Scavenging for food and clothes in landfills during lockdown

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On 26 March, Robinson Deep landfill workers (also known as reclaimers) were called to a
meeting by the management and told to remove their materials from the site. The landfill
site in Turffontein (in Johannesburg, Gauteng) was then closed the following day
Two weeks later, however, one of my reclaimer colleagues called me and told me that
people from the Booysens Station were working full time in the landfill. At first I did not
understand him because everyone was supposed to be home and we were told we had to
stop working.

Over the following three days, my colleague called again and told me to come as soon as
possible. This was difficult for me to do because of the lockdown regulations and I was
worried about finding a road block or police without a permit. When I went to the landfill
site I didn’t believe my eyes.

I saw many people in the landfill. Pregnant women, children and men were searching
through plastic bags of rubbish for food and clothes. There was a high risk of food
poisoning, because people were eating the uncovered cooked food they found. I returned
to the landfill site a few days later and the numbers of people were increasing daily.
I had a chance to interview some of the people and asked those looking for clothes what
they were doing with what they found. Some said they were selling it to foreign nationals.
Others said they were sending the clothes home to their children. ‘Home’ included Mzansi
(South Africa), Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique.

Reclaimers returned to working on landfill sites when level 4 lockdown regulations went
into effect. However, we were chased away by landfill managers. As members of the
African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO), the organisation needs to and continues to
represent and defend our rights as workers.

ARO is a Gauteng based organisation of reclaimers who collect recyclable materials from
the streets and landfills. There are an estimated 6,000 reclaimers who perform this work in
Johannesburg. ARO was formed in September 2018 by reclaimers who took a decision to
have a body to represent their demands to municipalities and their rights as workers.
Andrew Msomi is a member of and organiser in the African Reclaimers Organisation.

This article was submitted on 30 May 2020. You may republish this article, so long as you credit
the authors and Karibu! Online (, and do not change the text. Please
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