South Africa


Waste pickers’ livelihoods trashed after eThekwini metro closes landfill following violent clashes

Waste pickers’ livelihoods trashed after eThekwini metro closes landfill following violent clashes
The closed Buffelsdraai dumping site near Verulam. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Like many other Buffelsdraai residents, Njabulo Mbonambi spent his days searching the local landfill for products he could sell or food to feed his family. Mbonambi was killed during clashes with security guards at the site, which has since closed, leaving waste pickers stranded.

Njabulo Mbonambi (27) was laid to rest on Sunday, 23 July, at a funeral service held at his modest homestead on the outskirts of Osindisweni,  northwest of Durban.

His family said that Mbonambi was one of hundreds of people who scoured the eThekwini Municipality’s Buffelsdraai landfill in search of food, plastic, clothes and scrap metal — just about anything they could salvage and sell or consume.

The eThekwini Municipality claimed that waste pickers sold and used drugs at the landfill and that prostitution was rife there. Waste pickers said they depended on the landfill site to get food and earn a living.

The municipality recently appointed a new security company, Vusa-Isizwe Security Services, to patrol the landfill. Waste pickers protested after the security guards prevented them from collecting food and recyclable material.

Mbonambi was killed on Tuesday, 11 July, in clashes between waste pickers and the security company that left 17 others injured, including seven security guards.  

Witnesses said security officers fired at the protesters with rubber bullets before switching to live shotgun and 9mm ammunition. They said the waste pickers had used live ammunition when firing at the security guards.

The clashes lasted for three days and the police are investigating charges of murder and attempted murder.

Eight people, including security guards, were arrested and have appeared before the Verulam Magistrates’ Court. They were released on bail and the case was postponed to 10 October. Police seized 11 firearms from the suspects. 

The main entrance to the now closed Buffelsdraai dumping site. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

‘A responsible young man’

Mbonambi’s mother, Thandazile Mbonambi (51), said she was near the landfill when she heard that her son had been shot. She tried to go there but security guards would not allow anyone to enter the site.

“He was such a responsible young man,” she said, with tears running down her cheeks.

“We are struggling financially here at home, but he decided to go to the dump site and get things so that he could help us as a family. He brought food, he brought second-hand clothes [that] we washed and sold to other people. He brought plastics and metals that we sold to buy food. I don’t know what will become of us now that he is gone.

Thandazile Mbonambi, mother to the late Njabulo Mbonambi, at their home in Osindisweni near Verulam, northern Durban, on 21 July 2023. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

“We thank all those who came out and supported us to bury my son. In this house, nobody is working and we didn’t know what to do to bury him. Luckily, some relatives, neighbours and community members came to our aid,” she said.

Other waste pickers also spoke fondly of Mbonambi. They said they were forced to make ends meet by searching the landfill because there were no employment opportunities in the area.

Mandla Ngcobo says he is struggling to survive after the closure of Buffelsdraai dumping site near Verulam. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

‘How will we survive?’

Mandla Ngcobo (29), a waste picker from Buffelsdraai, lives with his partner and their three children.  

“My home is in Bhamshela [60km away] and we are renting a room here. There are no jobs around here. I was able to sell many foodstuffs and other material I got from this dumpsite,” Ngcobo said.

This “material” ranged from expired powdered milk, baby formula, tinned foodstuffs and instant porridge to fruit and vegetables.

Waste picker Tezane Dladla (55) said she had been operating at the Buffelsdraai landfill for more than 10 years.

“The question we have is: ‘How does the municipality think we are going to survive if they close our only source of income — the dumpsite?’”

She said many of the waste pickers suffered from drug addiction and would turn to crime as a source of income if the landfill was closed.

Buffelsdraai resident Celiwe Mkhontwana said: “We are concerned as a community. We even told the mayor that the recyclable material side must be open to the waste pickers so that they can be able to make a living. The section where there is expired food and dangerous chemicals must be closed to the public.” 

Sfiso Khumalo says he has been struggling to survive since the closure of Buffelsdraai dumping site near Verulam. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Site closed

The municipality closed the site permanently after the clashes. eThekwini Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda visited the site last week, insisting that the city would not allow its landfills to become havens of criminality.

“There is no zama zama operation that we will allow to take place at the landfill site. Our job is to guard it and make sure that no one is allowed [in] carrying firearms,” Kaunda said. 

He added that security guards responded with live ammunition only after they came under attack by people firing handguns.

“Following the confrontation and the destruction at the site, the municipality took the decision to close it. Residents and businesses will be advised when the site reopens. We must also state that no unauthorised persons are allowed at the site,” the mayor said.

“This is because of the nature of the site. There is machinery that is used and harmful chemicals. These have negative effects on people.”

He said he understood the plight of the waste pickers. “Hence, we have come up with a solution of providing them with a site for recycling purposes. We want to promote waste management. We also want our people to derive financial value as a means of providing for their families.”

Bawinile Khutshwa (35), one of the waste pickers, said she didn’t believe the city would provide an alternative landfill.

“What would we be eating until those programmes come to pass?” she asked.

Lindiwe Khuzwayo, eThekwini Municipality’s head of communications, told Daily Maverick that the municipality was not responsible for Mbonambi’s death or the chaos that occurred after the new security company was appointed.

“These matters are subject to police investigations. The municipality will alert members of the community about its recycling policies and programmes for community benefit, and these will be announced in due course,” Khuzwayo said.

Attempts to get a comment from Vusa-Isizwe Security Services were unsuccessful.

Many people have been affected in the Buffelsdraai area near Verulam since the closure of a dumping site by eThekwini municipality. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Sites of conflict

Buffelsdraai is not the only landfill site that’s been marred by violence recently. The Msunduzi Local Municipality beefed up security at its New England landfill in Pietermaritzburg after there were several fires at the site, as well as shootings between opposing groups. 

Mdu Nkosi, the Inkatha Freedom Pary’s caucus leader in eThekwini, said that people desperate for food descend on landfills, leading to a scavenging frenzy and violence. 

“Our cities should emulate all those big cities [that] create job opportunities so that people will not end up saying, ‘We will then go and scavenge for food that does not need to be consumed that will then cause confrontation between these people. We need to do a thorough investigation of what happened at Buffelsdraai,” Nkosi said. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.