Johannesburg, South Africa: Waste reclaimers joining hands to save the city

In Johannesburg, South Africa, an informal organisation of waste reclaimers is extending knowledge and keeping the city clean during the time of the global pandemic. Shahrin Mannan reports

This is the thirty-second in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) is a Johannesburg-based informal organisation of waste reclaimers who collect recyclables from Johannesburg’s streets and landfills and sell them at recycling yards in return for a small amount of money. ARO was formed in 2018  when reclaimers demanded to be included in the waste management system to make sure their rights and issues were put at the centre of discussions. They advocate both at local and national level as well as conduct marches and campaigns to defend the rights of waste reclaimers.

The organisation is run and controlled by the informal workers who take part in waste reclaiming. It has two types of workers: people who work in landfill sites and those who work in residential sites. Currently, ARO has an estimated membership of about 5500 in and around the city and is trying to expand to other cities around Johannesburg.

Extending knowledge and resources among the waste reclaimers

The news of the outbreak of deadly coronavirus first came as a rumour to the reclaimers in ARO. “By February it was becoming clearer that the virus had made its way to Europe, and in March our country went into full lockdown” says Eli Kodisang, the coordinator at ARO.

The virus soon transmitted rapidly in Johannesburg.  But  public awareness and sensitisation, particularly among the informal workers, was very poor. Realising the depth of the situation, ARO partnered with another NGO called Khanya College to deal with the lack of education and awareness regarding the global pandemic.

ARO and Khanya College formed an activist forum where they discussed how badly the virus may affect the country and what should be done to educate people, particularly residents in informal settlements and waste reclaimers.

“To spread information on COVID-19 precautions, we prepared pamphlets and flyers and the young activists of Khanya College helped disseminating in public places, such as in taxi stands, to the waste reclaimers and in informal settlements,” says Luyanda Hlatshwayo, an organiser at ARO.

“Even today, there has been very little information that has come through from the state. In fact, I cannot remember any public awareness campaign. Even in the clinics where the community health workers are, it is the activists who are giving out information,” Eli adds.

While handing out pamphlets to the waste reclaimers the activists realised that there were no actual plans by the government to make sure that these people are fed. So they immediately started a fundraising campaign to provide meals to the waste reclaimers. Initially they started with internal funds and within three days of planning, they started delivering food.

“We got reports that reclaimers started collapsing on the street because they have not eaten for four days. Throughout the strict lockdown, they didn’t find much recyclables to sell and make money, and it affected their food security. So we started with food distribution and while delivering food, we taught them about social distancing and also handed over soap to wash hands,” says Luyanda.

“We also taught them how to make their own dishwasher, made super dishwasher liquid soap and made a package with food parcels to deliver to the reclaimers” Luyanda adds.

Safeguarding non-native waste reclaimers

In South Africa, as estimated 2 million foreign-born, working age migrants live. Xenophobia has driven these undocumented migrants to abject poverty and misery.

In Johannesburg, many of the waste reclaimers come from Lesotho, a landlocked country in southern Africa. Traditionally, they used to work in the mining industry, but with the collapse of the mining market, a large share of the workers have moved into waste recycling work.

“In the middle of the pandemic, one of the things that we had to deal with was the arrest of the non-native reclaimars for not having legal papers to be in the country” Eli shares. Since they don’t have the national ID or special permit, they are unable to access the government’s food relief parcels provided during the pandemic. To stand beside these reclaimer brothers and sisters during the time of crisis, ARO consulted with human rights lawyers and assisted the reclaimers to receive work permits.

Clean-up campaign

By the time the lockdown was eased, the whole city and its streams and rivers were filled with garbage. Seeing the situation, the reclaimers of ARO launched a clean-up campaign. “The campaign is on-going as we speak. We have taken up tonnes of materials from the streams, rivers and across the city,” says Eva Mokoena, the chairperson of ARO.

“We did the campaign for two reasons, first to clean up the city and environment and second to legitimise our existence to the city dwellers. Waste reclaimers have always been looked down upon and were never given the proper recognition and legality and respect by the citizens, we wanted to change that notion,” Eva adds.

At the time of writing , ARO had raised  250,000 South African Rand (approx. $16,477) as part of their Covid relief and fed around 5,600 families. A share of the funds has also been used to hire trucks to facilitate the clean-up campaign.

One of the major sources of funding for ARO is the NGO Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and  Organizing (WIEGO). ARO is also in talks with several large companies in South Africa about obtaining grants, and has reached out to United Nations agencies for logistical support, according to  Eli Kodisang.

The ARO team wants to establish an innovation centre with all recycling equipment and facilities and aspires to have a large 8 ton truck to be able to move around and expand their work. But they have had to face numerous challenges to get to this point, such as social stigma and lack of cooperation from the society and government at large, as well as difficulties in following hygiene protocols.

“There are different kinds of people in our society. Some support us as reclaimers as we keep the city and environment clean. But most of them do not approve of the work that we are doing, they keep on bullying my kids” Eva adds.

“It has been really difficult to make the reclaimers understand that Covid-19 is real. Even if I explained to them, some of them don’t even care about putting on a mask. Maintaining social distance especially at the landfills has also been a major problem. But we have been trying our best to provide our service by risking our lives when the whole world is staying at home,” Paula concludes.


Interviewer’s perspective

COVID-19 has revealed the unparalleled support that the world receives from informal workers such as the waste reclaimers. Despite not having proper recognition and approval from both city dwellers,   local and national government, the waste reclaimers of ARO have been continuing their work to keep the city and environment clean. Reclaiming and recycling of waste play a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emission and thereby reduce energy consumption. It is the government’s as well as the whole society’s duty to acknowledge and provide full recognition to waste reclaimers just as other citizens. Moreover, proper flow of funding, infrastructure and support with health and safety measures are also key.

About the interviewer

Shahrin Mannan is a Senior Research Officer at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development and manages the “Voices from the Frontline” initiative.


About the interviewees

Eli Kodisang, aged 53, is ARO’s coordinator and organiser. He is also a full time PhD student and works with ARO’s organising team to respond to daily issues, guide ARO’s strategic orientation, write proposals, and work with solidarity groups formed during COVID-19.

Luyanda Hlatshwayo is an organiser at ARO who works in the city of Johannesburg and lives in an informal area within the City.

Paula Vilakazi is a reclaimer and the admin of ARO. She works on the street in Slovoville (Soweto) and works in the residential area in Soweto.

Eva Mokoena is the chairperson of ARO. She works in a landfill called Palm Springs and also in an informal area called Orange farm, 40 kilometres away from Johannesburg.