Jozi City Feature

Waste ghosts sweep the streets

A loaded trolley of stacked cardboard is moving up a steep side street. The man pushing the trolley can’t be seen. Only once the trolley has passed, does he become visible. Dressed in a blue overall and leaning forward, head bowed between outstretched arms, his back is bent almost horizontal to push the weight upward. At the top of the hill, he stops, stretches his back and carries on. His face is never seen.

It is 6am in Carr Street, Newtown. For a summer’s morning it’s chilly, even though the sun has just risen. There are a few drivers on the road, trying to beat rush-hour traffic. And there are the trolley pushers, dozens of them: The “faceless” members of society, the informal recyclers.

They are called scavengers, waste-pickers, binners, street hawkers and trolley pushers. But they prefer being called walkers. Often abused by drivers and homeowners, walkers are likened to vagabonds because of their hobo-like appearance.

Some of them start at 3am, others at 4 or 5, scouring the streets for recyclable materials such as cardboard, plastic, glass and paper.

Phillip Molelekeng is one of them. At 38, he has spent most of his life moving from “piece job to piece job” trying to make a living. He has been a walker for just over a year and bought a trolley for R30 from Remade, the recycling collection company, four months ago.

He saw other walkers and started collecting when he found out he could make a living by selling what he collected. “We work every day. Sometimes Saturday you can just take a little break but we work hard from Monday to Friday,” says Molelekeng. “If I’m not working then I don’t have something to buy food. If I don’t work today I won’t eat.”


Walking to eat

The day after telling his story, Molelekeng’s trolley was stolen outside his shelter. Now he can only earn – collecting by hand – about a third of what he used to.

Molelekeng built his shack out of wood. It is about 2m long and slightly wider than an average doorway. He has draped plastic sheeting over the roof as makeshift waterproofing. He has covered the walls in Absa adverts – hopeful scenes of smiling families. His home is erected on a mound – a bare patch of earth littered with waste, as you drive down the Carr Street off-ramp. He shares the space with other walkers.

Muzwandile Donald and Blessing, who would not give his surname, have known Molelekeng for three years and live in similar shacks on the plot. Both 23, they have nicknamed Molelekeng “Jah-Man” because of his dreadlocks.

Phillip Molelekeng had his trolley stolen from outside his shack. He now collects by hand and makes a third of what he used to. Remade currently has no trolleys to sell


“This one he gives us problems. When he doesn’t have the money, he is crazy. When he has something to eat and something to drink he’s OK,” says Blessing.   They each make R60 to R80 a day collecting cardboard. This is not an eight-to-five job. A normal day for the three of them starts at 5am. They stop at Remade to sell at 1pm. And from 3pm until 10pm they are back on the streets collecting.

“I’m working hard, I really need the job. If I can get the job I can work hard,” says Blessing. Asked if collecting is a job, he says: “It’s a job, but it’s a job that pays you at the same time on the same day. If you didn’t work on a day you don’t have money. It’s hard here. It’s hard.”

“And you can’t save because it’s the money you get today, so you use it today. So we can’t open up an account to save because we don’t have money all the time,” says Donald.


Buying and selling

Walkers are common around the world and an estimated 1% of the urban population in developing countries survives by reclaiming recyclable materials from waste.

Many of them are so poor it’s a choice between starving and sifting through rubbish. That’s how they make a living: sorting, collecting, recycling, selling. But it’s not always safe.

Remade truck driver Ezekial Ramashia says a walker dies on the roads almost every day. It’s hard work in a hostile environment.

“They use the same way as the cars. It’s a real problem. At the moment there’s nothing we can do to stop it, it’s the country’s problem.”

Kapeel Harinath is a technical assistant at Remade. He says the reclaimers are paid per kilogram for the different products brought in and they get paid “quite well”.

To get paid “quite well”, a collector needs about 10 cardboard boxes to earn just 70c. Twenty bottles equals R2. 10c and at least 60 cans, which make up a kilogram, will sell for 40c. White paper pays the most at R2 per kg and is regarded as a treasure find among walkers.

“It varies. You get guys who come in here and they can make up to like R200 to R300 a day depending on the volume that they bring in,” says Charl Blignault, Remade’s logistics manager.

That requires a walker to collect up to 1 000 cardboard boxes, 400 plastic bottles and a 100kg of other types of recyclable material in a day.

Blignault says some of them collect fairly quickly because they subcontract trolleys to people who go out to collect from the whole of Bree Street, for example, and get paid a standard amount of R50 for the day. These contractors “own” a particular area or street, which results in walkers fighting with one another.

“They do help to keep Jo’burg clean. They do a valuable service and try to survive in the process. We have a yearly function for them.” Blignault says they provide the walkers with lunch, hand out new trolleys and brief them on the dangers on the road. “We also inform them about new recyclable materials that they can bring in. They are doing the community a service. Most of them do it to stay alive, and others do it to get drunk on a daily basis.”

Remade does have vans and trucks that go to businesses in the area to collect. But it is the walkers, about 150 of them, who bring in about three quarters of their daily intake.


Clement Nneye (31) who has been a walker for four months jumped the border from Zimbabwe. He was paid R34 for 30kg of cardboard and plastic when he traded his collection. Walkers often sift barehanded through garbage which contains contaminated materials hazardous to their health.

Managing them away

Latin American cities have successfully cut out the middlemen – such as Remade – in the buying and selling system. Waste collectors in these cities have been organised into trade unions, co-operatives and associations, which has helped to raise their income, social standing and self-esteem.

The situation in Latin America was set out in Gridlines, a publication by the Public-Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility, and was confirmed by Stephen Narsoo from the City’s central strategy unit who has worked on revising Jo’burg’s Growth and Development Strategy 2040, now called Jo’burg 2040.

But in South Africa, that is a long way from happening, if it ever will, says Zayd Ebrahim, also from the central strategy unit.

The newly revised Jo’burg 2040 deals with three main agendas, one of which is the green agenda and looks at better waste management. He says Jo’burg’s mainstream waste management company, Pikitup, has had a poor waste management system for the past 30 years. It has consisted merely of collecting and disposing of waste in landfills.

Jo’burg 2040 proposes a change in the nature and function of Pikitup because the city is running out of landfill sites. “We’ve got about eight years left on our landfill sites,” says Narsoo.

The new proposal addresses the idea of separating waste at source, getting people to recycle and changing behaviour around waste.

“Waste for an average person in Johannesburg in the affluent areas is three or four times higher than your European average,” says Narsoo. He calculates that a person in an affluent area generates 20 times more waste than a person in the poorer areas.

Narsoo says the fact that we do not have an advanced formal recycling system, which looks at reducing waste to landfill, has created the waste management opportunities in the informal economy.

But there is no plan to put a policy in place to support or regulate informal waste trading. “The policy would focus on separating at source, optimising waste management and, through that mechanism, informal waste management systems would be supported,” says Ebrahim,

“There isn’t a formal document that says the city will give the following informal waste pickers the following sites to conduct their business.”

The revised Jo’burg 2040 is also about finding ways to build a recycling economy which adopts the motto of reuse, recycle and reduce waste so that the city changes to a low-carbon economy by 2040.

Ebrahim says walkers are generally supported through the formal waste management system and there’s an economic benefit from waste that will always be there. “Whether the city changes its operations or not, I don’t think informal waste recycling will stop, in the sense that it will always happen.”

Because the informal waste management sector is unregulated, walkers are prevented from collecting and their trolleys are confiscated by the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD).

JMPD’s Officer Nondala, who would not give her first name, says: “They are breaking a by-law which does not allow them to illegally trade or use their trolleys on the roads.”

The informal economy in developing countries represents 60% of a country’s economy. Narsoo says they have not made progress in trying to understand this economy in order to support it rather than try to get rid of it.

He says the departments of economic development, urban planning and Pikitup should work together to come up with a support solution but they haven’t clearly defined what they need to do in terms of their individual systems.

“So their approach in supporting and developing this informal economy, while still ensuring a decent level of urban management for everyone, is missing.”

This means urban planning regulations and the proposed waste policy make no room for formalising the walkers’ situation. They could even kill the informal economic benefit because management by-laws want to control and order urban space and manage them out, rather than incorporate them.

“I want to be something, to get a car or something. To get a house, a big house. But I can’t. Because I’m suffering too much. Too much suffer,” says Molelekeng.

And it seems the city’s administrators – with their “above-the-ground” ideas – intend keeping Molelekeng and the other Jo’burg walkers invisible.

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Papi Moyo left school in grade 11 because he was unable to pay his school fees at Mondeor High after his mother died. He does not know where his father is and started collecting to make a living. He lives with a few other people under a bridge and sells his collection every Friday. He makes about R450 a week and saves part of it to apply for his driver’s licence. He wants to drive a forklift and complete his matric so that he can study further.

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About Sakeena Suliman

Sakeena holds an undergraduate degree in architecture from Wits University and has worked in the industry for seven years. Her interest in writing and people drove her back to university to undertake an honours in journalism. She hopes to work in the print media and focus on social situations. She has a keen interest in photography and would like to work her way into television broadcasting.

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