A common myth is that the “formal” and “informal” economies are two distinct realities that function separately; economically and spatially. Although the distinction itself is riddled with a lack of clarity and contention, value chain analyses of specific sectors has shown that the two are linked. Moreover, there are many thriving spatial examples around the world, of hybrid arrangements, that link “formal” and “informal” workers. A case in point, the “informal” recyclers which have been servicing a local shopping centre or “mall”, the Workshop Shopping Centre in Durban, South Africa.
“Informal” recyclers Afrika Ntuli and Maria Vilakazi, over the last 25 years, have been managing the waste recyclables of nearly 20 businesses within the Workshop Shopping centre. These include local retail stores (Mr Price, Clicks, Markhams, Bata, MTN, Sports Scene, Truworths, Legit, Avon, PNS, Cellas) and food outlets (Nandos, Chicken Licken, Gorimas, King Pie, Butterfield Bakery).
In one day alone, on 2nd of April 2013, Afrika and Maria cumulatively collected 24 bundles of cardboard amounting to just over one tonne. National research indicates that one tonne of recycled cardboard saves 17 trees, along with numerous other spin-offs such as increasing the life span of landfills. Based on their experience of being serviced by informal recyclers, formal business representatives reported benefits of a different kind altogether as they said:
Dedication and good rapport
“During peak shopping seasons like Christmas time, they (the “informal” recyclers) work like lightning and even work after hours, and Afrika even helped us when our store was once flooded, where do you get people and service like that anymore? We are really fortunate and we really appreciate their service!” Berverley Sansucie, Clicks Staff
I have known Mkhulu (a respectful isiZulu term for “old man”, referring to Afrika) for over 10 years, and he is a genuinely wonderful person. He knows his work, he’s punctual and he communicates cordially with everyone. Lynette van Zyl, Clicks Staff
“The boxes pile up in the stock room and need to be cleared on a daily basis, sometimes even twice or three times a day, particularly during peak shopping seasons. Maria has made my life easier because she is reliable and accessible. When I was desperate, she even came in on Sundays after church to clear away the boxes.” Senzo Mhlongo, Assistant Manager of Mr Price
Advantage over “formal” entities
Maria reported that in the past, some of the shops tried to sell the recyclable waste to middle-agents by themselves. They however, reverted back to relying on the informal recyclers after being unable to manage the process of clearing their stock rooms and selling off to middle-agents.
Saleem Ebrahim, the Operations Manager of the Workshop Centre added that private companies have approached him to take over the recycling services of the Centre, however he turned them down because of his experience of the efficiency of the informal recyclers: “The informal recyclers are earning a living for themselves by keeping the Centre’s refuse areas neat and tidy. They are laborious and provide a good service and maintain good communication with everyone concerned.”
Through their dedication and good rapport skills, Afrika and Maria have enjoyed the support of formal businesses from the Workshop Shopping Centre who are relieved to have their recyclable waste sorted and removed efficiently by the “informal” recyclers. For the recyclers, access to waste recyclables in a dignified manner is critical to maintain their livelihoods. The need for more support from businesses and local government was the strong message sent out by two groups of informal recyclers at this year’s Global Recyclers’ Day event.
Ultimately what Asiye eTafuleni encourages is a co-existent waste management strategy which integrates both “formal” and “informal” systems of waste collection. Although the services of the recyclers may be “informal”, they sell the recyclables to “formal” entities (i.e. middle-agents who come to collect and pay for the sorted recyclables with their trucks) at the end of the day, which highlights the link between the two. Furthermore, the presence of the “informal” activity within a “formal” shopping space highlights a hybrid model. Informal workers therefore contribute to the functioning of the economy, and the “formal” and “informal” are integrally linked.