The State, through the South African Police Services, has acted with unnecessary force as a gas canister and rubber bullets were shot into a crowd of 70 waste pickers, injuring five, at a peaceful protest outside the New England Road landfill site early this morning. Waste pickers were responding to the threat given by the Msunduzi Municipal executive last week that they would chase waste pickers off the site with pellet guns.
Critically, it was also consolidating a historical grievance of the longstanding failure of the municipality to build a materials recovery facility (MRF) despite funding of R21 million (USD 1.5m) for the project in 2012 given by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA). This is not the first action taken by the waste pickers regarding this project.
Waste pickers began gathering at both gates of the municipal landfill from 6 am, where branches, tires and other materials were set alight blocking the entry of the dump trucks.
Msunduzi Mayor Chris Ndlela and Municipal Manager Mxolisi Nkosi denied the request made this morning to meet the frustrated waste pickers at the main gate. The Mayor was today attending a medal parade for the South African Police Service (SAPS) at the Royal Showgrounds.
Approximately 20 SAPS officers slowly gathered, blocked off the roads and requested that the crowd disperse. No warning was given to the crowd when police threw a gas canister into the centre of the crowd and shot about five rubber bullets at the fleeing waste pickers. There was no retaliation from the waste pickers.
Musa Chamane, Waste Campaigner at environmental justice organisation groundWork, who supports the waste pickers in their struggle for recognition and organisation states:
“In the wake of the violence shown by the SAPS during the student protests, the State’s brutality at Marikana and farm workers strikes, the force shown today is becoming part of the fabric of a supposedly democratic South Africa. Waste pickers have been waiting for three years for a safe working environment and instead are told they will be shot at at their place of work.”
Thereafter, 20 waste pickers were placed into a police van and taken to the station on Loop Street, where after realising there was no available space in police holding cells were taken to the Golden Horse Casino. Waste pickers were not held at the casino, but rather dropped back off at the landfill site where they continued collecting waste for recycling.
It is at the landfill where waste pickers derive income, save the municipality space at the landfill and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by recycling and limiting what waste is left to decompose. Waste pickers aid in combating climate change.
Member of the recycling cooperative Hlanganani Ma-Afrika, Nonhlanhla Mhlope was one of the waste pickers arrested today. She explains:
“Today was a victory for us. We have been trying to get a real answer from the municipal officials about the recycling facility for three years now. Today we made our voices heard loudly and we continue to until we get what was promised to us.”
A memorandum from the waste pickers has been sent to the relevant stakeholders, including the mayor and municipal manager, which calls for a response by this Friday, 13 November 2015. Waste pickers are meeting tomorrow to discuss further action to see their demands realised.
A letter of support from the Women in Information Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO) was sent earlier to the Msunduzi Mayor, Ministry of Economic Development, Ministry of Environment Affairs, Ministry of Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Police.