Young filmmakers share stories of waste reclaimers’ crucial role
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By Debbie Matthee
“I’m an informal waste reclaimer, a street hustler or a street dog, whatever you can call me.”
These are the opening lines of STREETDOGS, a 20-minute documentary about the crucial but unrecognised role of waste reclaimers in dense urban environments.
They are spoken by 23-year-old Aphiwe Koti, a DOCi student who makes a living as a waste reclaimer: recovering recyclable materials from garbage bins and dumping grounds, carting it over great distances and selling it to buyback centres for minimal amounts.
“There are two kinds of waste reclaimers, there are those who collect for drugs, there are those who are collecting to make a living. The reason why I started this job was to bring change.”
Aphiwe’s youthful optimism and genuine care for the environment drives the film as it follows a typical day in his life: waking up in Samora Michel township, catching public transport to visit various dump sites, all the while picking up waste and filling a plastic bag he carries on his shoulders.
During South Africa’s Youth Month, 18 young students are using film to shine a light on what human rights mean in the face of stark inequalities at Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, held from 10 to 20 June 2021.
Sponsored by the United States Embassy in South Africa, the students – many of whom come from extremely underserved communities - have participated in the DOCi Emerging Filmmakers Programme, a 12-week, hands-on course, equipping them with the technology and skills to turn a human-rights lens onto their own lives. The results are brutally honest documentaries about people surviving - and sometimes thriving - in some of South Africa’s harshest living conditions.
While there are no accurate statistics on the number of informal waste reclaimers in South Africa, the number is estimated to be more than 80 000 and the film introduces some of them. A homeless mother of several kids, a reformed gangster, an unemployed woman trying to make a living; all of them dependant on the pittance they earn from selling recyclable waste.
A kilogram of plastic will fetch 40c and a kilogram of glass 50c.
But the film shows that life as a waste reclaimer is not always simple. After a day’s work, Aphiwe’s bag of plastic waste does not reach the required weight for minimum payment, and he is kicked out of the buyback centre, insulted, chased away… “like a dog.”
Attempting to highlight the incongruity of this treatment, Belinda Langehoven, Deputy Director of Waste Policy and Minimisation at the City of Cape Town, says: “Waste reclaimers save municipalities a lot of money because landfilling waste is becoming an expensive exercise.”
he amount saved by municipalities, due to waste reclaimers diverting recyclable materials away from landfills, is estimated to be between R300 and R750 million a year.
And the costs to waste reclaimers like Aphiwe is often overlooked, especially in a time of crisis like when the government implemented a national lockdown in March 2020 and reclaimers were locked out of landfills and excluded from all forms of government support.
But not all is lost and Aphiwe’s journey ends at a church where he reveals yet another aspect of his tenacious character: “Music - it releases stress, it calms me when I get disappointed. Like earlier today, from the scrap yard, I left there feeling hurt but look now, I’m in from of the keyboard. I can say my soul is relieved.”
Aphiwe’s love for the authentic “Kasi Life” (township life) is evident in the upbeat score, featuring original gospel and kwaito tracks. His commitment to sustainable living and hope for a better future is infectious.
Try and catch this one-of-a-kind documentary currently doing the circuit at international film festivals, telling the important story of how waste reclaimers might just be salvaging our future.
* You can watch any of the three DOCi films for free between 10 – 20 June by logging into Encounters: https://virtual.encounters.co.za/film/shorts-programme-doci/
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