Waste pickers' livelihood burns in Msunduzi landfill fire

Lindeni Mbele has been picking waste at the New England Road landfill site in Pietermaritzburg for 10 years.
Lindeni Mbele has been picking waste at the New England Road landfill site in Pietermaritzburg for 10 years.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

Lindeni Mbele rummaged through smouldering ash, trying to find what little recyclable material was left unburnt following a fire at the New England Road landfill site in Pietermaritzburg - material she sold to feed her family.

She is among hundreds of waste pickers who worked at the dumpsite, collecting rubbish to sell for recycling. Last week, the 20ha site went up in flames, casting a dark cloud over Pietermaritzburg and burning most of the rubbish.

“It burnt all our things. We have nothing. We don’t have sacks [to collect litter]. We go around asking people to help us. We don't know what we are going to eat. Our job is over. We are facing a tough time and we don't even know what we are going to cook at home,” said a distraught Mbele.

She has been picking waste at the site since 2009, and says although she does not make a lot of money, it was enough to at least buy a pack of maize meal to feed her family. She lives in the Madiba informal settlement, just a stone’s throw away from the site.

“I arrived here in 2009 when my sister told me about the place. This is a tough job but it puts food on the table for my two kids,” said Mbele.

She said that she was there when the fire first broke out late last week.

“We were on the other side [of the landfill] sorting through waste when we saw flames. We tried our best to put it out and we thought we had succeeded ... out of nowhere this other lady’s pile caught on fire,” she recalled.

Mbele said that it wasn’t the first time a fire had broken out at the site. However, this was by far the worst.

The cause of the fire is yet to be established - but waste pickers have their theories.

“It was caused by all these chemicals people throw away here. We have on many occasions seen fire come out of nowhere because of the chemicals. Waste pickers do not smoke here because we know it might burn our livelihood,” she said.

SowetanLIVE's sister publication TimesLIVE spoke to Mbele during a visit by KZN environmental affairs MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube on Tuesday.

Dube-Ncube expressed great concern about the waste pickers, especially those living on the site. She said they did not know the amount of damage they were causing - implying that they might have caused the fire.

“Unfortunately, people there do not realise that what they are doing is illegal. They don't realise that what they are doing is wrong, that it is dangerous and that it has a wider impact than what they are doing here,” she said.

“As we were walking around the site we found people starting fires, there are other burning metal. There are other burning all types of different things so that they can compact them and put them in sacks to sell,” she added.

It is unclear what Mbele and the other waste pickers’ fate will be after the fire is put out.

Dube-Ncube did, however, give the municipality a tongue-lashing about the lack of security at the site. Her department also fined the Msunduzi municipality because of the state of the site, which was once one of the best run in the country.

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