Besieged waste pickers live in fear
Caught between rival protection gangs, they are told to pay a ‘protection fee’ or die
Hardlife Mzamane, 30, is one of the many waste pickers who make a living rifling through trash at the Rietfontein dumpsite in Ekurhuleni. He comes out with about R1,800 a month after paying “protection money” to a gang – R300 a week.
“I really don’t know what the protection fee is for because, as you can see for yourself, we as the waste pickers are not fighting. We all here to work for our families,” he said.
Mzamane and fellow waste pickers are still reeling following the murder of two colleagues, Edward Skosana, 38, and Dunyana Vuza, 26, whose bodies were found with gunshot wounds at the same dumpsite they were working from.
They believe they were killed for refusing to pay up. Police have confirmed they are investigating this possibility.
Waste pickers at the Rietfontein dumpsite in KwaThema, Springs, in the east of Johannesburg, are still reeling in shock over the killing of their fellow colleagues, who were found dead on April 5, and believe they were murdered for refusing to pay a R300 protection fee to rival gangs that are demanding this weekly payment from them.
Gauteng police spokesperson Colonel Lungelo Dlamini said police were still on a hunt for the killers of Skosana and Vuza.
When Times Select recently visited the dumpsite, about 200 waste pickers were all hard at work scavenging through the waste dumped by trucks that came in.
On a lucky day, Mzamane said he walked out with items such as jewellery and electrical utensils, which he said were usually in good working condition.
“When I get good items like that, I take them to the pawnshop in town, and I usually make some good extra money depending on the value of the item found,” he said.
The most common thing they find in the waste is expensive, functioning cellphones.
An account from waste pickers, however, paints a different picture on what really happens at this landfill site.
Caiphus Moyo, who has been working at the dumpsite for almost four years, said in December another group of gang members emerged and started demanding a protection fee from them.
“Sometimes we end up paying the R300 twice in a week because they all demand money from us,” he said.
Mzamane, who hails from Mozambique, said he came to SA in 2016, and after battling for about six months to secure a formal job, he resorted to picking waste.
But he is making less money now than when he started three years ago.
“I used to make close to R4,000 when I started and didn’t have to pay any protection fee to anyone,” he said.
He started paying the protection fee in January last year, and said in December an additional gang started coming to demand money from them.
Four security guards at the site said the waste pickers were very disciplined.
“We just stand here to make sure that they [waste pickers] don’t throw any rubbish on the part of the landfill that is clean,” said one security guard who declined to be named.
“They have a committee here that handles all issues they have amongst themselves,” the guard added.
Moyo said the gang members were always heavily armed when they came to collect the money. “We never ask any questions, and even when we try to explain to them that we’ve made payments to the other gang, they tell us that they don’t want to hear any stories and threaten to shoot us,” he said.
City of Ekurhuleni spokesperson Themba Gadebe said the landfill section had 24-hour security.
“Our security does their utmost best to control access to the premises, and the premise has a no-gun policy,” Gadebe said.
“We are confident that while we’ll maximise the security detail, the police investigation into the killings will also shed some light on what exactly happened and will, therefore, guide us on appropriate steps.”