n African Review of Economics and Finance - The economics of urban waste picking in Pretoria

Volume 11 Number 2
  • ISSN : 2042-1478
  • E-ISSN: 2410-4906


Debates on the role of the informality in the economic transformation of urban economies in Africa remain fraught: is informality benign or malign? Does it evolve to formality or remain as a permanent feature of capitalist urban development? Are the motives of informal actors calculated or imposed by economic circumstances? Pretoria in South Africa has become well known for such informal economic activities, and therefore its experiences can help to address these questions. In doing so, this paper analyses the impact of informal recycling on the poverty levels of street waste-pickers in South Africa. A mixedmethod approach informed the results. Interviews were conducted with 142 street waste-pickers. The results show that, due to high unemployment in South Africa, many semi-skilled and unskilled workers enter the informal economy and perform survivalist-type work. The income from waste-picking is insufficient to lift them out of poverty due to the complex multidimensionality of poverty such as low skills, education, limited resources, safety nets and dependents who live from the limited income. Concerted inclusive policy decisions need to be taken to embrace waste-pickers in the formal waste system. Despite difficult conditions, some waste-pickers display a remarkable degree of entrepreneurial resilience and pride at being able to independently make an honest living. These experiences show that urban economics cannot view the informal economy as counter-cyclical to economic growth and therefore temporary in nature. The informal economic activity of waste-picking is indeed a form of living, permanent and vulnerable at the same time. In formulating policy dealing with informality, urban economics would be well served to also look at other schools of thought for inspiration combined with the voices of those involved in this form of living.

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