In the 1990s the Tshwane municipality in South Africa engaged in a number of failed projects with waste pickers. These included a project that hired waste pickers to make crafts out of recyclable material. It also included at a private company with interests in waste management helping waste pickers to set up cooperatives and run buy-back centres for the cooperatives. However the positive that came out of these failures was that waste pickers formed committees on dumps and this provided the base for independent organizing. But what lessons and openings for organisation emerged in this period?
A meeting in Dakar included delegates from countries across Africa such as Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal, Niger, Rwanda, Congo, Togo, Burkina Faso and Chad. Participants discussed key problems such as child labour, waste pickers paying to collect waste instead of being paid, lack of knowledge of rights, lack of local government capacity to manage waste, and the privatization of waste collection.
Quite simply waste pickers want to see real, immediate, concrete improvements in their lives. They also want to feel a sense of their own power. In experiencing this power, waste pickers will find they change important power relationships. Every waste picker knows what they need to fight for and what would make a difference in their lives. So there are many reasons to organize but how to go about this? The first step is to build and maintain a democratic organization.