Too Much Waste, Too Many Dead People

Abraham is in the harvesting business. Food forms the bulk of his harvest but he also gathers recyclables, clothes and electronic goods. He lives in a shack in Maitland Intersite Gate 1, a squatter camp wedged into a triangle of land between the Cape Town to Bellville railway line, Maitland Cemetery and Voortrekker Road. Waste management experts use descriptions like harvesting and waste picking to describe his role. Abraham prefers “skarrelling” the local slang for salvaging edible food and reusable or recyclable material from others peoples’ bins. All but two of the adults I met in the squatter camp skarrell to make a living.

Abraham goes skarrelling in the neighbouring suburb of Pinelands, which is on the right side of the railway tracks and therefore has bins with richer pickings. He leaves home around 4 a.m. so he can skarrell before the refuse trucks empty the bins. In one of his most productive bins he found a pair of earphones, a cell phone, two digital cameras and some toys. I asked him how he felt when he found so much in one bin and he said

I just told myself that maybe it’d all be broken, but when I got home I found out it all worked.

One of Abraham’s friends showed me the camera he’d harvested from a bin a few days earlier. He said his initial excitement disappeared when he realised it wasn't a digital camera; he knew he’d get next to nothing from a pawn shop for an old film camera, even though it worked. These people might not have many possessions, but they are all fully aware of modern consumers’ desire for only the latest model.

Abraham and his friends told me they know which households have consistently the most plentiful bins (or are the most wasteful, depending on your view point). They said they didn't think they ever came across bins which had nothing in them which couldn't be eaten, recycled or reused but they weren't annoyed some people could afford to throw out edible food as their livelihoods depend on it. 

Abraham wanted to know why I was interested. So I explained to the group of locals who’d gathered that I was at the beginning of a journey around South Africa looking at the two joint issues of increasing human consumption and population growth, so I was interested in their experience of waste and wasteful society. Dan Pietersen joined the conversation and wanted to talk about the community’s current main issue. A rather bitter link between this community’s reliance on the over-consumption of others (the reason for my visit) and population growth (which until then was not) became apparent.

Maitland Cemetery

Maitland Cemetery

Dan and all the others who live in the squatter camp are being evicted. Dan has lived in his shack for six years but the site will be cleared in the next couple of months. Cape Town has too many dead people and the municipality wants to extend the cemetery to make space for more graves. 

A small sliver of grassy open space separates the squatter camp from the most recently dug graves. What is left of the open space is being colonised by more and more tombs. As we spoke on the edge of the squatter camp a funeral was taking place twenty metres away. The remaining grass will soon be engulfed by further graves and that’s why there is demand for the cemetery to enlarge into the area where Dan and his neighbours live.

The city council has made alternative land available for Dan and the others but it is in Mfuleni twenty kilometres out of the city and therefore further from jobs and other opportunities. Dan’s daughter has a job opposite the cemetery but the cost of public transport to and from their new home means she might not be able to afford the commute. Those who go skarrelling will have to pay to use public transport to get closer to town and the wealthier areas which have bins worth looking in. 

Dan, his son and their home 

Dan, his son and their home 

I sat and talked to Dan alone in his shack for about an hour. He’s passionate about his family and community and resigned to moving. He understands he doesn't own the land on which his shack sits.

This is the first of over a hundred articles from across South Africa looking at the real life impacts of both over-consumption and population growth. I can’t think of a better way to conclude than to use Dan’s words about his living community which currently relies on richer people’s over-consumption to survive but is being deconstructed and removed to make way for a larger area of graves. 

Why must we move twenty kilometres out of town away from our community and the jobs of the city? Why must we have a big graveyard in the centre of the city? Perhaps nowadays they should only cremate people when they die, not bury them. We don’t really have the space do we? Look at the impact on us if everyone ends up getting buried.

Thank you Dan.