Surfing the waves of Joburg’s informal waste economy

For anyone who has risen before sunrise in Johannesburg, the site of the city’s ‘street surfers’ is as much a part of the landscape as the Ponte Tower building imprinted into the skyline.

The street surfers have a post-apocalyptic look to them, dressed in makeshift tattered outfits, with occasional mohawks, facemasks and balaclavas. They traverse the city, pulling flat trolleys that carry large plastic bags bulging with recyclable goods. They also step onto and ‘surf’ these trolleys, specifically when going downhill, propelling and breaking between the traffic with their feet.

Choosing to collect and sell waste over a life of begging, crime or unemployment, these men can be seen navigating their way between the city’s cars, rubbish bins and pavements as they take their goods to various dumps around the city in exchange for cash.

For 28-year-old Timothy, becoming a street surfer was a decision born from necessity. With nights spent sleeping under trees with nothing but sheets of plastic for warmth, harassment by the police a repeated reality, and exhausting kilometres walked across the city each day, it’s easy to understand why this work would be one of last resort.

“I have nothing,” he says. “Only these clothes that I am wearing and a cellphone.” He wears caked jeans and a light zip-up cardigan and has just come from Randburg taxi rank where he pays R5 to charge his phone for the day. His face looks young despite his confrontation with the elements every day.

Before becoming a street surfer, Timothy was one of the many young men looking for construction work in the city. They can be seen standing on the side of the roads, holding tools and signs that read ‘Paving’, ‘Tiling’, ‘Painting’ and ‘Construction.’ These men wait for any piecemeal jobs they can get. The lack of long-term employment contracts means they are often badly exploited.

Timothy says he earned between R100 and R250 per day doing this construction work but often wasn’t paid. Through recycling he gets between R800 – R2,000 per month, depending on what he finds each day and where he takes his goods to be recycled.

The dynamics of the dump site

The Randburg dump site is located in a small space behind the China Discount Shopping Centre, north west of Johannesburg, and is rented by the recycling company Lothlorien. The office is found inside a large white container where the manager, Benjamin Mokgohloa, has worked with the city’s street surfers for 14 years.

While Mokgohloa sits behind his desk, streams of street surfers drag in piles of waste, mainly crushed cardboard boxes. They place them on a large silver scale in front of Mokgohloa’s desk. He watches the numbers settle on the screen before punching the figures into his calculator. He opens a draw, counts some cash and hands it over.

“I end up paying around R300,000 a year to these guys,” he says. “They are here six days a week, Monday to Saturday. They do a fantastic job. Instead of just staying on the streets, they wake up early every day and work incredibly hard. They depend only on themselves.”

Lothlorien is based in Germiston. It’s a growing recycling organisation that started off, much like the street surfers, with one man collecting recycling materials from door-to- door. Now, Lothlorien has recycling centres throughout Gauteng.

“The hawkers that collect the recycling materials bring in about 2000 tonnes per month for our company. We end up paying all of them R2 million per month and can thank them for about 35 percent of our recycling intake,” says Pieter van der Westhuizen, the company’s director.

Benjamin Mokgohloa, manager at the Lothlorien recycling centre, sits in his container office at the Randburg dump site. Photo: Kim Harrisberg.

The value of waste

It seems that it is not only Johannesburg’s street surfers who see the value in recycling. South Africa generates approximately 108 million tonnes of waste a year, of which 98 million tonnes goes into landfills, according to the most recent National Waste Information Baseline Report published by The Department of Environmental Affairs in 2011. Just 10 percent of all waste generated in South Africa ends up being recycled. This recycled waste fed R8.2 billion per year worth of resources back into the SA economy, according to research conducted by the Department of Science and Technology, titled South Africa’s Waste Research Development and Innovation (RDI) Roadmap.

Working towards a 100 percent diversion of waste from landfills would unlock R25.2 billion per year in resources that can be saved, recycled and re-used. Additional saving on avoidable external costs would move the number to a total of R46.5 billion.

“We need to move away from seeing it as waste, and rather see it as a resource,” says Dr Henry Roman, Director of Environmental Services and Technologies at the Department of Science and Technology. Roman was one of the researchers behind the RDI Roadmap. “What the curbside collectors do is very important to the recycling industry,” he says. “They know the value of recycling more than I do because their livelihoods depend on it.”

According to Austrian waste management expert Klaus Merzeder, South Africa is 30 years behind in its waste management methods. Attending the Johannesburg Waste Summit, Merzeder urged South Africans to urgently adopt a “waste culture” that seeks alternative methods to topping up landfills, beginning with a change in mindset.

For van der Westhuizen, the Lothlorien director, this is exactly what the street surfers are doing. “Recycling is not a part of our legislation yet,” he says. “When we see these guys digging through the trash, separating the various recyclable materials, they remind us how far we have to go and help us question whether we have done our bit or not. It’s a brutal job, but these guys are willing to do it.”

Tough to be a street surfer

Despite the role they play in recycling city waste, street surfers are seen as nuisances by security guards, homeowners, and the council. “Some people think we are crazy,” says ‘V,’ a 27-year-old street surfer visiting the Randburg dump.

While their services should be celebrated, the lives of Johannesburg’s street surfers are a daily hustle. Timothy sleeps with 10 other surfers, who are part of a group of as many as 50 people who squat alongside a small river in Sandton, one of Johannesburg’s wealthiest suburbs. Using a cooking pot found in the bin, he cooks pap at night over a fire and eats bread for lunch during the day. This diet is nowhere near suitable to supplement the physical activity he does each day.

Based on distances calculated using Google Maps, the routes Timothy says he travels between Fourways, Kyalami, Parkmore, Cresta and Randburg each week add up to an estimated 100 kilometres. In reality it’s likely to be much more, considering the interweaving between streets that is needed to access the unwanted goods outside each household.

Harassment is part of the street surfers’ reality. Not long after I interviewed the street surfers, police raided the area where they sleep after spotting a controlled fire burning. The police allegedly set fire to the surfers’ property, arrested many of them, and shot one in the head, who survived. Surfers report that police have previously raided and taken their cellphones, money and a passport. The police failed to reply to requests for comment on these allegations.

With South Africa’s unemployment rates averaging 25%, it seems clear that the tireless work of Jozi’s street surfers should be celebrated, both for the economy, environment and society at large. This celebration cannot take place without the ‘change in mindset’ encouraged by Merzeder, which applies to city policy and those that inhabit the city alongside the street surfers.

The silhouettes of Jozi’s street surfers against the orange sunrise in Johannesburg with only the sound of their trolleys’ wheels clipping against the tar is, in many ways, a beautiful site: a symbol of tenacity and opportunism in the face of a harsh reality. Undeniably, understanding South Africa’s waste management comes hand-in-hand with an appreciation of the daily work of the street surfers. As experts point out, environmentally, socially and economically, waste recycling can only benefit Johannesburg and its future functioning as a dynamic African city.


Kim Harrisberg is a freelance multimedia journalist who moves between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Her writing focuses on African politics and society, refugee rights and developmental issues. She will begin her MPhil in African Studies at the University of Cambridge soon, and aims to use media for social change.

Photo: A street surfer cruising downhill in Johannesburg. Credit: Jeff Harrisberg.


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6 Responses to “Surfing the waves of Joburg’s informal waste economy”

  1. I have so much respect for these guys who are making an efforrt to survive in a very hostile environment. I wake up heaing them in Orange Grove at 4am, summer, winter, what ever it takes: Respect!

    Great story

  2. Terry-Jo

    Great article. Thank you for shedding light on the experiences of a group of people most are either too uninterested or too intimidated to connect with. Here in Cape Town, resentment toward ‘bin divers’ is incomprehensibly high. Worse still is the inhumane way people harass them. One of my family members collects recycling & scrap for a living when times are tough and I’m grateful for how resourceful and independent it helps him to be. It’s not a desirable or easy life. But it’s good work.

  3. Guillaume

    Great respect.
    How possible would it be to get these guys sponsored some luminous reflective vests?

  4. Gabriel

    There is a fantastic initiative support these recyclers. It’s called GezaJozi


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