South African Waste Pickers Attend 1st International Congress in Argentina

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From the 1st to the 5th  of May 2024, waste pickers from 34 countries representing all regions across the planet will gather for the first ever elective Congress of the International Alliance of Waste Pickers (IAWP), to be hosted in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Two of the delegates attending the meeting are from the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA). They are Mr Lefa Mononga, the current Chair of SAWPA, who is from Bloemfontein, and Ms Madi Koena from Paarl; she will be running for the position of Treasurer.

This convening is set to make history as it connects waste pickers globally – from Burkina Faso in Africa to the Philippines in Asia; Honduras in Latin America to Turkey in Europe. Their struggles are at different stages in different country contexts, but those in South American countries are at least 20 years ahead of countries like South Africa in terms of formalising integration and organising waste pickers to fight to protect their human rights.

The aim of the IAWP gathering is to fight and defend waste pickers’ rights to dignity, livelihoods and to work in a secure, clean environment. The IWAP is a collective of 50 member organisations from 34 countries. In the past, waste pickers convened themselves through exchange processes. For instance, Brazilian, South African and Indian waste pickers’ associations  took opportunities to meet during United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) processes.

The alliance has started on a good footing with all the elements of democratic practice in its processes with the Congress being its highest decision-making body. It is composed of 88 delegates elected from 50 affiliated waste picker organisations, with additional strategic partners invited as observers and guests. Delegates’ attendance is supported by their own constituencies in their respective countries. IAWP affiliates submitted resolutions for discussion prior to, and to vote on, during Congress. The same meeting will convene every five years according to the IAWP constitution.

An important aspect of the congress is the election of office bearers; each participant has been elected to attend the congress through a democratic decision-making process. So each delegate carries a mandate from the organisation/s of their home country. This is truly a global movement of waste pickers – history in the making for the Alliance and workers’ rights movements globally – this conference takes place in the wake of a complex process of organising with waste pickers across the globe.

Waste pickers have been recognized by governments and international bodies such as the Conference of Parties (COP), where they are given space and time to voice their issues and struggles. We have seen countries like Brazil recognizing waste pickers as workers and as environmental champions who act to mitigate the impacts of climate change through recycling. However there are still many challenges with the recycling industry globally, where corporate producers leave waste management to end users and governments, acting with impunity and sheer negligence in the absence of regulation or its enforcement. The recycling industry has yet to formally acknowledge and recognise waste pickers for their hard daily service work.

Too often, waste pickers are perceived, labelled and stigmatised as drug addicts, and homeless people in society because of the nature of their work, yet their work plays a critical role and offers circular economy alternatives. Their rights are often infringed by authorities and citizens alike, they do not see that waste pickers are normal people who have taken the initiative to recover and recycle waste materials as their source of livelihood.

We at groundWork, Friends of the Earth South Africa are rooting for Ms Madi Koena and wish her all the best in the election process. If she returns in the IAWP Treasurer position, we have no doubt that she will make South Africa proud, carrying our powerful legacy of workers’ struggles and indeed, her candidacy will ensure that our region is well represented at IAWP.



For more information contact: Tsepang Molefe

Links and Resources:


SAWPA Delegates:

Mr Lefa Mononga

Current SAWPA Chair based in Bloemfontein. He has been in this position for two consecutive terms and is one of the founders of the waste picker movement in South Africa. He runs a Bloemfontein Recycling Project where they collect waste materials from the local shopping centre and from various businesses, landfill and from communities.

Ms Madi Koena

Member of the SAWPA executive based in Paarl, Western Cape. She is running for the Treasurer position in the International Waste Picker Alliance Congress and has been a waste picker for more than a decade. She has been involved in a Paarl Recycling Project running a small Material Recovery Facility. She has exemplified herself as a voice of reason within the SAWPA movement.