polluting our planet, the picture is becoming clearer than ever that good collaboration between municipalities, industry (the producers) and the informal sector amongst others is vital for ensuring that no plastic – and other post-consumer materials – end up into nature.

In the face of these multistakeholder challenges and potential opportunities, it was heartening to hear that by the end of 2022, the local organising team had engaged with over 1 000 Cape-based reclaimers and over 700 of these reclaimers have registered. Mpumi says that as trust builds, so will the number of reclaimers who want to come on board.

Eli was encouraging too, “We started with nothing when the project came along, and we already have 700 registered reclaimers. If we are to approach these people, they are likely to be keen to come on board when ARO offers membership cards next year. This number could double or triple if we are able to continue this project.”

© WWF South Africa / Lethabo Pholoto
Sivuyile Tshika, Zola Njana and Mpumi Njana are part of the organising team for Cape Town reclaimers.
Practical actions, grateful attitudes

“We can see some changes with the help coming through, but we are moving at a snail’s pace.”

Zola is quietly optimistic, yet realistic: “At the moment it's mostly about keeping the spirits up.”

Says Sivuyile Tshika, a member of the organising team, “We are grateful that people are recognising us and fighting for our rights. They make a big difference for us as reclaimers.”

Mpumi, Zola and Sivuyile will be the ones leading the Cape Town organising activities and driving the vision to see the ARO Cape Town branch become a reality. They have been connected to the municipality and other provincial departments, as well as supported by ARO Johannesburg with their network and learnings.

“We want to thank WWF because this project has been a first step to bringing Western Cape reclaimers together and it helped us to work with ARO. We are now working with each other and can now be in the same room as the municipality too,” says Mpumi.

Mpumi also expressed her thanks to Glass SA, a glass recycling company in Joburg, who bought gloves and goggles for Cape Town reclaimers who work with glass. Plus Eli spoke about a producer responsibility organisation who are finalising their extended producer responsibility budgets and that they want to include money for uniforms for the ARO reclaimers in Cape Town.

“We need to build a firm foundation to mobilise and organise people on the ground,” concludes Eli.

Zola responded with appreciation and said to Eli, “Thank you, comrade. I agree with you.”

“Yes, we want to say thank you very much to Baba Eli,” affirms Mpumi.

Sue Northam-Ras Photo
Sue Northam-Ras, Communications Manager: Environmental Programme

Sue believes in making information valuable by writing and shaping content to make it relevant and relatable. She packages the environmental content for WWF South Africa.