In the shadows of the high-rise offices in Johannesburg’s wealthy Sandton district, Thembekile Mokoena concealed her recycling bag bulging with paper, plastic and tins under a tree.
Such strategies are a necessity for informal recyclers across the city, like Mokeona, who are often forcibly moved by private security guards paid to “clean up” urban spaces.
“If we go near the Sandton shopping centre to use the toilets, we are chased out and told we are disturbing the people who have come to shop,” said 34-year-old Mokoena, sitting on a bench as office workers in suits streamed past.
“Once I was beaten by security who told me he would lose his job if he let me inside.”
Mokoena is one of an estimated 200 000 waste pickers or reclaimers who navigate the racial, economic and physical divides of South Africa’s largest and wealthiest city to sell tins, plastic and paper to recycling depots.
Across Africa, governments keen to modernise booming cities often view poor people making a living sifting through rubbish or hawking on the streets as a hindrance, and as usurpers of public spaces meant for formal businesses and wealthy residents.
Cities worldwide generated more than 1.3 billion tons of solid waste in 2010, which is predicted to reach 2.2 billion tons a year by 2025 – equal to the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza, each day, according to UN Habitat.
Increasing recycling would reduce deaths from pollution, flooding and planet-heating emissions, it said, calling for waste picking to be regulated to better protect workers.
Reclaimers recycle 80% to 90% of plastic and packaging in South Africa, saving authorities up to R750 million ($53 million) in landfill costs, the Pretoria-based Council for Scientific and Industrial Research estimates.
Despite the valuable service reclaimers provide, they are stigmatised – on the street and at home.
“People assume that because we are dirty, we are drug addicts, but it’s not true. We are hard workers. We are entitled to move through the city too,” said Mokoena.
“I used to sell my body for food. My family said nothing. Now that I earn an honest living recycling, they are ashamed of me for working with trash. They have disowned me so I am forced to live on the streets.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed more than 10 reclaimers across Johannesburg who said they have been beaten or arrested by private security and police for sorting their waste in public spaces or for not carrying valid work permits.
A spokesman for the city’s metropolitan police department, Wayne Minnaar, said he was not aware of any beatings, but recycling materials have been confiscated in public parks.
“We are aware of the immense contribution of the recyclers but we have to make arrests if they create a health hazard, or if they are undocumented,” he said, referring to the fact that many reclaimers from neighbouring Lesotho lack work permits.
Often hiding their faces in balaclavas to avoid being identified, reclaimers ride between the city’s traffic on metal trolleys, piled high with household waste.
They can pull the trolleys, weighing up to 200 kilograms for kilometres across the city, said Eli Kodisang of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
WIEGO – a global network campaigning for informal worker rights – has launched what it calls “counter patrols” where they accompany reclaimers through gated communities to push back against private guards who sometimes demand bribes.
“We photograph security guards who often carry guns and force the reclaimers to leave. We tell them that, legally, reclaimers are entitled to go through the bin placed outside a house,” said Kodisang.
“If we create barriers around people trying to survive, how can we challenge this inequality?”
Reclaimers’ visibility – wheeling past gated complexes, electric fences and closed off public roads – has made them a rallying point.
“The reclaimers have become a symbol of injustice,” said Melanie Samson, a human geography lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “But they also represent an informal mechanism of wealth redistribution in an unequal city.”
South Africa remains the world’s most unequal country, according to the World Bank, more than 25 years after democratic elections ended decades of apartheid – when millions of blacks were forcibly removed from white-only urban areas.
Many are disillusioned by a decade of slow growth and rising joblessness, this month returning the African National Congress to power with its lowest parliamentary majority since 1994.
The Department of Environmental Affairs issued guidelines on reclaimers last month to better integrate informal recycling, which include registering and paying reclaimers for refuse collection and encouraging residents to separate their trash.
Muzi Mkhwanazi, a spokesman for Johannesburg’s recycling service, said the city has registered about 1 600 reclaimers since February and will soon issue them with cards documenting their services.
“If a resident complains that someone is loitering outside their house, the recyclers will be able to show their recycling card to the police,” he said. “This will help improve the relationship between recycler and resident.”
Tight security is often justified by high crime rates, with almost 190 000 incidents reported in Gauteng province in 2018.
“We believe safety comes in knowing the community around you,” said Sophia Welz, chairwoman of the Brixton Community Forum, a largely working-class neighbourhood where residents have been meeting reclaimers for a year to talk about recycling.
“It bothers them that they are seen as criminals.”
Since the meetings began, she has noticed more residents greeting reclaimers by name, bringing them cold water and offering food.
“This is not much yet, but it is the beginning of creating more inclusive spaces, spaces that work for everyone,” she said.
Back in Sandton, Mokoena filled her bottle with water from a roadside tap.
“People can talk all they want. At the end of the day, we have bread on our table,” she said.
“I am not waiting to be paid by anyone. It starts with me.”
She looked left and right, before darting across the road between passing cars on their way to work too.