Joburg waste pickers decry abuse while making ends meet

Wastepickers in Johannesburg say that Pikitup is taking jobs away from them. Photo by Chris Gilili

Wastepickers get no help nor recognition from the City of Johannesburg which seems to try to take their livelihoods away from them.

A growing community of waste pickers living near the Metro Centre in Braamfontein say besides their hardships brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the City of Johannesburg’s Pikitup recycling service is their biggest stumbling block.

Mawande Tomsana, originally from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, says their work would improve if Pikitup would stop taking work away from them. He stays in a community of waste reclaimers in 32 wooden shacks. “They [Pikitup] collect the very waste that we recycle. They disrupt us in many ways to be honest. We would like to urge them to at least not collect the waste early in the morning and allow us to work as well. This is a means of survival for us,” Tomsana told Elitsha.

Tomsana has been picking waste for the past 10 years in and around Johannesburg, and he says his day starts around 4am to beat traffic and to beat Pikitup to the recyclables. Sore feet, and the risks involved in sorting waste are some of the challenges attached to their work. “Just last week, a taxi driver pushed my trolley full of recycling down. This is a norm for us because motor drivers insult and harass us all the time on the road. Certain days even homeowners abuse us when we want to reclaim the waste. And they will tell you that they are waiting for Pikitup,” said Tomsana.

On a good week he makes at most R800 and sends something back home to his son and elderly mother. He says their work is also made easier by the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO), which has given them uniforms while they are working and also stand up for their rights in their line of work. This helps them to work swiftly and manage to make money to survive.

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Dimakatso Nthute is also one of the very few women living on the site, and she says the living conditions are inhumane. She has been staying there picking through waste for the past four years. “For me as a female living here it is very hard. We lack the basic human services here, we don’t have toilets or access to water. It is so embarrassing to have to walk at night and relieve yourself in the cemetery nearby. If anyone were to assist us with that we would be so grateful,” said Nthute.

According to Nthute, without the help they get from ARO their woes would have been much worse. “ARO has been helping us so much since 2019. They stand up for us and also ensure that we are allowed to collect waste in some areas without any struggles,” she added. 

Thembani Vusani is also living in the same area and collects recyclables in and around Braamfontein and Parktown. The Covid-19 pandemic, he says, has affected the way they work as they could not access waste in certain areas or sell what’s salvaged from waste in others. “All I wish for is for us to be treated as more human. I wish people and also the City of Johannesburg can also respect our work and appreciate the goodness our work does for the environment. We also do this work because we want to survive,” said Vusani.

Vusani says he has also been a victim of harassment from a driver while walking with his trolley around the Auckland Park area. And a victim of theft: “It happens to most of us and unfortunately we cannot do anything about it. Sometimes we even get our waste stolen, people come during the night at times, take things with a car and run away,” he added.

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Questions that were sent to Pikitup to find out about the claims made by reclaimers were not answered by the time of publication. Any response will be shared once available.

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About Chris Gilili 59 Articles
Chris Gilili, a 23 year old freelance journalist based in East London. Graduated from Walter Sisulu University media studies school in 2015. Had a stint with Independent Media, in sports writing. Passionate about news and the media.