Trash is cash for the silent heroes of Jozi’s mean streets
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or SMS us at 33971 www.timeslive.co.za
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