Traditional healer, reclaimer, leader, writer and poet – these are just a few titles to describe Eva Mokoena, the chairperson of the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO), who describes herself as a “tigress”.  

The ARO is a reclaimer-led organization started in 2017 that represents and organizes reclaimers in and around Johannesburg, South Africa. Reclaimers are people who informally collect and sell recyclable materials. They also call themselves bagerezi which is an isiZulu word for “hustler”. 

They are often seen on the side of the road pulling heavy loads of recyclable materials picked from dustbins, speeding downhill through traffic on an empty trolley, or on landfills sorting through the waste for recyclable materials. 

According to a report by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSRI), reclaimers are estimated to collect 80 to 90% of discarded packaging and paper in South Africa. It is estimated that this saves municipalities hundreds of millions in landfill space. Yet waste pickers receive very little for the recyclables they sell. 

Mokoena said she works on the landfill from around 7 am to 4 pm and earns about R100 ($5.80) per day. The prices of recyclable materials vary depending on buy-back centres, she said. 

Many people consider reclaiming a “last resort” occupation, but for Mokoena, reclaiming was her family’s bread and butter growing up. She started reclaiming at the age of 11 when she followed her mother – who was and still is a reclaimer – to Palm Springs landfill in Gauteng every day.

They would spend hours sorting through materials to find anything recyclable to sell to buy-back centres. “At first we were collecting tins and steel because they were paying the most but as time went by we started collecting everything that is recyclable, even cloth material because my mom started sewing blankets with them,” she said.

Eva Mokoena, chairperson of African Reclaimers Organisation, sorts through her materials after collection. Picture supplied.

At the age of 17, Mokeona became a full-time reclaimer, taking care of herself and assisting her family with the money she made. Her journey as an organiser started when she was nominated as a leader on the landfill.  

“I knew I was a leader from the time I found out about my (traditional healing) calling at the age of ten. I went to an initiation school but I never accepted it until I started becoming a leader at ARO,” she said. 

Her calling confirmed that she was different. The symbols of her gift, which are a tiger and an elephant, confirmed that she was destined to be a fierce leader, she said. 

Mokoena tried her hand at a teaching career at the age of 29. She worked at a school for three years but quit shortly thereafter because she did not have the freedom she had working for herself on the landfills.

“It wasn’t a good working environment. I was the communications manager at the school but I wasn’t allowed to talk to the parents. It didn’t make sense to me. The principal would also turn the workers against each other so I left and went back to the landfill,” she said. 

But despite the benefits of flexibility, being a reclaimer as a woman is not easy, she said.

Sighing heavily before answering, Mokoena said, “We suffer all kinds of abuse on the landfills. We are sworn at by drunk men and they intimidate us when the trucks [that drop off waste at the landfills] come so they get more materials to sell,” she said. “Women are scared to stand up for themselves because they are worried that these men will wait for them in the street and do something bad.”

But reclaimers started recognising Mokoena as a leader when she stood up to the men who were intimidating women on the landfill. “I had to do something because this affects how much money we earn at the end of the day,” said the mother of three. 

She said she wanted to show the women on landfills that “standing together makes us stronger and that is exactly what feminism means to me.” 

The struggles for women did not end on the landfills, however. Even within her reclaimers’ organization, some men could not understand why a woman would be in a leadership position and struggled to respect her authority in the beginning. 

“For example, in the Basotho culture, a woman cannot stand in front of a man. But now I was standing in front of many men and addressing them. We had to make them understand that this is not culture, this is work,” she said adamantly. 

Her activism also took her to life-threatening  places where she had to advocate for peace and put an end to turf wars between Basotho tribes on landfills. “We were threatened so many times because they said we were trying to take over the landfills but we had to be brave, despite having guns in our faces,” she said. 

Thoughts about her own family and the possibility of leaving her children without a mother crossed her mind, “but to be honest, at that point I didn’t care. I knew what we had to do and I knew it was right. “

Switching gears in the conversation, Mokoena recalled her happiest moment as a reclaimer. 

“It was the day I was selected as the chairperson of ARO. I just remember thinking these people don’t know me for that long but they can see me fighting for them,” she said. “It was a really proud moment.” 

Through ARO, and the help of other organisations, the Basadi Buang  (women speak) programme gives women reclaimers a space to speak about their grievances and how they can be best represented in the organisation. 

Here, she says, the organisation tries to encourage women to support each other and stand together whether it be on the landfills or in the streets. “I always tell them that together we are stronger,” said Mokoena. 

“We can do all these things but in everything, we must be feminists. Feminism starts in your mind, it has to be in you,” she said.  

When people told her that reclaiming is a man’s job, she responded: “I must be a man myself,” she said laughing at the ridiculousness of the sentiment. 

“Women are strong. We may not have physical strength like a man but our strength is in our minds,” she said. 

When asked what she would tell her younger self about being a woman in this world, she read a poem she had written to herself:

The way I am is an example of what happened in the past 

I’ve been tortured, betrayed, loved, cheated and misled 

I’ve been played like a ball, in an open ground without a coach or referee who will direct the players on how to play 

And that was the best lesson because I’ve learnt to control my life and build a character that everybody will be proud of at the end 

That taught me how to shape a ground without marks, how to become the best amongst the worst, and how to become a player that people will always ask about when I’m not around to play that part anymore 

I’m proud of who I became 

A example of no regrets and no disobedience but only hope for those who have lost their character and their personality in this living life of hell 

Poem titled ‘The way I am’ by Eva Mokoena