The birth of a movement of the invisible and excluded
- Published: Friday, 07 December 2018 10:55
On 2nd September 2018 at the Jozi Book Fair, African Reclaimers Organisation introduced itself to the broader public as the first organisation of Reclaimers that united those who work in landfill sites and in streets. The Reclaimers decided to frame this organisation as African because it incorporates all those who are engaged in the recycling trade regardless of their nationality. ARO started life as the Interim Johannesburg Reclaimers Committee (IJRC) and was formed initially to respond to the City of Johannesburg’s decision to displace informal recyclers who collect in the streets by paying private companies to collect recyclables from high-income areas in the city. The City pays these companies to do the work that Reclaimers do for free.
After repeated appeals for discussion on the then proposed tenders and the possible affect they would have on the livelihoods of thousands of people who depend on collecting, transporting, sorting and selling recyclables, the City continued to sign contracts with two private companies. Recyclers were forced to call the first-ever march of the landfill and street recyclers in July 2017. We managed to stop two of the contracts, however, another two were signed. The affects of these contracts have been devastating to the incomes of informal reclaimers. Their incomes have declined by over 60% in all areas where private companies were introduced. Research by CSIR has shown that close to 90 000 South Africans work as informal recyclers collecting close to 90% of all materials that are recycled. South Africa is ranked third behind countries such as Sweden regarding its recycling rates. These impressive rates are almost all entirely due to informal recyclers who form the foundation of the recycling economy but are often ignored by policy-makers and industry.
ARO wants to change all this. We want South Africa to increase its recycling rates and for informal recyclers to be paid for the free labour they provide, which is the foundation of the recycling economy worth hundreds of millions of rands. We collect, sort, transport and sell materials, saving the state and private industry millions and extending the life of landfills. We perform a vital environmental service, removing thousands of tons of discarded materials every year. Amongst us are university drop-outs, former teachers, ex-mine workers, ex-offenders looking to make an honest living, young people, older people and the precariously employed. Most of us are not looking to be employed by government or private companies, we just want to make a living and be self-employed. We also want to work with residents to make ourselves known as people who share your streets and also want to remove the stigma that our work brings. We are not drug addicts, most of us are men and women with families who work hard to make a living. We support our children to fund their schooling, we feed and clothe them and we never collect waste. We collect that which is of value but is discarded by many in society. We look forward to meeting residents, industry and government and to make our struggles and contributions to society known. With ARO we are no longer in the shadows and we look forward to meeting you.
How we organise
Organising people who work for themselves has not been easy. In landfill sites, the South African Waste Pikers Association (SAWPA), together with Groundwork, started organising Reclaimers a few years ago. Therefore, those in landfills have a history of being organised, including attempts to form cooperatives to improve incomes. However, these organising efforts were confined to landfills. WIEGO employed an organiser, whose mandate was to organise Reclaimers and to enable them to intervene in processes towards integrating informal Recyclers. The process of organising people who did not view themselves as part of collective processes has taken a year-and-a-half to achieve. This has been done through meeting workers where they live, work or sell their recyclable materials. The kinds of issues that workers rallied around moved quickly from a focus on preventing the City from signing contracts with private companies to dealing with issues of housing, evictions, violence, xenophobia, police harassment etc. A dedicated team of Reclaimer activists accompanied the organiser throughout and have thus become capable activists who can respond to any issue. The strategy of organising around workers as total beings and not confining interventions to ‘work’ issues has built levels of confidence and resulted in workers deciding to form an organisation that will represent all Reclaimers regardless of their affiliation to existing organising initiatives or nationality. The team works by building workers' confidence by defending them against evictions, police harassment and attempts at excluding them from the recycling economy that is worth hundreds of millions annually. Examples of these include mounting counter-patrols in wealthy suburbs where Reclaimers are often removed and harassed by private security companies from these enclosed spaces of privilege and we insist that they continue working.
ARO is still in its infancy and is rooting itself within these marginalised communities, whilst building a layer of activists from the bottom up. In this process, it tackles many social and political problems thrown up by deep structural inequality in the country and across the region. In the space of less than two years, it is instilling hope and showing that organising, solidarity and unity can lead to changes happening.