Waste pickers call for urgent meeting over their treatment at landfill site

2009-02-12 00:00

PIETERMARITZBURG waste pickers yesterday called for an urgent meeting with New England Road landfill management, landfill security bosses, the SAPS and municipal officials to discuss their ongoing ill-treatment at the site.

Speaking at the launch of a report on waste in SA produced by environmental justice organisation groundWork, waste picker leader Douglas Maphumulo said waste pickers are still being chased away from the landfill and continue to suffer “abuse” at the hands of site officials and security guards. He said the December protest march by waste pickers to City Hall, where a memorandum was handed to community development process manager Mandla Zuma had brought little change.

“Sometimes the metal we collect is taken from us,” said Maphumulo. “We need to know what our rights are …”

Maphumulo was among two waste pickers from Pietermaritzburg sent by groundWork to India late last year in order to experience the waste management strategies of their Indian counterparts in four cities, including New Delhi and Mumbai.

Maphumulo, who had never before left South Africa, told an attentive audience that the levels of filth in India, the lack of sanitation, the extreme shortage of land, the flies on landfills and the conditions in which some people live were eye-opening.

However, he was impressed by the level of organisation among the hardworking Indian waste pickers who regard themselves as “workers in the biggest factory in the world”.

He said organic composting is widespread and that people used fabric offcuts — items that are discarded here — to make handbags and clothes. “Everything is used and some people have become wealthy through waste.”

Most impressive, he said, was Indians’ use of organic waste to produce bio-gas and the harvesting of rainwater. “We could be doing this in our rural areas,” he said. Maphumulo said waste pickers earn a grant from the municipality to sort and collect household waste.

groundWork director Bobby Peek told the gathering that thus far, requests for a meeting with municipal officials have produced no response.

groundWork’s latest report focuses on waste at a time when the National Environmental Management Waste Bill will shortly be signed into law. In submissions to Parliament, Peek said his organisation argued that waste pickers, who are making a legitimate living out of waste picking and are major contributors to recycling, need legal recognition and protection.

As things now stand, he said, the act will require regulators and waste managers to apply their minds to salvaging and to develop a plan to engage with waste pickers and “bring them on board”.

As the groundWork report notes, the new legislation “opens a political space for waste pickers to engage with the official processes that define their work. How they use that space will depend on how organised they are and whether they are in fact recognised by officials and others.”

Co-authored by David Hallowes and Victor Munnik, the report “reviews the politics of waste in South Africa” and draws links between capitalist development and the deepening impoverishment of poor people. groundWork Waste campaign manager Musa Chamane said it will be used in planning and future workshops with waste pickers and interested groups.

The book, which has a section dedicated to the New England landfill site, argues that far from being isolated, the struggles defined by waste are part of a broader struggle to shape the future “according to the needs of people, rather than capital”.

• An attempt to get hold of New England Road Landfill Manager Cyril Naidoo for comment yesterday was unsuccessful.

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