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'How are we meant to eat?': A South African waste picker on life under lockdown

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 7 April 2020 10:45 GMT

Waste picker Luyanda Hlatshwayo stands in front of collected recyclable material in an abandoned school in Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 May 2019, Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

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'We have been asking the government for protective gear for a long time, even before the coronavirus. Now we have to find our own solutions.’

This is the first article in a series examining how coronavirus lockdowns are affecting  vulnerable people around the world. 


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.

This has been an ongoing battle for South Africa's 90,000 informal waste reclaimers, who haul trolleys across the city to collect tins, plastic and paper from people's trash before separating, washing and selling the goods to buyback centres.

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Reclaimers recycle 80 to 90% of plastic and packaging in South Africa, saving authorities up to 750 million Rand ($40 million) in landfill costs, the Pretoria-based Council for Scientific and Industrial Research estimates. 

Under coronavirus lockdowns in South Africa, municipal waste collections have continued but the movements and livelihoods of the reclaimers have been frozen.

Luyanda Hlatshwayo, 35, is a waste reclaimer from Soweto township who has been recycling for nearly a decade.

This is his story, as told to Kim Harrisberg, Thomson Reuters Foundation South Africa correspondent:

"I have been a waste reclaimer since 2011. It is difficult work, but it puts food on the table. Since the lockdown, things have not been good for us. There was no consultation with the informal sector before the lockdown. How are we meant to eat?

People are even selling their shoes to buy bread.

I usually wake at three in the morning to begin my work and my body is used to that. This morning I woke at three a.m, opened the door, and just stood there.

We are used to working hard. By nine o'clock you can see the distress. People are desperately organising money to buy food in bulk. When we try and leave the building to recycle we get beaten by the army or police.

Waste picker Luyanda Hlatshwayo stands with his friend in an abandoned school where they live in Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 May 2019, Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

If I look around me I see groups of people burning fires to keep warm and cook their food in the abandoned soccer academy where we live in Newtown in Johannesburg.

Up to 80 children live in the building, where nearly 400 of us share two taps and eight toilets. There is no electricity. Numbers are growing every day as the city's homeless have nowhere to go. I anticipate a riot soon if people can't eat.

If a person is used to hard labor and you tell them they cannot work ... it disturbs them. You know, people get frustrated. These children are hungry. I'm locked up in a space that I'm used to, but I feel like I am a foreigner here.

We have been asking the government for protective gear for a long time, even before the coronavirus. Now we have to find our own solutions, and we are finding them.

Those that are still managing to work don't touch the recyclable materials for three days before they start washing it with the hopes that the virus doesn't stay on the goods.

We are trying to keep sanitizers in our pockets. Some are even using plastic bags on their hands as gloves because there aren't enough to go around.

But personally, I wouldn't advise reclaimers to risk their lives out there with this virus, or with the police for that matter.

We want to keep ourselves safe, keep ourselves alive.

We don't have electricity but we are trying to stay connected to the outside world, to get more information on our cell phones if we can charge them. We don't know the statistics. Is it getting better? Is it getting worse? We are scared.

Waste picker Luyanda Hlatshwayo goes through trash to find recyclable goods in Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 May 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

People who eat at tables will be ok. People who can afford to have prepared fridges full of food will be ok in the lockdown. You can't expect people in the informal sector to behave the same as the people that are different from them.

We survive on a hand-to-mouth system. One day of us not working disturbs our income. Imagine a two week lockdown?

Our only way to survive is to depend on alliances that we have built with communities. Some are calling and checking in on us and asking, "Are you ok?". Some leave food out by their bins hoping we will find it.

We just keep hoping that a car will drive in with lots of mieliemeal (maize flour porridge). This is just one of the informal settlements in Johannesburg. There are guys under bridges, in fields, in parks that no one is worried about. 

Now we know for sure, informal people are at the bottom of the food chain. We acknowledge that the government of South Africa does not recognise reclaimers.

But I have a message to other waste reclaimers around the world trying to survive this war:

It's not impossible to get recognition for your work. The most important recognition that you need to have is recognising yourself as important. Your work is important.

We may not see proper liberation for reclaimers in this lifetime but it will definitely come.

We hope to get out of this coronavirus victorious."

($1 = 18.8138 rand)

Any views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and not of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)