She fights for a future amid the filth
Philiswa Vamanda dreamt of being a nurse, but now lives on a rubbish dump, risking her life to care for her family
With her painted face that matches a grubby mustard-coloured ANC shirt, Philiswa Vamanda stands out in a mountain of filth.
The 22-year-old may be petite but she is no pushover where she works as a waste picker at the often treacherous Msunduzi Landfill in Pietermaritzburg, where sorting through the mountain of discarded human waste, plastic and other refuse to pick out saleable recyclables can have dangerous consequences.
South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) secretary Nonhlanhla Mhlope says that over the past 12 years there have been 14 deaths and 17 injuries in the landfill vicinity because competition is rife and working conditions dangerous.
Mhlope said attempts to report cases to the police station were often unsuccessful as police chased them away.
But the Pietermaritzburg police said they have no knowledge of criminal incidents in the landfill area.
Vamanda claims to have been attacked twice in March, and last week she was forced to flee when a man in a balaclava threatened to kill her if she didn’t stop working there and stop “stealing our jobs”.
Sometimes Vamanda stumbles upon treasures like TV sets, computers and laptops, but her main source of income is plastic. She can make about R2,500 a week on plastic alone and estimates that she moves about eight tons of recyclables from the landfill every month by herself.
The money she earns looks after her unemployed aunt (who she calls “mother”), her schoolgoing cousins in Matatiele and her one-year-old son, Kwahle.
Vamanda, who had hoped to be a nurse when she grew up, left Matatiele looking for work but entered the recycling business in the hope that her child would have better opportunities than she did.
On average, 15,000 tons of waste are brought to the landfill monthly, 2,400 tons of which are domestic waste and more than 80 tons are “officially” recorded as being removed and recycled by the waste pickers. But the amount is certainly far higher as the pickers are not bound by office hours and many like Vamanda work around the clock, after the dump has closed.
She has been recycling for the past two years but in the past year started sleeping on the dump out of fear that her collected stash would be stolen. She sleeps under a makeshift tent – a tarpaulin pulled over some of her “collect” and belongings.
But this is where she has come under attack by other waste pickers or chased away by security.
Landfill manager Cyril Naidoo says Vamanda is one of about 500 waste pickers who work the site and he acknowledges that “they are assisting us in reducing the waste that goes into the landfill”.
“But the manner in which it is done is unsafe, they do not use the adequate and necessary protective gear, and although waste pickers are only allowed in the safer, designated areas, they do not abide by this.”
The KZN capital city of Pietermaritzburg has no official recycled waste collection service and according to Musa Chamane, a waste campaigner from Ground Work, “the current environment is very dangerous for the waste pickers, many of whom are killed and injured on site”.