Money on a mountain
Winter on Gauteng's East Rand is cold. Very cold. There's something about the only barriers to the wind being the mine dumps. Flat. No wind breaks. A dry veld with no trees to break this low intensity dusty -5C wind.
Yes, it's sunny past 9am, when the weak winter sun raises itself above the dust. But the wind keeps pushing through, raising the dryness and chapping lips, numbing bones and fingers, freeze-drying unprotected faces.
Alfred Namane knows the winter. Every day he raises himself from his bed, puts his feet on the floor of his cold and inadequately heated by smoggy coals and wood home. He washes, makes tea. Eats breakfast. Then, dressed for work, he stiffens his back and walks across Barry Marais Road to "The Mountain."
Alfred's mountain is the Rooikraal landfill outside Boksburg. It sustains him, his family and his remittance-dependent loved ones in Maseru.
Alfred is proud of the work he does on the landfill. Working on The Mountain has helped him pay his lobola so that his young bride could join him in Johannesburg. His lobola was R25000 - his wife is very pretty - and so far he's paid R9000. He's confident he'll pay the rest - it's not "maybe", but "when".
Rooikraal was opened in 1988 and today receives more than 310000 tons of waste a year.
Most of the collectors, from the nearby informal settlements of Holomisa and Villa Liza, focus on one commodity - plastic, metal, paper or glass. How much you collect directly impacts on how much you earn. Glass is not worth the effort; it's heavy and its price per ton is not worth the effort of climbing The Mountain.
The Mountain collectors are members of Masakane Reclaimers, an association set up to put rules and procedures in place to ensure the collection system is fair, buyers aren't cheated and security is in place to protect their cash and commodities at the waste market next to The Mountain.
The president is Raymond Mannya. In his 40s, Mannya has been working on The Mountain since 1999 and has been president for two terms.
"I learnt from the man before me. Now someone else is learning from me," he says.
Robert Nozick, who wrote the seminal work Anarchy, State and Utopia, would be pleased with how the Masakane Reclaimers have organised themselves. In the absence of formal rules, anarchy would trump utopia. Without state intervention or unionisation, the waste collectors established a self-governing structure with minimal, if strict, rules for all.
These rules, collectively enforced, have created a thriving business environment. Collectors sell their waste to dealers for cash at a transparent price. The dealers sell it on to recyclers who then sell it to manufacturers. It is a long chain. But everyone makes money.
On The Mountain, a deal is a handshake paid in cash reinforced by transparency and trust, not signed contracts. Members of Masakane Reclaimers don't share their income. The harder they work, the more they earn.
The collectors are divided into two teams according to age - under and over 38 years.
To ensure fairness, the different age groups work with their peers, so a young man won't be able to push an older woman to get at valuable recyclables before she does.
Masakane's second role is to ensure safety. Picking waste literally from under the tyres of dumpsters and bulldozers is dangerous.
The pickers know they operate at the largesse of landfill operator Sungu Sungu Projects. To maintain their access, that have to ensure that Sungu Sungu Projects is not legally exposed.
So every day at 5am ,the committee gets together and, according to its own roster, allocates "guards" to oversee the collectors' work and act as lookouts.
Masakane also knows their business depends on trust. Members sell recyclables to on-site informal specialists in plastic, paper, metal, and glass, who buy the materials and sell them on.
Material is bundled together and the risk for buyers is that extra weight can be hidden inside. Before Masakane began operating, one buyer discovered a dead dog hidden in a pack of cardboard he'd just bought. Another discovered rocks.
Masakane ensures cheats get taken out of the system. They are warned and suspended. If they cheat again they are kicked out.
Without companies like Remade Recycling, the system wouldn't work.
Vanessa de Canha is a buyer of recycled plastic.
Remade Recycling is a buyer and banker, providing the cash float for dealers who then pay collectors. This "float", De Canha said, funds her dealers to the tune of more than R300000 a month.
Working two shifts from 6am to 9am and 3pm to 5pm - all Sungu Sungu will allow - The Mountain provides a living for 350 people and their dependents.
De Canha said if they could work more hours, they'd collect more and extend the landfill's life .
"We'd buy more. More would be recycled. Everyone would win."
The collectors are making more than a living wage: "Here we can make enough money to support our families. All we want is more time to collect from the Mountain."
Looking at his shoes, Alfred adds: "Yes, and good safety boots."
- Heron is a founding partner of Earth Probiotic Recycling Solutions. See www.earthprobiotic.com