Waste Pickers - A Decade of Successful Struggle

22 August 2019 - One hundred and thirteen (113) waste pickers from 42 towns across all provinces in South Africa convened in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, from the 19th - 22nd August for the 2019 Biennial General Meeting (BGM) of South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA).  We celebrated and reviewed a decade of work since the 2009 launch of SAWPA, a movement of and for all waste pickers working in South Africa. This BGM 2019, was preceded by BGMs in 2015 and 2017 and a gathering alongside the 2011 UN climate summit in Durban, South Africa. 

The BGM was not only about the review of the work over the last two years but also planning for the next two years. There were many victories that were shared and we are motivated to go back to our towns and communities, and continue our work towards providing solutions to waste challenges which many South African municipalities are failing to address. 

SAWPA is an organisation of more than 1100 registered waste pickers in all 9 provinces in South Africa. Many more of us work with SAWPA but are yet to be registered.  According to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research there are up to 90 000 people that earn a livelihood through the informal waste sector.  SAWPA is based on waste dump sites and on streets in cities across the country, with all our members involved in collecting and selling waste as a livelihood strategy.  We divert and recycle materials such as organics, plastic, cardboard, paper, metals away from waste dumps, where good material becomes waste and result in increased greenhouse gas emissions and worsening impacts of climate change. 

Speakers attended the meeting included representatives from government, academia and technical institutions. The South African Local Government Association (SALGA) has committed itself to working with us. We agreed that there should be a plan between SAWPA and SALGA as to how SALGA will assist municipalities in working with us.

The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has committed to work with us.  They indicated that they will shortly advertise mechanisms to indicate how we can to engage and get support from them for our work. The registration of waste pickers is the main priority for the DEA.  They need to know how many of us are working on landfills, waste dumps, streets and neighborhoods, in towns and cities across the country. 

The guidelines for Waste Picker Integration in South Africa into municipal waste management systems has been finalised and is to be adopted by the DEA later this year. This document will be implemented at a local level by municipalities.

If local governments fail us on this: “we will meet on the streets” was the outcry at the meeting.

Amongst the issues that we discussed were waste picker projects on the ground in various places including new areas such as Durban, KwaZulu Natal where the Metro has built a recycling centre for us to operate from. In Vereeniging, Gauteng, we have a new project operated by Majakathatha Cooperative who collects waste from businesses and the community. In Wellington and Paarl, in the Western Cape, we are now being supported by the Drakenstein Local Government in their recycling initiatives.  This was after the waste pickers and community people represented by Wellington Association against the Incinerator (WAAI) and the Drakenstein Environmental Watch (DEW) successfully resisted the establishment of a municipal waste incinerator which would have destroyed our livelihoods. We are very encouraged by the progress that our struggles have made.

As waste pickers we provide the only form of solid waste collection in areas that are not serviced by government, and our work enhances government services in serviced areas, providing high recycling rates. We also contribute to local economies, public health and safety, and environmental sustainability. 

While recognition for our contributions is growing in some places, we often face low social status, deplorable living and working conditions, and get little support from local government. Increasingly, we face challenges due to competition and unfair market prices by the private sector. 

We agreed to:


For more information:

Simon Mbata
South African Waste Picker Association
Cell and WhattsApp: +27-66-219 1232
E-mail: simon.mbata@gmail.com

Musa Chamane
Waste Campaigner
groundWork, Friends of the Earth, South Africa
Cell and WhattsApp: +27-82-380 2237
E-mail: musa@groundwork.org.za