Living off garbage at the bottom of world’s most unequal nation

There are an estimated 6 000 waste-pickers in Johannesburg who live off other people’s garbage.
Waste pickers in Johannesburg find recyclable waste in the garbage bins of leafy suburbs north of the city. They then return to an abandoned school in the CBD where they sort their finds to sell it. Picture: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Luyanda Hlatshwayo wakes up at 4 a.m. in the abandoned inner-city school building with shattered windows he calls home. He stuffs a pair of worker’s gloves in his pocket and rides a warehouse trolley like a giant skateboard to a suburb of South Africa’s economic metropolis, Johannesburg: It’s garbage collection day.

The 35-year-old university dropout often makes the 8-kilometre trip on an empty stomach — he can only afford to eat twice a day. Time is precious because he must salvage as many recyclables as possible — tin cans, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes — before the city garbage trucks arrive.

“You gotta go early to beat the traffic,” Hlatshwayo said as he lifted up a pizza box to shake out crusts and cigarette butts. 

Waste-pickers separate the trash at an abandoned school. Picture: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

“What people don’t realise is that we’re subsidising the city and its residents. If we don’t go to work, they’d be short on trucks to collect all the garbage.”

Hlatshwayo is one of an estimated 6 000 waste-pickers in Johannesburg who live off other people’s garbage in what the World Bank calls the most unequal country on earth. A legacy of apartheid, inequality remains so ingrained the ruling African National Congress hasn’t been able to narrow the wealth gap since taking power 25 years ago. It remains one of the biggest challenges President Cyril Ramaphosa, a multi-millionaire, faces as he prepares to start a fresh term after the ANC won the May 8 general elections.

“What the ANC seems to be putting on the table is a mixed economic approach: creating a more business-friendly environment and being more open to foreign investors, while the other part is that the state does intervene by giving assistance when needed,” said Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, a political scientist at Stellenbosch University. “But it’s had mixed results in that regard, and it’s really facing a big challenge.”

CEOs and top lawyers make as much as R20 million a year while the official minimum wage is R20 an hour. South Africa has the most millionaires and billionaires of any sub-Saharan African nation, and that number is expected to rise significantly in the next eight years, according to Mauritius-based AfrAsia Bank. At the same time, almost half of the population of 55 million is considered chronically poor.

While the ANC government has lifted more than 2 million people out of poverty, improved access to basic services and rolled out an impressive social-assistance program, South Africa’s high unemployment rate, currently at 27%, remains the single biggest obstacle to helping the poor, according to the World Bank.

Read: The South African disaster: No businesses for the unemployed

“South Africa uses its fiscal instruments very effectively,” a spokesperson of the Washington-based lender said in emailed comments. “Even so, the level of inequality and poverty in South Africa after taxes and spending remains unacceptably high.”

The contrast between rich and poor is particularly striking in Cape Town, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, and Johannesburg, a sprawling city built by migrants that’s home to no less than 20 top-ranked golf courses and about 19 000 dollar millionaires, almost half the country’s total number of high-income individuals.

Porsches and Maseratis are a common sight, as are opulent mansions. Residents ask referrals for cosmetic surgeons and dog acupuncturists on Facebook groups or flock to the latest French patisserie in luxury shopping malls — all testimony to $276 billion in household wealth, more than the gross domestic product of Finland, that AfrAsia Bank says has accumulated here.

On the other side of the divide are people like Hlatshwayo, who was forced to quit his banking studies when his family’s funds ran out and he left a job as a kitchen manager because working conditions were unhealthy.

Known locally as a trolley-pusher, Hlatshwayo, who speaks five languages, now sits at the very bottom of an army of black workers who fan out daily over the city’s tree-lined neighborhoods to service the rich. Shortly after his arrival, gardeners, dog-walkers, security guards and maids with white aprons emerge too, sweeping leaves or wheeling out the bins.

“There’s a tremendous stigmatisation around being a reclaimer, but they are solving our waste problem and created their own jobs in the context of unemployment,” said University of the Witwatersrand academic Melanie Samson. “It’s an informal form of wealth redistribution that’s a response to inadequate government policy. Many reclaimers choose this work as preferable to being domestic workers, construction workers or gardeners, where they lose control over their time and can be subjected to racism and abuse by employers.”

Waste-pickers are also key to the local economy: They collect as much as 80% of post-consumer packaging and paper material, making South Africa’s recycling rate equivalent to that of some Western European countries. Municipalities save up to R750 million a year in landfill costs, Samson said, citing industry data.

While many wear balaclavas to avoid recognition, Hlatshwayo isn’t ashamed of what he does. He calls it “a back-up plan.” He’s part of an association that’s registering all the waste-pickers in the city and helped organize a march this month to demand the municipality halt any plans to hire private recycling companies.

Yet he’s cynical about government, and didn’t bother to vote.

“I actually put on my Facebook a few days back: ‘I think I’m a socialist’,” he said cheerfully. “The people who died for our freedom, I don’t think they would do it again. This freedom is only benefiting a very select few.”

Once Hlatshwayo is back at the school where he lives with about 300 other waste-pickers, he and three colleagues start separating the recyclables. Lunch consists of strips of grilled meat while they quickly fill seven man-sized bags, some so heavy they require three people to lift them on a trolley. They don’t sit down once. “Tym is money” is spray-painted on one of the school yard’s walls.

The four men then make their way to the nearest recycling centre, pushing and pulling their cargo through heavy traffic. Almost 30 others are already standing in line, waiting for a small gate to open before they can weigh their bags and throw the contents in containers. At last, by 6 p.m., it’s the turn of Hlatshwayo and his friends. They get R958, to be shared by four people, after a 14-hour day outdoors.

“My mother loves the fact that I’m not doing crime,” Hlatshwayo said. “You never know where life is going to take you.”

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P

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Have some compassion when you see these people along the roadside. Not so sure about the loiterers at the traffic lights, even though I realize that poverty is largely due to structural reasons rather than people simply being lazy. There but for the grace of God go I.

This is the cruel reality, a display of the law of unintended consequences. It is inevitable that all the actions aimed at the creation of a more “just and equal” society, will increase social tensions, inequality and poverty.

The naive redistributive strategies of BEE, EE, cadre-deployment, labour laws, the security of tenure laws, the nationalization of mineral rights, the mining charter, redistributive municipal rates and taxes, quotas in sports, quotas in business, quotas in schools and universities, the enabling of militant labour unions and high progressive taxes result in rising unemployment and rising levels of poverty.

The ANC itself, this proudly socialist organization, is the main driving force behind inequality. Through sheer ignorance, incompetence and stupidity they export employment opportunities, investment opportunities, profitability and the tax base to our international competitors, while they import unemployment, inequality, a fiscal deficit and poverty from them. The ANC creates a competitive advantage for our international competitors. The ANC drives the success of the business plans of those nations that compete with us in manufacturing, mining and agriculture.

The wealthy part of the population is not responsible for the inequality in South Africa. They don’t see such a dramatic rise in their income. They are taxed to death anyway. Inequality is driven by increasing levels of poverty. The poor are becoming poorer because ANC policies protect the privileged few. The BEE beneficiaries, arrogant and unproductive SADOU members, overpaid and unproductive union members, privileged cadres and all politically connected looters in general, benefit from ANC socialist policies.

Look at the scoreboard. We are the most unequal society on earth because the ANC is the most socialist government on earth. Proudly brought to you by the Freedom Charter.

If you take 100 people of the street and let them run 100 meters. Someone will come first and someone will be last. That is how everything works on planet earth.North America vs South America ? Africa vs Europe ?. Inequality has nothing to do with apartheid.

Staalpen, you are factually correct but politically incorrect. You are allowed to win the race in a collectivist community, no problem. As long as you share your prize-money with the losers because “the track belongs to everybody who runs, walks or sits on it” (Freedom Charter.)

The ANC is up in arms about the way the IAAF treats the wonderful athlete Caster Semenya, while at the same time the ANC implements BEE laws. What is the difference, in principle, between the discriminatory BEE laws and the testosterone ruling of the IAAF? If logic prevails then the ANC must either abort BEE legislation or support the IAAF.

Yep, ‘the problem with Socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money’ (Maggie Thatcher). And I also have to say that I hate people applying the Gini co-efficient to South Africa. At the risk of creating a considerable storm in a teacup: if certain people (you can work out who) didn’t come to South Africa in the first place, we would have a very low Gini co-efficient – everyone poor like countries to the north of us. Sad but true.

If they voted, I’m sure they voted ANC, a sure sign that they don’t mind their living conditions, and haven’t seen change in the 25 years of ANC rule. They are only getting what they voted (or didn’t) vote for!!

Only in South Africa would this become a “cause célèbre”. I cannot go to our local park because it is now the home of these “pickers”. This will effect the resale value of property in the area. Formalized recycling will remain a pipe dream. Attempts at separating waste for formal recycling is undone by these “pickers”.
If you think that their activities do not come with a cost, perhaps the author should drive past their sorting areas. These are becoming small villages in various parts of the city, driving out any other economic activity.
Do not be surprised when they start demanding payment from residents since they provide a “service”.

“Ironically, the West and East Africans who throng to South Africa today have little or no sense of victimhood and frequently comment on how curious it is that black South Africans exhibit this trait so strongly, together with an accompanying sense of entitlement”

(RW Johnson, Fighting for the Dream.

The ANC has shown a complete inability to uplift those at the bottom end of society as they loot and steal with impunity while also receiving the go ahead to loot and steal some more in the election last week. Uplifting the masses will always come far behind the entitlement culture of the Black elite. If South Africa is the most unequal country in the world it probably won’t be for long as the wealthy leave in their droves or are taxed to death i.e. the ANC’s solution (if that’s what you want to call it) to inequality is to make the wealthy poor. The destruction of entire industries means nothing to the political elite while the unemployment number keeps rising. Africans come from all over the continent and through our porous borders for the opportunities they will never see in the home countries. Last week’s election was another prime example of the masses being totally incapable of holding their political masters to account, so very little will change and that which does will not be for the better. If the lawlessness I see around me everyday is anything to go by a lot worse is coming.

I am overwhelmed by the compassion displayed in the comment section.

You should be. I am also overwhelmed by the compassion of those who comment here. These individuals are part of the 3% who pay 80% of the taxes that fund social grants and the salaries of government employees. These commentators are the most benevolent members of society. God bless them.

People were compassionate for many years but now they are in a rage about how this country and its people are being mistreated and insulted. The time for compassion and believing the political lies is over.

I totally admire these recyclers and if ever there was a class of people worthy of help, it’s these guys.

But of course the metro and the city do nothing for them. Could at least give them battery driven carts and recharging facilities.

The government’s concern for the poor is just lip service. Don’t think they give a dam.Thats why Joburg’s major won’t even go to Alex, and why cadres will steal 1,5bn earmarked for its development.

And then they bleat about inequality when they won’t lift a finger to help.

“Give them …”.? That’s exactly what will be the start of further another DEMANDS.

Governments promising jobs = Socialism
BEE = Black Privilege (only a select few – less than 1% are part of the system)
Socialism doesn’t work, been there, done that, got the free ANC t-shi(r)t. Kudos to Sensei – our master
Poverty begins with family “planning”. Why on earth would you want to have more children if you can’t afford to raise them? Just so that you can have more votes in 18 years time. It’s a vicious circle that people just don’t fathom. 4 million tax payers are ALREADY paying via social grants 16 million people on a daily, monthly basis through taxation. Call it what it is and stop pretending its other people’s faults. Deep down there is a moral disease that is keeping these people where they are – and for a reason – so that governments can reach out to them and articles like this gets MSM support. Stop feeling guilty, you have done nothing wrong.

Exactly, all designed to induce guilt in responsible people for problems created not by them.

No one likes the sight of poverty and everyone admires those who are trying to get out of it.

The clickbait article however fails to address what causes the inequality and implies the rich are to blame. Government’s role is to uplift the poor via creating an environment for economic opportunity and clearly they’ve missed the boat.

Take the “rich” out the equation and you’ll see everything go to zero just like in Russia, Vietnam and China’s socialist revolutions.

Poverty are classified at earning less than $2 a day. That is R30 per day. Minimum wage is R 20 per hour, R 160 per day. Our social grants are more than poverty thresh holds. These guys are earning R240 per day. Our society has no concept of poverty.

China got out of their poverty problem by firstly have a one child rule and opening up economic development.

I’ll comment as I work close to the waste industry. In my view it is a typically 3rd world problem with an SA face. We should be recovering usable material from the waste stream and “pickers” are doing a fair job (stats given are a bit suspect) although in a state of anarchy. Like zama-zama mining, apply minimum wage and safety rules fairly across the board and the “industry” would disappear.

There is no middle ground; formalise material recovery from waste (as above and add BEE) and the rules kill it cost wise. The informal way its done is unhealthy, dangerous, criminal and often creates a greater problem than it solves as the discards from recovered material are tossed out at random.

Best done by separation or utilisation at source, formalised contracting and a private: public partnership down to household level. IMHO and it will never happen.

I really feel for these guys – we help where and when we can from our own pockets, no thanks to the ANC!
What is even MORE devastating than this, is the misguided acceptance that it is because of apartheid that South Africa remains the most unequal society. By not identifying the root cause correctly you are destined to fail. The sad reality is that apartheid may have caused this to begin with, but the ANC has caused it to remain with us since 1994! Amandla!

Dear Editors

May I ask what you found offensive that prevented you from placing my post.

If so many billions & billions were not wasted/misappropriated (and still continuing I might add) in the first place by our so called leaders then something tells me we would not be viewing the same scale of poverty and misery we are saddled with right now. To keep flogging the same dead horse now 25 years after the fact smacks of smoke & mirrors or leftist “scapegoatism” Can we all just agree that if there wasn’t such blatant pilfering, chronic and criminal maladministration in South Africa that at least 75 – 80 % of our problems would not have seen the light of day? If you insist driving by looking in the rear view mirror the whole time I can guarantee you will miss the opportunities ahead (which we have missed oodles of already) or crash. If we persist to continue with this rhetoric then we are our own worst enemies and we will never pull ourselves out of the mire made for us – again courtesy of our so called leaders. What an absolute waste.

End of comments.





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