Meet the people who collect our garbage

Some residents frantically run out in satin nighties determined to stop the truck so they can empty their bin for the week

| Text by Ashleigh Furlong. Photos by Masixole Feni.
Photo of line of trucks
Trucks wait at the Muizenberg landfill to drop off the garbage they have collected during the day.

Nontsingiselo Mfazwe and Phumeza Matshotyana are among the very few women working on the garbage trucks that service Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Crossroads, Gugulethu and Belhar – a job that requires you to be quick on your feet and have a strong stomach.

From Monday to Friday they have to be at the garbage collecting depot in Crossroads by 6:30am. Both wake up at about 5am as they do not have to travel far to get to work – Mfazwe lives in Crossroads with her eldest daughter and Matshotyana lives in Khayelitsha with her two children.

The truck pulls out of the depot just shy of 6:40am. The air is chilly and the sky heavily overcast but the downpour has abated for now. The team consists of two men and two women who load the garbage into the truck as well as a driver who are all bundled into the cabin as the truck drives to Siyahlala – the first stop of the morning.

As residents hear the truck trundling down their street, they dash outside dragging forgotten bins. Many wear dressing gowns and slippers, as they hurriedly drag their bins towards the truck.

Themba Gasela rushes to get his bin to the garbage truck before it drives away.

“Run, run, run,” calls Mfazwe to a woman racing down the street in her pyjamas.

Another woman shouts “I was still asleep!” as she runs after the truck.

Some residents frantically run out in satin nighties, or just their boxer shorts, determined to stop the truck so that they can empty their bin for the week.

Hlumela Matheza takes her bin out early in the morning in Harare, Khayelitsha. 

Mfazwe, who has worked on the truck for almost a year, is used to the strange sights of half-dressed residents. She also doesn’t see the work as particularly hard, despite it requiring running after a truck, dragging heavy bins and barely a moment’s rest while the truck travels through communities collecting bins.

Her colleague Matshotyana says that women working on the truck “are treated differently”.

“It depends on who you are working with,” says Mfazwe. “Those men that we are working with [today], they are very respectful.”

As the noisy truck passes, curious dogs peek their noses through fences, barking at the vehicle. Other dogs who have managed to escape their yards, chase the truck and nip at the feet of the garbage collectors. Mfazwe and Matshotyana threaten particularly unruly dogs with long pieces of pipe that they keep on the truck.

Gloves protect the garbage collectors’ hands from the grime of the bins and their reflector lined jackets and pants protect their bodies, but nothing protects them from the smell.

Sithembele Mgaleka, a garbage collector for the City of Cape Town, assists a woman with removing her garbage.

As the number of bins emptied increases, so too does the stench from the truck. When the truck is at a standstill the centre of the truck, where the garbage is stored, slowly rotates, crushing the rubbish as it goes.

Mfazwe isn’t immune to the smell. “It was very difficult the first time but now I’m used to it,” she says.

Despite working with garbage, she says that her clothes don’t smell or get very dirty after working and that they are provided with multiple outfits by the City so that it is easy to always have a clean uniform.

The two women hang from the back of the truck, jumping off when the truck stops and placing the bins onto the mechanical hoist which lifts them up and empties them into the belly of the truck.

The two men fetch the bins and sometimes have to run after the truck to keep up with it. The area covered is small but dense. The houses are tightly packed together, which means many bins for the team.

They work as fast as they can to empty the truck at the dump before returning to empty bins in another area.

“It’s a task that I have to finish,” says Mfazwe, describing her work. They usually don’t take long breaks for lunch or tea because they want to finish as quickly as possible.

During the morning there is little time for rest, but at one point the driver hops out to use someone’s toilet in their backyard and one of the garbage collectors runs into a shop to buy a cold drink as they pass a corner shop.

At around 9:30, the truck is full and needs to be emptied at the dump. The nearest dump is full, says the driver, so they must go to Muizenberg where there is a landfill.

Before the 20 minute journey to Muizenberg, they stop at a shop where they can grab something to eat while they drive to the landfill. Sometimes they eat by the roadside, says Mfazwe but she says that it isn’t smelly by the truck. After working on the truck for nearly a year, Mfazwe is able to shrug off the smell.

At the landfill, there is a long queue of trucks waiting to offload their rubbish – meaning a long wait for the team.

After they have finished at the landfill they head back to Kuyasa in Khayelitsha where they will work until about 1:30pm. Tomorrow will be a long day and they will only finish around 3pm the women say, as they have to collect all the bins in Kuyasa. “It depends on the beat,” says Mfazwe. “Like on Monday we finished at 11am.”

Some days they work overtime but this is optional, says Mfazwe. On days when she chooses to work overtime she may return to work in the afternoon.

Nontsingiselo Mfazwe operates the garbage removal truck.

Mfazwe says that she does feel afraid for her safety in some of the areas that they work, but that for the most part she isn’t nervous. The truck itself can be a hazard and if she doesn’t secure the bin properly onto the hoist it can fall back down onto her.

Both women hope to move up in their work, to positions that don’t require them to collect garbage. Mfazwe says that she would like a different job, but would like to continue to work for the City of Cape Town. She says if you get a driver’s licence you can drive the truck. There are options for promotions to clerical and human resources positions. Currently the women earn about R7,100 a month but if they become drivers or move to office jobs they should earn more.

Asked how she feels about the work that she does, Matshotyana says matter-of-factly: “I don’t have a choice.”

TOPICS:  Government Labour Sanitation

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