The collection of household refuse – or the lack thereof – is one of the most powerful visual benchmarks of inequality in South Africa. Although the situation has improved somewhat since 1994, formerly whites-only suburbs are still kept immaculately clean with regular door-to-door refuse collection and teams of street sweepers, while most black township and rural area residents are forced to dump their refuse in open spaces or in unsealed communal skips. Street cleaning is often non-existent, and where it is available workers are often unable to cope with the volume of uncollected waste. As a visual indicator of change, solid waste management acts as a daily reminder to millions of poor South Africans that their health, safety, and living environments have changed very little in the past seven years. Municipal governments in South Africa have been turning increasingly to commercialisation (i.e., privatisation, outsourcing, corporatisation) as a way of addressing this refuse collection backlog. Why this has happened, and how successful it has been at addressing the problem is analyzed through two cases: that of a microenterprise refuse collection programme in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, known as the Billy Hattingh scheme; and that of a newly-corporatised refuse collection service in Johannesburg called “Pikitup”. Although very different in their institutional make-up and size, these two initiatives are both driven by the same commercialisation impulse that is reshaping the waste management sector throughout South Africa. Their analysis also share remarkably similar insights into the dangers of running waste management ‘like a business’. In a nutshell, the findings of these two case studies allow addressing four important themes: concerns about the entrenchment of a two-tiered refuse collection system; a lack of proper public consultation in the commercialisation process; the loss of public sector skills; and the impact of service restructuring on municipal workers.
MSP Occasional Paper No.3