Her territory is a labyrinth of hidden refuse rooms bathed in charcoal light. Masterfully she flattens a mountain of discarded cardboard boxes into an efficient bundle. Later she will haul her treasure to a buyer a few roads away and earn her income for the day.
Maria Vilakazi is a collector of cardboard at the Workshop Shopping Complex in central Durban. Over the eight years that she has worked here, Maria developed relationships with the security guards and workers from the stores.
“They all love me here” says Maria with a little smile and without conceit.
“This is my job, and I love it. I don’t have a boss who tells me what to do or when to take my breaks”.
In her line of work she is one of the lucky few who has a base. The others must either trawl the inner city and surrounding suburbs or approach local businesses for cardboard. Despite Maria’s charismatic pitch of her line of work, it’s long, hard and grim business. After the loss of her husband Maria worked at a cleaning company.
Her wage was meagre and she could not support her six children. It was this which spurred her to join the informal cardboard collectors, who after hours of hard work earn between R50 to R100 a day.
After a few years of collecting cardboard from neighbouring businesses Maria met Africa Ntuli, who has been taking care of the waste at the Workshop and has been in informal recycling for 25 years. Impressed by Maria’s commitment and hard work he let her into his domain at the Workshop.
Enter Asiye Etafuleni
“We used to be chased by policemen, and we had to hide our trolleys”, says Maria.
That was before the assistance of Asiye Etafuleni, an NPO who together with Imagine Durban and Sustainable Cities, Canada, have been trying to improve the conditions of informal recyclers.
“Our long term plan is to change the infrastructure of the city to incorporate the informal recyclers by providing specific collection areas” says Tasmi Quazi who facilitates this project.
“Urban design and planning needs to proactively accommodate informal workers”.
Asiye Etafuleni focuses on two collection points in Durban, Palmer Street and Pine Street.
“Cardboard collection by the informal sector is a vital link in the green economy. The recycling evolved naturally from the demand for cardboard from buy back centres and the accessibility to litter from the streets of Durban.”
Over the past three years Asiye eTafuleni has researched and developed prototypes of trolleys for the recyclers, who circulate them among themselves. They have also been given aprons and gloves and name badges, which Maria dons with pride. Yet what seems to have added the most value to their working lives is the letter which validates them as part of the project.
“Our focus is to give these formerly marginalised individuals voice, validity and visibility” says Tasmi.
“Sadly, they are often seen as scavengers and as a nuisance by many. Their environmental and social significance, however, is enormous. “
Losses made her a natural leader
Meeting Maria is a total eye-opener for me. Despite her 12 hour, seven day week and a host of tragedies including the deaths of five of her six children, in Maria there remains a strength of character and maternal wisdom which makes her a natural leader.
Although the recyclers in Palmer Street function individually, they have formed a working committee which has a specific code of conduct. Fighting, drugs and any other criminal behaviour is not tolerated in the group and perpetrators are immediately kicked out. Maria and Afrika were nominated by the others in the working committee to lead the group.
At the recent COP17 events, Maria met with informal recyclers and wastepickers from around the globe. It was a platform where they could share ideas and challenges with each other. I asked Maria what she had learnt from the experience. She had discovered an untapped market in hard plastic recycling and had now recruited her daughter to source and sell this plastic. She added in faultless English, “the others learnt from me too. I told them that cleanliness was important. If your work is in the dirt, it doesn’t mean you have to be dirty. I always have my bar of soap and I make sure my nails are short. The most important thing I said to the others is that you should always work with a smile.”
This philosophy has carried Maria through heartbreaking times and a challenging job.
- Words by Pralini Naidoo
- Photos by Dennis-lee Stols