Back from the brink: SA’s waste reclaimers tell of their lockdown relief

Informal waste reclaimers have spoken of the dire straits they are facing after being forced to stay home as non-essential workers during the Covid-19 national lockdown, leaving their families unsure of where their next meal will come from. In response, the country’s packaging sector has rallied to their aid, raising funds for the donation and distribution of electronic vouchers to help sustain almost 4,000 informal reclaimers across the country.

The vouchers can be exchanged for basic foodstuffs at selected retailers.
“It came as a huge relief,” said Madi Koena, a reclaimer living in Paarl, describing her relief at receiving the e-voucher. Koena bought electricity, nappies for her baby, cabbage, and oil with her e-voucher. “You’re at home, knowing that you can’t work, but have to feed your family,” said the mother of three which includes a three-week-old baby.

In Bloemfontein, Lefa Mononga is the sole breadwinner. He supports his wife and teenage son.“Before lockdown, I was able to bring in about R900 per week, but since then I have had to rely on my savings to feed my family,” said Mononga, adding that he used his voucher to buy maize meal, eggs and sugar.  Although hoping quarantine would be lifted come May, it would not be business as usual for a while yet, he said, adding that the risk he faced of contracting the virus while working was a real threat to his family’s livelihood.

“I really hope that I can return to work next month, but even then, it will take time to readjust and get back to normal. When I go back to work, my health is at stake. I need to be cautious when it comes to sorting through waste like discarded masks and gloves.” In Nelspruit, post-matric student Luyanda Mathebula must support her two-year-old daughter.

“I will be using the voucher to buy nappies and baby food when I can find transport to a nearby supermarket,” she said. “It’s tough during lockdown. I live with three other family members, so it is too distracting to study and I don’t know what to expect after lockdown is lifted. I am wondering if this will be a wasted year.” Matshidiso Selele, a reclaimer in Kroonstad, used to earn up to R350 a week before lockdown. She supports her three children aged 13, 10 and six. “I am the sole breadwinner. We have no family to support us, so this voucher has meant a lot,” she said. “I was able to buy essential supplies including eggs, oil and sugar.”

The South African packaging sector has rallied to raise almost R800,000* to assist thousands of informal waste reclaimers left destitute by the closure of buy-back centres amid the national Covid-19 lockdown.

The packaging sector partnered with the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) and African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) which have handed their membership databases over to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, which is assisting with distribution efforts.

“Reclaimers [also referred to as waste pickers] form a vitally important part of our waste management infrastructure and recycling industries,” said Packaging SA’s executive director, Shabeer Jhetam. “Our industry united to support them because they now have no means of earning an income for as long as lockdown continues, meaning families face a bleak and uncertain future,” he said.