Trash is cash for the si­lent he­roes of Jozi’s mean streets

Sunday Times - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

WASTE­LAND: A re­claimer’s job is of­ten haz­ardous and nau­se­at­ing

LONG HAUL: Mbuso Shabangu is sav­ing to start a waste buy-back cen­tre

DAILY ROUND: Naleli Kgomo works the bins of Hill­brow each day

WRITER and ur­ban plan­ner Tanya Zack and pho­tog­ra­pher Mark Lewis have cho­sen Jo­han­nes­burg’s ubiq­ui­tous re­cy­clers and their trol­leys as the sub­ject for Good Riddance, the fifth book in their Wake Up, This is Joburg se­ries. Their pre­vi­ous sub­jects have in­cluded the en­trepreneurs of the Mooi Street taxi rank, Con­golese traders in the Yeoville Mar­ket and butch­ers in the in­ner city.

The book tells the sto­ries of a se­lec­tion of the city’s “waste re­claimers”, look­ing at the routes they take each day and where their search for re­cy­clable ma­te­rial takes them. One of the cri­te­ria for sub­jects for the se­ries, says Lewis, is “the utilisation of space and the move­ment through that space”, and the trol­ley-pullers cer­tainly fit that cri­te­ria.

Zack de­scribes them as the “su­per­heroes” of our city. “They are for many of us our only av­enues to do­ing some­thing to mit­i­gate cli­mate change. They sep­a­rate our waste, re­move it and re­cy­cle it, all for no pay­ment. Their in­come de­rives from the sale of the ma­te­rial, but they re­ceive no pay­ment for the ser­vice, and no com­pen­sa­tion if they are in­jured or ill.”

She says the work is in­cred­i­bly tough. “They are pulling many times their bod­ily weight for enor­mous dis­tances across the city. I had to know more about this si­lent brigade — who some of them are, what their in­di­vid­ual sto­ries are.”

Zack says that the col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween her and Lewis “grew out of our mu­tual cu­rios­ity for peo­ple and places in the city that we wanted to know more about”.

She and Lewis usu­ally go out to­gether to search the city for sub­jects for their books, in­ter­view­ing them and tak­ing pic­tures and win­ning their trust so as to be al­lowed ac­cess that will deepen their in­ves­ti­ga­tion and un­der­stand­ing.

Zack says that the re­search takes many months and in some cases they are telling sto­ries of peo­ple who they have in­ter­viewed and watched over sev­eral years. “It is an enor­mous priv­i­lege to be al­lowed that much ac­cess to in­di­vid­u­als, and build­ing up those re­la­tion­ships takes a long time.”

She ac­knowl­edges the eth­i­cal dilem­mas of such projects, and says she and Lewis are aware that they are “ex­tract­ing” sto­ries. “Ak­in­bode Ak­in­biyi, the Nige­rian pho­tog­ra­pher, coun­selled me to al­ways re­mem­ber that the term for photography is ‘tak­ing a pho­to­graph’. We hold that at the fore­front of our en­coun­ters: we are tak­ing a story. This re­quires that we be hum­ble, that we be will­ing to of­fer our own sto­ries, that we never take

TOIL: Many re­claimers drag loads sev­eral times their own body weight across large parts of the city ev­ery day

SUR­VIV­ING: Marie and Frans Fourie and their son An­dré an im­age or use a story with­out per­mis­sion and that we re­main aware that, even if we are in public space, we are in­vad­ing some­one’s ter­ri­tory, be­cause we are peer­ing into their lives and liveli­hoods.”

Lewis says he and Zack have se­lected strong pos­si­bil­i­ties for the next two books in the se­ries but is not spe­cific about th­ese, say­ing only that the two of them “try to not be pre­dictable or for­mu­laic in how we ap­proach the sto­ries”.

And who is it that should wake up in Joburg? Zack says it is not their in­ten­tion to of­fer lessons or opin­ions. “This is a cre­ative task. If we can alert peo­ple in Joburg to some­thing that feels a lit­tle lesser known, and through that in­spire a greater af­fec­tion for this city of pos­si­bil­i­ties, we will have achieved a lot.”

‘Good Riddance’ is pub­lished by Fourth­wall Books Com­ment on this: write to tel­lus@sun­day­ or SMS us at 33971 www.times­

SMALL BUSI­NESS: Lebo Selemela buys bot­tles from re­claimers for re­sale

They are for many of us our only av­enues to do­ing some­thing to mit­i­gate cli­mate change

DAWN PA­TROL: Lu­cas Ng­wenya crosses the Man­dela bridge at 6am

Pic­tures: MARK LEWIS

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