Opinionista Jessica Breakey 29 May 2020

Proposed rules on waste reclaimers are xenophobic and exclusionary

Waste reclaimers, who perform a vital cleansing and environmental function, are mostly excluded from Covid-19 special relief because they lack valid IDs. This also means they can’t be legally registered as reclaimers in terms of proposed new regulations.

More than 59 million tons of general waste are produced in South Africa each year. With only 10.8% of urban households separating their own waste, reclaimers are responsible for almost 90% of the country’s recycling.

Reclaimers are not paid for the service that they provide and are generally excluded from state recycling strategies. However, as South Africa adjusts the regulations down the ladder of lockdown levels, it has become clear that reclaimers are not just excluded from formal recycling strategies, but also basic state protection, seemingly driven, at least in part, by xenophobic sentiment.

On 14 May, Barbara Creecy, Minister of Environment and Fisheries, released the new “Directions Regarding Measures to address, prevent and combat the spread of Covid-19 in relation to recycling of waste”. Reference to waste reclaimers is made in section 5 as the department outlines the guidelines necessary for reclaimers to work during Level 4 of the lockdown.

The guidelines specify that in order to work legally, reclaimers will need work permits issued by their municipality. Permits will only be issued to reclaimers who are able to provide proof of identity or certified copies of identity which includes: a South African ID, a valid passport, or an asylum seekers’ visa that endorses their right to work.

During Level 5 lockdown, reclaimers were forbidden from working. While the Level 4 regulations alter this, making the reclaimers’ return to work contingent on the holding of a permit granted only upon presentation of the documents listed above, Creecy has denied the majority of reclaimers, at least in Gauteng, the right to work and has turned them into criminals, vulnerable to arrest if they do.

The African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) is challenging the 14 May regulations, arguing that reclaimers and all informal workers have the right to a dignified life, both during and beyond Covid-19, and that the regulations violate this right. This is because the 14 May regulations will have a huge impact on both South Africans and foreign nationals. 

Many, if not the majority, of those whose survival is dependent on the collecting, sorting and selling of recyclables have lost their IDs and passports as a result of precarity. A vast number of Johannesburg-based reclaimers are Lesotho nationals whose identity documents were destroyed by, or disappeared during their treacherous journey across the Caledon River. 

Moreover, reclaimers have reported that during the illegal evictions carried out at their sorting spaces throughout the lockdown period, the police have burnt many of their identification documents. Currently, most places that issue or replace such documents are closed and people do not have the means to replace them. The 14 May regulations are blind to this reality and will have the effect of excluding swathes of vulnerable reclaimers from legally providing for themselves and their families. 

In response to the global health crisis, South Africa’s lockdown, one of the strictest in the world, stood supported by the claim that the state wanted to protect and save lives based on an understanding of the vulnerability of many communities within South Africa. However, as ministers continue to release the streams of amended regulations, it is clear that the state has made a distinction between all those who live within its borders and those who hold a South African identity document.

Over the past few months, we have seen exceptional internal organising of reclaimers as they have made efforts to look after one another, collecting and delivering their own food parcels where the state has not. Now, various reclaimer organisations, including ARO, have come forward willing to assist the state in verifying the identity of reclaimers and assisting in distributing their own permits, which are not contingent on the reclaimers possessing formal documents.

For instance, special measures introduced to assist those whose livelihoods are threatened by the pandemic, such as the provision of food parcels and payment of social assistance, are available only to South African citizens. The exclusion of undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers has brought about international condemnation. 

During Level 5 of the lockdown, reclaimers could not work and could not return home due to closed borders. They could not access state-provided assistance. The Level 4 regulations offer them no relief as survival is made attainable only for those who are in possession of an ID, passport or work permit. Without social assistance, if you cannot work, how will you eat?

This passive form of neglect on the part of the state allows it to shirk any real accountability and results in active division among the poor. As we move towards a promised easing of lockdown it is obvious that gross measures will be put in place to ensure South African lives are prioritised at all costs. The state’s xenophobic policies stand contrary to the public health principles of this pandemic — those who are most vulnerable will surely succumb first to this disease.

ARO’s response to the crisis has been consistently geared towards the saving of lives and the promotion of good health for everyone who resides within the borders of South Africa. The organisation responded to the 14 May regulations with a demand that all reclaimers be allowed to work, legally. ARO has maintained that reclaimers want and need to feed themselves without relying on the state.

Over the past few months, we have seen exceptional internal organising of reclaimers as they have made efforts to look after one another, collecting and delivering their own food parcels where the state has not. Now, various reclaimer organisations, including ARO, have come forward willing to assist the state in verifying the identity of reclaimers and assisting in distributing their own permits, which are not contingent on the reclaimers possessing formal documents.

Around the world, we are seeing the emergence of important conversations, within certain sectors, about dignity and labour and many are pushing for a radical reshaping of how we view “essential work’’. It seems impossible to have any meaningful conversation with the government on the absolutely “essential” labour reclaimers provide and the dignity and respect owed to them when they have been forced into a situation that is entirely unliveable and where the question of daily survival has taken priority.

What is most curious about the insidious exclusion of reclaimers from state benefit, protection and care is that the state is almost entirely reliant on this “informal’’ sector for what Melanie Sampson calls the “separation outside source system’’. 

The current pandemic has brought to light the vulnerability not just of an individual life but of planetary life. It has emphasised the kind of politics necessary to live through a global health crisis and a frightening environmental crisis simultaneously. In the middle of this complicated nexus of health, employment and the environment are waste reclaimers, on whose labour the South African recycling sector is reliant and whose work fills the gap in the dichotomy between the economy and the environment.

The continued neglect and exclusion of reclaimers is dripping with xenophobia and undermines the foundation of any meaningful response to Covid-19. DM

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