Informal communities that rely on the collection and sale of recyclable waste for survival are under threat from all sides. Marius Sullivan explores the fragile existence of the ‘Bagerezi’ in Tshwane

Bagerezi often walk more than 20km every day to collect recyclable waste.

For the “Bagerezi” – informal recyclable material reclaimers – Covid-19 was just one extra thing to worry about. They face many more immediate dangers every day and are subject to every kind of disadvantage: homelessness, hunger and exposure to the elements, ostracism, exploitation, harassment and threats of eviction.

The Bagerezi (the name they have given themselves means “hustlers”) scratch out a living by collecting recyclable materials from suburban rubbish bins and selling them on to middlemen and big recyclers.

In Tshwane, their role has stirred up a landfill of human rights issues and exposed fundamental flaws in the city’s waste management system.

Opinions on the Bagerezi are polarised. They exist because of an economic opportunity created by the failure of the city and its residents to establish an efficient recyclable material collection and sorting culture.

The associated social and legal complications that arise from the Bagerezi filling this recycling gap have thus been created, in part, by the residents.

This waste picker sleeps in a makeshift shack he has built next to the recyclable waste he collects during the day.

On rubbish collection days, members of the Bagerezi drag large quantities of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic, cardboard, glass and aluminium in makeshift carts to collection points, where resellers or large recyclers pay them in cash.

This is the lowest point of entry to the R15bn waste economy in SA, but the Bagerezi cannot be counted as part of this economy, because they are not formally employed. They receive no logistical or occupational health and safety support; they have no bargaining power, no UIF and no living wage.

But their combined contribution is hefty. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) estimated in a study conducted in 2014 that the Bagerezi’s efforts saved municipalities on average about R500m.

The CSIR report, released in 2016, stated: “It is clear that the informal sector is playing an important role in the recovery of recyclables at little to no cost, to the direct benefit of government and industry. The informal sector still provides an opportunity to further increase recycling rates, however, one must be cautious not to exploit pickers in this process, or, in light of the drive for ‘decent jobs’, encourage the further growth of the informal sector.”

The logistics of informal waste picking require the Bagerezi to separate and stockpile recyclables in the suburbs, close to where they collect. As a result they occupy empty land, which is often private property. The occupation of the land is illegal and the recycling activities contravene various zoning regulations and by-laws.

Laundry day for the Bagerezi at their Eldoraigne home and worksite.

Because transport is unaffordable, the Bagerezi have to live where they work. This compounds the problem of land occupation and creates additional sanitation and social problems.

Private landowners have the legal right to evict anyone illegally occupying property, but attempts to force groups of indigent recycling communities out of neighbourhoods have become a human rights matter. Louise du Plessis of Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) said the legal argument hinges on the socioeconomic right to food and shelter, which is why LHR has become involved in some eviction cases involving the Bagerezi.

In a 2014 integrated waste management plan, the City of Tshwane admitted to shortcomings in its waste management strategy, and that there was “an urgent need to divert all recyclable waste, on a large scale, from the remaining landfill sites”.

The Bagerezi, particularly given the data collected by the CSIR, can provide a potential solution that would benefit all parties.

Stefan van der Westhuizen, through his NGO RubiconZA, has been working with Bagerezi communities in Centurion – in total about 700 people – for more than five years. His vision is to achieve recognition for the Bagerezi and formal inclusion in the waste management system.

Bulldozers rip up the Eldoraigne site. The trees that gave the Bagerezi shelter were removed first and then their shelters were also razed. They stayed put because they have nowhere else to go.

RubiconZA, along with other humanitarian NGOs, established a negotiations forum with the City of Tshwane in November 2019. In the first meeting a city official acknowledged that this forum was the first of its kind: “where the city and the informal recyclers would engage formally and work together as a unit”.

But not much has happened. NGOs and Bagerezi have expressed frustration with the slow pace of progress. In a meeting with NGOs in August 2020, the Tshwane city waste management division flip-flopped on making any commitments to land allocation for the Bagerezi.

A report presented to the city in June 2019 highlighted the need for economic growth and job creation. It specifically addressed “the problem of informal recyclers sorting waste in an uncoordinated manner across the City”, and made a commitment to “extend their waste management systems in order to include recycling and informal reclaimers within their waste management practices”.

Based on this report, a fairly elaborate and comprehensive “waste storage and sorting facility operating model” was agreed upon. This year the city advertised a tender for the appointment of local service providers to operate four “buyback centres” for a period of three years.

Referring to a 2014 memorandum of agreement, the city motivates the tender thus: “These buyback centres were built with the sole purpose of accepting and processing recyclables in order to alleviate poverty through job creation . Most importantly was to reduce the tonnages of waste material to be disposed at City’s landfill sites.”

A child at one of the waste picking sites

On the surface, this plan appears to solve the landfill challenge and simultaneously create opportunities for the Bagerezi. Reality has not matched up.

One of the buyback centres, in Atteridgeville, stands empty. Nearby is a different white elephant, a state-of-the-art material recovery facility (MRF), built by the city in partnership with investment company New GX Capital. It was intended to process separated recyclable material and create employment for the people of Atteridgeville, but on inspection appeared to have been abruptly abandoned, with recyclable material still visible in the machines. In a perfect world, buyback centres should accommodate the Bagerezi, not the MRF. Then again, in a perfect world, the city would transport source-separated recyclable waste directly to MRFs and the Bagerezi would become superfluous.

Both the empty buyback centre and the non-functioning MRF examples demonstrate the failure of the City of Tshwane to alleviate poverty through job creation in the waste management cycle.

Not all state and municipal bodies are as inept. On August 20, a very efficient Green Scorpions team inspected a private property in the suburb of Eldoraigne, where a group of Bagerezi had been working and living on the vacant land for a number of years. One of the inspectors seemed conflicted about performing her duty and expressed genuine concern about the consequences of the inspection for the Bagerezi. She reaffirmed the consensus that the Bagerezi need a sorting facility where they operate.

Instead of trying to find mutually beneficial solutions, we treat human beings like waste by either ignoring them or brutalising them

Cindy Billson, a former ward councillor for the DA, said that the owner of the property had been fined for “unlawful recycling activities” and ordered in 2019 to clear his property. A founding affidavit against the eviction by Lawyers for Human Rights states that on August 27 2020, the Bagerezi were given notice to relocate to another portion of the same property.

When asked for comment, the City of Tshwane responded: “Please note, the property in question is privately owned.”

A week after the inspection, members of RubiconZA met property owner Eugene Clark to discuss the fate of the indigent community. He said he did not intend to interfere with the Bagerezi, except to ask them to move to another part of the property.

“We’ve got the land on the end there,” he said. “We’re just relocating them.”

“I believe in everybody’s dignity”

Clark, who was legally entitled to remove people from his property, said he would provide the Bagerezi with proper facilities and perhaps solicit sponsorship for containers for the recyclable material. He also said he would consider employing some of them in his businesses. I was present when he said these things.

“I believe in everybody’s dignity,” he said, telling us how he had helped hawkers in Cape Town by providing them with lock-up and toilet facilities.

The resulting optimism from RubiconZA, who facilitated the negotiations for relocation with the Bagerezi, was short-lived. Land surveyors and a newly erected fence confirmed that the allocated relocation area was not part of Clark’s property.

The Bagerezi had nowhere to go, but earth-moving machines had already started aggressively clearing the property. LHR took up their case and informed Clark on September 1 that he could not carry out an eviction without a court order.

On September 8 the earth-clearing machines were within 10m of the Bagerezi shacks. Van der Westhuizen (of RubiconZA) met with Kenny Stuurman, Clark’s representative, and requested that the clearing be stopped until negotiations were concluded. To no avail. By September 10 the living quarters of the Eldoraigne Bagerezi were being mown down.

The NGO PEN operates a buyback centre in Pretoria. They buy recyclable material directly from the Bagerezi and pay them for it in cash.

A charge of assault

On September 15, Van der Westhuizen laid a charge of assault against a group of men associated with Stuurman. Van der Westhuizen alleged, and three eye-witnesses from the Eldoraigne Bagerezi corroborated, that approximately 15 men assaulted him while he made social media videos of the situation in Eldoraigne. The men forced him to delete the footage.

By September 19, the cleared property resembled an urban refugee camp, treeless and exposed, but the Bagerezi were still there. They remained even when the bushes were set on fire.

An impasse appeared to have developed in Eldoraigne. The owner had complied with the instructions of the city, but the Bagerezi remained in occupation of the empty property. On October 12, still with nowhere to go, the Eldoraigne Bagerezi posted photos and videos on a WhatsApp group of security personnel destroying their shacks, throwing their belongings over the fence and harassing them.

On October 13, the situation erupted violently when security personnel started burning the plastic recyclable material collected by the Bagerezi, the means by which they feed themselves. Cars were burnt in retaliation and a number of the Bagerezi were arrested.

I was there to observe this. Because of my association with Van der Westhuizen and RubiconZA – who have been blamed for the continued presence of the Bagerezi – I was attacked by local residents and security guards who relieved me of my phone and camera. After receiving medical treatment, I too laid a charge of assault.

There’s always time for a good book.
Moses Rambao, a member of the Waterkloof Bagerezi community, makes art from waste.

No sign of upliftment

At the time of writing, the Bagerezi group has yet to see any sign of the upliftment Clark promised.

An appeal has been made to the minister of human settlements, water & sanitation and on Wednesday October 21 Lawyers for Human Rights submitted an urgent application for a court order requiring the property owner to provide the Bagerezi with shelter and financial compensation for their losses.

The Eldoraigne Bagerezi have scattered to the winds after being locked out of the Clark property. Some will join other recycling groups. Others will find hidden corners to sleep in suburbs rich in garbage. All will start again, from nothing.

Most rate-paying residents are eager to evict the Bagerezi from their neighbourhoods wherever they may settle and however long they have been there, but it is the negligent recycling habits of residents and the waste-management incompetence of municipalities that have created and enabled this growing suburban subculture.

Deferring the environmental and moral responsibility to the government and recycling companies is hypocritical. It does nothing to solve the problems of sustainable waste management and unemployment.

Instead of trying to find mutually beneficial solutions, we treat human beings like waste by either ignoring them or brutalising them. This perpetuates an endless cycle of desperation and survival linked to systemic failures that simply recycle the Bagerezi.

• Sullivan, an employee of the South African National Defence Force, writes in his private capacity as a volunteer to NGOs working to improve conditions for informal waste recyclers. He conducted this investigation in his own time and did not receive payment for this article

Article was originally published in Sunday Times on 25 October 2020.