Sharing the same blood is more than a mere metaphor for Thato and Sipho, two brothers and partners-in-crime, among the thousands of faceless victims of the recycling loophole in South Africa. Sharing drugged blood, a common practice also known as ‘bluetooth’ in the community of drugs in downtown Johannesburg, is one of the cheapest and most dangerous kicks for a community of semihomeless people.
Thato (19) and Sipho (23) live in Orange Farm, one of the poorest and most remote corners in the South of Gauteng. They are two of 88.000 informal recycling workers in South Africa and spend most of their time in central Johannesburg, where they sleep in a tin shack or under a bridge. In the early morning, they collect litter (such as paper, cardboard, plastic, glass and metal) to dispose at the nearest recycling collection point, for a daily wage of R120 to R150 daily. In the afternoon, they gather with hundreds of other recyclers in Nugget Street, where they light bonfires and consume drugs like rock meth and nyaope.
“Without drugs I can’t work”, confesses Sipho. “I am a slave of my work, and a slave of these drugs. I think like drugs, and without them I’m like a car without petrol. If they leave me, I will die”. His brother Thato has tried to withdraw, but had no success: “when the drugs are getting out of the body system, the symptoms are very painful”, he says. “You get stomach cramps; headache and you get a block on your body joints. You become dizzy and the eyes get blurry. I can hardly see. I really need medication to get rid of the drugs in my body. I tried on my own once, and ended up in the hospital. I couldn’t move”.
According to Thato, most recyclers are encouraged into drugs and pushed into a loop they cannot evade from. Peer pressure also plays a very important role. “This lifestyle is very hard and nobody likes drugs, but the pressure of our work makes everyone starts doing drugs”, he explains. Sometimes, the owners of waste removal companies also encourage the workers to undertake a life of crime and drugs and indirectly sponsor their addiction.
Angela, the owner of a scrap company in Fox Street, explains that this system “is a fair way to give them business, so that they can buy drugs. If we stop taking scrap from them, then they will lose the business, which means they need to steal to buy drugs”. The owner of another waste disposal company adds: “I can stop the waste pickers who do drugs, and not take scrap from them, but it should be a decision made by all recycling companies”. Some of the recyclers work in direct contact with drug dealers and drug lords, whom they depend on and who often abuse them and physically harm them. Almost 260.000 drug related crimes were reported in South Africa in 2016.
However underprivileged, recyclers can earn a decent living, and several positive cases demonstrate that a recycler can afford a rent and access to food, especially when inserted in a formal and safeguarded system. Their contribution to society is crucial, as waste disposal companies produce approximately 600 million tons of scrap material yearly, of which 6.5 are recyclable. The municipal company Pikitup was allocated an operating budget of R2.1 billion for 2016/17, thus having a tremendous impact on the city’s yearly expenditure. The job of a recycler is sometimes an important
answer to unemployment and it has a high impact on welfare, but, up to date, no research was made to describe the entity of the phenomenon.
Nonetheless, most of the operators active in central Johannesburg end up caught in the loophole of drugs, which consumes most of their income – starting from as little as R15 for a dose – and forces them to a life of crime and social exclusion. Their luminal state and people’s indifference are both cause and consequence of their divergent lifestyle, however hard working, skilled or motivated they may be. This is also an effect of the stigma surrounding their physical work, in close contact to dirt and scrap materials, which contributes to the spread of diseases and significantly decreases their life expectation.
When telling their life stories, most subjects speak of the dreams they had when leaving home, mostly in township areas in the outskirts of Gauteng. They have parents, spouses and children, whom they left to chase after their dreams, before dramatically drowning into a hard and cruel reality. “The demons are controlling us”, affirms Sanele (fantasy name). Njabulo, once a student of civil engineering at Nkangala FET College, is extremely resourceful and talented, but he saw his life quickly destroyed by drugs and now he is also part of the 28 gang. “I’ve lost contact with my family”, he says. “I lost my job, I lost everything. All I need is an opportunity to gain everything back”.
Photos and text by Manash Das