An unemployed man working as an informal recycler pulls a cart loaded with recyclable materials in Johannesburg. EPA/JON HRUSA

Johannesburg’s waste pickers, often overlooked and seen as “invisible”, challenge the meanings of concepts like “residence” and “commuter” and categories like formal or informal, in a context where they earn honest livelihoods and provide an important service, while living under city bridges during the week and travelling to more peripheral settlements to be with their families on the weekends. Sarah Charlton writes on Johannesburg’s informal recyclers in Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg after Apartheid, a multi-authored book that brings together broad understandings of macro spatial trends in the city and the policies that shape them with more nuanced views provided by area-based studies and chapters exploring the relationships between place and identity.

An essential reference for planning practitioners, urban geographers,  sociologists and social anthropologists, Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg after Apartheid invites the reader to think deeply and widely about the city, to consider data and trends that may not be self-evident, and to imagine the experiences of others, such as the waste pickers, in this complex and dynamic conurbation that over 5 million call home.

A selection of chapters from this book can now be downloaded for free under Wits University Press’ Open Access programme.

On any weekday in any street in Johannesburg one might encounter a lean, bowed person straining to pull a vast load up a hill, round a bend or across a busy traffic intersection, cramping to the side of the road out of the way of impatient cars and trucks, or pausing to lean on the trolley handles to catch breath.

Bulky brown hessian bags squatting on flat platform trolleys are stuffed with cardboard or paper, metal or plastic, making their trundling way by human muscle power alone to a recycling depot where their contents can be exchanged for cash.

Daily the waste discarded by businesses and residents of Johannesburg is actively salvaged in the transition between private property and public landfill.

In the dark early hours, empty trolleys rumble briskly from central areas to the suburbs scheduled for City refuse removal service that day. The journey out can be many kilometres and several hours of walking. Reclaimers must arrive at bursting wheelie bins before the Pikitup trucks do, before the formal recycling companies collect their hauls, before competitors arrive with trolleys hungry for loading.

Bins and bags are systematically trawled for particular goods: white A4 paper perhaps, PET plastics or scrap metal. When hessian bags are full enough to make the long journey back worthwhile – today, or perhaps only tomorrow, after another suburb is scoured – the back-breaking journey to the depot begins.

Recyclers operate in in-between places and spaces. They are self-employed, without wages, job protection, insurances or medical aid. Their strenuous manual labour, eye for the cash value in rubbish, diversion of material from landfills, and low carbon footprints are not applauded. City residents and = businesses generating waste are mostly ambivalent – occasionally recognising and facilitating the reclaiming process on their doorstep, sometimes complaining about and chasing away ‘dirty vagrants’, but mostly ignoring their fellow residents and road users. City authorities, too, mostly overlook recyclers– indeed, appear blind to their existence and their labour.

A different response, however, is provoked by the gathering points for sorting and storing accumulated materials, and the recyclers’ nightly sleeping arrangements. These attract harsh rebuke from law enforcement officers.

This then is the ambiguous world of the informal recycler or reclaimer in Johannesburg.

Interviewed in Newtown in 2010, Sizwe and Danny’s stories reflect this complexity. Sizwe and Danny trawl Rosebank on Mondays, Westcliff on Wednesdays, Northcliff and Cresta on Thursdays, Booysens on Fridays, selling their stock to a depot in Newtown.

In addition to these working ranges, Sizwe and Danny divide their living time between Newtown and Evaton West, some 40 km to the south-west of central Johannesburg, in the neighbouring municipality of Emfuleni. Living conditions in the two places contrast sharply: both men own small, formal, government-sponsored ‘RDP’ houses in Evaton West, acquired between 1995 and 1997.

The houses are permanently occupied by spouses and children. Sizwe and Danny join their families for the weekend on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons respectively. During the week, however, they sleep rough, on leftover public space under a freeway bridge in central Johannesburg.

By contrast, their homes in Evaton West, although cramped and of poor physical quality, have electricity and flush toilets. They represent, too, a form of security and stability: “I have my own place… And I own at least the soil…”

But what Evaton West doesn’t offer them is a way of earning an adequate income. Sizwe and Danny speak of extensive poverty and unemployment in the area: “People are not working.”

In the central areas of Johannesburg they can provide for their families through harvesting the waste of a much more affluent society. But why sleep most weekdays in Johannesburg, and in such rough conditions?

A key factor is the cost of transport between Johannesburg and Evaton West. Recyclers also start their outbound journeys to suburbs very early in the mornings, before regular transport is running.

Recycling work involves both gathering and later, sorting the load. Recyclers need space for separating bulky items and time to do this sorting. They also need place to stockpile items until they have amassed enough to make exchange at the depot worthwhile. Then there is the trolley and hessian bag to store.

While recyclers are on the move much of the time, therefore, essential to their business is a secure workspace. With long working hours, the early morning start and high transport costs in addition, the week night stay-over in Johannesburg makes sense. So too does sleeping with your trolley and goods, even if this is on a bleak patch under a freeway flyover, close to the buy-back depot.

The recyclers’ use of this desolate and uninviting space is not uncontested.

Sizwe and Danny explain that the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) officers frequently raid the area. “They burn everything, ID and everything, they just burned everything. If you don’t have anywhere to leave your bedding where it will be safe from these raids, you must take it with you, even if it hampers the collecting process,” they said.

Sizwe says the recyclers are not treated well by the police. “They don’t…regard us as human beings,” he said. “When they see us, they just think maybe you are…hobos,” he said.

Danny reflects on the impossibility of bettering their circumstances under these conditions. Instead of spending his earnings every day he used to amass a quantity of material before cashing it in, so he could get enough money to buy clothes for his children. But this plan literally went up in smoke, burned by JMPD.

The JMPD’s concern is presumably by-law infringement such as ‘loitering’ or sleeping in a public space, or the poor image reclaimers supposedly project.

The JMPD tells them to go back ‘home’ and stay there, Sizwe says.

Reclaimers are cast as down-and-outs the city needs to rid itself of. But while they do sleep rough, recyclers are engaged in regular, productive work over long hours. Across the global south many people who sleep on pavements, under bridges or in their pushcarts are not ‘vagrants’ but ‘working and productive members of society.

Scavenging through bins, often with a rough appearance, makeshift trolley and little interaction with home owners, reclaimers are dismissed by some as unproductive vagabonds. Worse, the city ignores them in introducing recycling initiatives, partnering instead with private truck-based companies.

Informal recyclers in Johannesburg are invisible to the state in their daily work of salvaging and transporting waste – omitted from the city’s ‘non-motorised transport’ policy , although hundreds of trolleys are pulled precariously through city streets every day. But in their sorting, stockpiling and sleeping arrangements, they run foul of those tasked with enforcing regulations for an ordered, regulated city – they become visible. In a context of dramatically high unemployment, self-employment that also fulfils environmental agendas should be a win-win for the individual, the buy-back companies and local government. But with the strange combination of unsupported invisibility during the day and vulnerability to sanction at night, efforts at economic growth and self-development falter.

This article is an edited extract from Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg after Apartheid . The book is available from Wits University Press ( ISBN: 978-1-86814-765-6 and selected chapters can also be downloaded for FREE from Open Access network,


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