South Africa’s First National Waste Picker Meeting

By Melanie Samson

03 July 2009 - On July 2 and 3, 2009 100 waste pickers from across the country gathered for South Africa’s First National Waste Picker Meeting. The waste pickers came from 26 landfills in seven of South Africa’s nine provinces. Speaking at a plenary session, waste picker Simon Mbata emphasised that the meeting was, “making history” as it was, “the fist time we see waste pickers in South Africa together deciding our future.”

The meeting was organised by the environmental justice NGO groundWork. groundWork has a long history of working with communities affected by hazardous and toxic waste. In 2008 it began to work with waste pickers after realising that they are also negatively affected by poor waste management practices. In addition, groundWork was concerned that the new waste management legislation being drafted did not recognise the role of waste pickers in municipal waste management and threatened to undermine their livelihood, as did trends toward incineration of municipal waste. Musa Chamane, the groundWork waste campaigner, spent eight months traveling to dumps in all of South Africa’s provinces to make links with waste pickers. In preparation for the national meeting, he facilitated provincial workshops that introduced the waste pickers to groundWork, reported on groundWork’s research on waste pickers and identified key issues faced by waste pickers. Representatives from all of the dumps visited by groundWork were then invited to the National Meeting, held in Midrand, Gauteng.

groundWork is keen to support the organising of waste pickers, but is clear that this initiative must be driven by waste pickers themselves. groundWork sees its role as facilitating opportunities for waste pickers to meet and engage, and providing information and support to help waste pickers organise themselves. According to groundWork, the main objective of the national meeting was to provide the opportunity for waste pickers from throughout South Africa to meet and talk with each other in order promote collective organising for securing their livelihoods.

Waste pickers who attended the meeting made great sacrifices to be there. As they are self-employed, they all forfeited two days of work when they could have been generating income. Province after province reported in plenary that they had come in order to create stronger links with other waste pickers, and in the process of doing so, to learn new strategies about how to forward their own struggles. They also hoped that collectively they would be able to address the discrimination that they face and lobby government for recognition.

Running a national meeting in South Africa is not an easy task. South Africa has eleven official languages, and at least seven were spoken during the conference. Facilitators and participants pulled together to ensure that everyone could communicate and participate.  A team of multilingual facilitators translated every point made in plenary into English, isiZulu and seSotho. As isiZulu and seSotho are from the two main language groups in South Africa they can be understood by most African language speakers in the country. But at times participants spoke languages that the facilitators could not translate, and in these cases other participants who spoke their language quickly volunteered to translate for them. These skills were crucial in the breakaway sessions, where the translation process highlighted not only the valuable language abilities of the waste pickers but also bridged linguistic and cultural divides between them. The waste pickers were brought closer together not only because they could share ideas and experiences, but also because they relied on each other to do so. 

Meeting delegates discussed and debated a wide range of issues. They identified the health risks associated with their work and argued that is the responsibility of the state to provide them with protective clothing and to ensure that medical and toxic waste are not dumped at municipal landfills. Waste pickers from a number of cities reported that they were being evicted from dumps as contracts were being given to private companies. They identified that one of their key challenges was “to resist privatisation of our resources, both at the landfill site and upstream, and to ensure our right to work and to resist exclusion from the landfill sites where we derive our livelihoods.” They also resolved to “develop strategies to ensure that the exploitative practice of middlemen is permanently destroyed.”

Workshop delegates identified that collective organisation will be key to achieving all of these objectives. Most of the delegates came from dumps that did not have formal organisations. They were particularly inspired by a plenary session in which waste pickers who have succeeded in organising both cooperatives in their dumps and city-wide alliances provided insight into how they had achieved these successes. After hearing of their accomplishments, the delegates resolved that they would try to build organisations on all of the dumps. For, as the breakaway group focusing on organising noted, “it is only where waste pickers are united that we see them advancing,” and, “the municipality will not listen to an individual, but it will listen to a collective.” The meeting came up with a number of suggestions regarding how to convince other waste pickers to see the benefits of organising. Key amongst these was the idea of running local workshops where more experienced waste pickers from other cities can share their experiences.

At the conclusion of the national meeting the delegates elected a national working group with one representative from each province to take this agenda forward. Because waste pickers also face problems related to housing, education and access to services, the delegates resolved to “work with other community organisations to take forward our collective struggles.”
The National Meeting was an important first step that has altered the landscape in South Africa. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done to make future processes even more inclusive. Despite the fact that women were active participants in the meeting and gave the majority of reports from breakaway groups, only one of the working group members elected at the conference was a woman. Two provinces were not present and only a small number of waste pickers working in the streets attended the meeting. Although many foreign migrants work as waste pickers in cities across the country, none were present at the workshop. Some participants felt that excluding foreign nationals from dumps would be a way to address overcrowding. As the working group moves forward there will be a need to explore how to overcome exclusions and divisions and to ensure that all waste pickers can participate and have a voice in the emerging national processes.

Delegates to First Waste Pickers Gathering

Delegates to first National Waste Pickers Meeting