It all started in the Free State, at the dump in Sasolburg, 15 years ago. It was a chilly, dry winter when I accompanied groundWork researchers to the landfill in 2007.
We were met by a couple of very dark-skinned people in very dusty clothes, as if they had been walking on a busy dirt road. I communicated with them in English. They spoke Sesotho and Afrikaans.
Simon Mbatha stood out from the group by making an effort to communicate with us, telling of the difficulties they faced in their daily work of salvaging recyclable materials for money. The relationship between Simon and I started that day.
He had a Zulu surname and he used me to learn isiZulu and English, perfecting the former over time. In the beginning he couldn’t construct a sentence. He joked that people should speak to me in Sesotho because I did not want to learn the language.
We worked closely, roaming the country trying to encourage pickers to organise themselves because waste management was on the brink of being privatised, meaning pickers would lose their livelihoods. We worked in diverse and multicultural communities around SA because he was able to converse in many South African languages. He spoke Setswana, Afrikaans and isiZulu, switching between them, depending on which province we were in.
After travelling to almost every town in the country, a national waste pickers’ meeting was held in Johannesburg in 2009, the first of its kind in Africa. Out of that, the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) was born.
At the gathering Mbatha was elected chairperson of the organisation and mandated to speak to the media on its behalf. He excelled at serving and leading SAWPA. His confidence grew and groundWork made sure he was exposed to different social issues, information and spaces.
He attracted media attention and commanded respect in places such as parliament, having been invited to represent SAWPA at portfolio committee discussions on the concept of zero waste.