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Anthropology Southern Africa, 2006, 29(1 &2)

58

Window onto a world of waste:


cultural aspects of work in South Africa
Vivienne Ward
Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch, Private Bag X I , Matieland, 7602, South Africa
vivward@adept.co.za

Frans Kamsteeg
Department of Culture, Organizaton & Management. Faculty of Social Sciences, Vrije Universiteit,
De Boelelaan 1081, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands
fh.kamsteeg@fsw.vu.nl
In the Western Cape, a system has emerged in recent years where informal groupings of poor people make a living by recycling
waste material

in exchange for cash. There are several dynamic interfaces in this process, and this short study h/gh/;ghts the

relationships between

the different actors - from the poor peopte, who make a living by collecting waste, through to the needs

of the formal recycling organisation, which increases its turnover and efficiency by accommodating

informal collectors. The

study explores the organising processes and cultural meaning systems that have emerged as the recycling activity has evolved
and adapted to the needs ofthe various actors. It considers both local and macro contexts, situating the recycling aaivity in the
social reality of poverty and lack of formal employment

opportunities.

Essentially, the study focuses on the underside of

organisational life, those adaptive but sometimes hidden and unofficial arrangements

by which things get accomplished, or

ignored. Looking through the lens of symbols (words, deeds and objects), the observer becomes aware of issues of identity
positions of the players),

culture

(the

rules of the play) and power

(their

playing strength).

(the

The observation of daily

organisational work processes, in which the stories find their roots, offers the opportunity for unexpected insights into what
happens in 'a world of waste'

Keywords: organisation, culture, identity, networks, informal economy, methodology

The clattering of supermarket trolleys at dawn


outside the bedroom window nowadays evokes a
whole canvas of interacting players, symbols,
aaions and reactions, brightly coloured with
humour and laughter; a polyphonic, sometimes
cacophonic world of voices of people making a
living by collecting and trading waste products
while challenging social barriers.

This study offers a glimpse into a world of marginalised,


excluded people, scratching out a means of survival within
the fragmented urban geography of South African sodety. We
see a momentary blurring of deeply entrenched cultural
boundaries as these surplus people cross from their peripheral spaces into the well-endowed suburbs in search of recyclable waste to transform surplus material into a source of
sustenance.
Contemporary South Africa is widely considered a land of
new economic, politicaJ and cultural promise. The economy
is expanding, democracy is maturing, and new sodal and cultural networks are developing in a post-apjirtheid context.
This paper highlights such a network, built spontaneously by
ordinary people who seem to have little more in common
than the need to earn daily bread for themselves and their
families. Their seenningly random activity of collecting waste
that other people throw out, appears to provoke their organising talents and simultaneously produces an opportunity for
intense sense-making. In this informal work process participants develop common cultural understandings.

Work processes are generally studied in organisational


contexts. While there is consensus on the fact that organisations have culturally diverse flavours, the debate on the variance and the manageability of organisational cultures is lively,
and comprises a substantial proportion of the publications in
the field of organisation theory. Yet, there is increasing
emphasis on the culturally creative role that people as sensemaking actors play in organising processes. This debate is also
gaining weight in (South) Africa. Currently, case studies of culture in profit and non-profit organisations are beginning to
appear (Herselman 2001; van der Waal 2001).
In a society such as South Africa which is in a process of
realignment in many respects, studies that focus on the cultural side of work and organising may provide insights that
contribute to this reorientation process. Contemporary
South Africa provides great opportunities for studying the
emergence of new organising settings and the subtle ways in
which cultural meanings colour these settings. This paper
studies such a process by relating the experiences of a group
of Stellenbosch waste collectors on their daily journey,
framed within a view of culture, and identity for that matter,
that we think is useful.

Culture as a verb: a focus on process


While anthropologists become somewhat nervous when the
topic of culture is raised, a growing number of organisation
scientists are warm supporters of the concept. They focus on
how organisational cultures can be described, what their
funrtion is, and how cultures might be changed for the benefit of their bearers, ie the organisations (Schein 1992/1985).
Even the more anthropologically-inspired part of the pre-

Anthropology Southern Africa, 2006, 29(l&2)

dominantly North American and European literature on


organisational culture tends to deal with more or less established cultures (eg Kunda 1992). The idea that cultures can be
distinguished, ordered and assessed also in terms of economic utility is common to most of them. This idea - though
clearly not derived from anthropology - nevertheless echoes
a bygone anthropological view (ideal) of culture that produced symbolic landscapes of well-integrated cultural islands.
Although ideational approaches and cultural taxonomies are
still popular in anthropology, the surge of alternative
approaches is now slowly entering organisation studies. It is
through political anthropology, especially the anthropology of
ethnicity that developed after Barth's seminal Ethnic Groups
and Boundaries (1969), that culture and identity approaches in
anthropology have come of age in the sense that ideological power - aspeas of culture have come within view. This critical position of anthropology, well represented in Marcus and
Fischer's Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986), has now
also entered the field of organisation studies. (Organisational)
(C)ulture as a counterforce predominates the work of some
of today's leading organisation scholars, such as Mats Alvesson (2002) and David Collinson (1988, 1999). In their work
the constraining as well as the enabling potential of culture
and identity are emphasised. This implies that by now it is
indeed 'poor strategy to separate out a cultural sphere and to
treat it in its own terms' (Kuper 2002:247). What (organisational) anthropologists are capable of delivering is intricate
real life studies-in-context that eludicate the interwovenness
of culture, identity and power aspects of the (organisational)
reality that people construa. This implies a processual and
contextual view rather than a static one, a view in which people co-create meaning under conditions they have often
clearly not created themselves.'
When it comes to work and work processes, we know
remarkably little about how (organisational) cultures are built,
handled, or negotiated in everyday life. This largely hidden
'underworld' in organisational life (Goffman 1959, 1961; also
see van Maanen 2001) often remains out of sight in academic
and management studies. Following Weick's emphasis on
sense-making and 'enactment' (1995), a growing number of
today's organisational scientists tend to concentrate on the
construction process and less on the constituent elements of
(organisational) culture (also see Bate 1997). Alvesson, for
example, argues that culture is constantly enacted and
reframed in everyday life (2002:180). This may sound slippery, but we agree viflth Andrew Chan, when he contends follov^ng Morgan and Weick's view of enactment - that it is
most appropriate to think of culture as a verb (2003:317).
Similar dynamic views of organisational behaviour are
expressed by Sims, Fineman & Gabriel, in their discussion of
the limited use of mapping organisational features compared
to a focus on its living, moving and constantly changing charaaer (1993:2-7).
We wish to apply such a processual perspeaive to the
waste pickers of Stellenbosch with the aim of uncovering the
complex intertwining of cultured meanings of work, waste.

59
ethnicity and power. In short, we will attempt to shed some
light on the cultural bricolage of waste pickers and discuss
whether some kind of cultural texture emerges that suggests
the contours of what might evolve into an organisational culture.

Studying culture in work situations


As we have said, cultures are often studied as if they are
more or less established, integrated and fixed entities. However, when we look at culture as an aaivity - the creation of
meaning for interpreting experiences and guiding aaion that immediately implies that culturing always takes place
within sodal struaures. In these struaures, or - perhaps better - networks of social relationships, identity building and
power differences are always at stake. Culture, identity and
power then are the key concepts in our study of organising
and organisation. The texture of this study rests upon 'thick
description' of everyday work processes, expressing the quality of the researcher 'having really been there' (Bate 1997).
For analytical purposes, we make use of an heuristic framework (see page 60) in which the principal elements for such a
holistic and dynamic approach have been ('loosely') coupled
(Kamsteeg & Wels 2004).
Despite some obvious disadvantadges we consider this a
symbolic approach insofar as symbols refer to a reality that is
not immediately evident. In other words, we do not study
culture, identity or power direaly. We observe behaviour, we
listen to stories and opinions; we interview or have discussions with informants. So, what people do (deeds), what they
say (words) and what objeas (or artefaas) they deal with we
explain (or translate) in terms of culture, identity and power.
This is how the scheme on page 60 should be understood.
Translated into the world of Stellenbosch waste-picking, it
means we are looking for all too real expressions, incidents
and experiences that people have with confliaing meanings,
group interests and power struggles. This framework in a
comprehensive way reveals and connects different aspects of
a particular social event. The identity perspeaive focuses on
the players (how they see themselves and others, to whom
or what they feel related, and conneaed). The culture perspeaive refleas the rules of the game (how it works, how it
ought to be played, and what the costs are), and the political
perspeaive emphasises the power play and strength (how to
win).
The symbolic charaaer of our approach refers to '... the
symbol's power of combining various elements into a
whole...' (Alvesson & Berg 1992:85). Symbols then, particularly when they are presented systematically (cf Geertz's
view of culture as a system of symbols, 1973) are to be
viewed as '... instruments to create order and darity of
(apparent, our addition) chaos ...' (ibid). Following Dandridge,
we distinguish between material, verbal and aaion symbols
(Dandridge et al. 1980). Material symbols (artefacts) refer to
clothing, workplace decorations, tools, etc; verbal symbols
(myths and discourse) may be gossip, jokes, stories, e-mails,
etc; aaion symbols (rituals and praaices) are work meetings,
routines, gestures and the like.

I. American anthropologist, Geertz (1973), already convincingly highlighted the dynamic aspect of culture by making a distinction between
culture as a model (reflection) of the world and a nnodel for (behaviour in) the world. Yet his definition of culture as 'a system of symbols' has too easily led to dealing with cultural as an autonomous sphere.

Anthropology Southern Africa, 2006, 29(l&2)

60

Symbols
(words, deeds, objects)

Identity

Culture
(sense makingi

(imageiy, commitinenl)

Figure I A framework for analysing organisational processes


All of these symbols somehow represent, express, or symbolise a perceptible aspea of the cultural, identity and power
trio that lies below the surface. However, they may be contradiaory or ambiguous, and their meanings may vary over
time: they are processual and situated. They are subjea to
manipulation and group interest by knowledgeable and powerful agents. This is certainly true for the waste pickers we
are to present in the remainder of this paper. They have very
different backgrounds; they operate in a competitive context
where the struggle for daily survival is prominent; there is little formal organisation among them, whereas they are dealing
with a number of organised agencies in a local arena that itself
is pjirt of South African society-in-flux. Yet in this chaotic,
scattered and incongruous underworld we are now about to
enter, these waste pickers seem to develop some common
understanding, a frame of reference and daily mode of behaviour. In other words, an emergent culture is being constituted, the meanings of which are constantly disputed by its
bearers.

A day on the streets of Stellenbosch: a note on


methodology
We studied this emerging working group, its meaning-making, identity-building and power struggles by following the
waste pickers on their daily journey, in what could be called
'.. .their (re)framing of everyday life...' (Alvesson 2002:180ff).
V^e tell the story of the waste pickers' lives in the streets of
Stellenbosch, based on the anthropologist's^ conversations
2. The field study was done by only one of the authors (Ward).

and observations made during a one day journey (in May


2004), then subsequently reworked into 'piaures of waste
collecting'. This approach combines the so-called narrative
perspeaive (Czarniav^ka 1998:6; also see Gabriel 2000)
which is becoming increasingly popular in organisation studies
today, with anthropological observations that provide knowledge that rests upon other sources than those provided by
(consciously) verbalized speech (cf Bloch 1998). We believe
that presenting the pickers' vicissitudes by piauring one day
of their lives is highly expressive and comes dose to satisfying
closely Bate's demand of good ethnography, ie showing the
quality of 'having been there' (cf Bate 1997). Although what
we present in this study is factually limited to one day, the
researcher had already gradually established an informal relationship with the waste pickers over a year, as the occupation
of v(/aste picking became established in her residential area of
Stellenbosch. During her routine early morning walks she
observed the gradual influx of poor people into the area on
the days of municipal garbage colleaion. In the exchange of
friendly greetings, she became familiar with seven waste pickers in particular by showing an interest in their waste recycling aaivities. She realised that complex networks were
emerging in the process of waste picking and decided to trace
the aaivities of the waste pickers for a day to deepen her
insight into these processes. What she did was to follow the
route of the waste, a 'thing' that on its route acquires economic as well as cultural value (cf Appadurai 1986). Due to
the limited period of aaual fieldwork, the results of this short

Anthropology Southern Africa, 2006, 29(l&2)

study must be considered only preliminary. We intend to


build onto them through further study, in which longer periods of 'hanging around' observations will be combined with
more formal interviews.
The route ofthe waste
The clatter of supermarket trolleys along suburban streets heralds a new day of waste collection by seven informal waste pickers inrent on making a living. In the early moming of the day of
the study the researcher mingles witli die two heterosexual couples and three single men among whom she is about to start her
observations. The couples are longterni partners, the three men
operate independently. All of them are Afrikaans-speaking Cape
Coloured people in their thirties. The researcher greets them
and explains her wish to observe their waste picking activities for
a day, asking permission to accompany them. They welcome the
idea and answer questions while they rummage through garbage
bags in this middle class suburb, gathering recyclable items
together into supermarket trolleys or homemade wagons. The
pickers appear to take their work very seriously, and while they
are going through the garbage bags in rhe streets, and packing
goods onto the trolleys, there is very little interaction, just the
odd greeting or a shouted instruction to a fellow collector. Now
and again a housewife comes out with some food or some specific recyclable itetii to give to a collector (usually a woman)
with whom she obviously has rapport, and a friendly chat follows. One housewife comes out in anger, objecting to a collector
picking through her garbage bag. The collector scuttles off muttering to himself. This householder complains bitterly that these
people invade the respectable suburbs and make a mess while
they scratch through the garbage bags, which is not what cleanliving people like herself want to see. She declares that the
Municipality and the police should keep these people out, as
they used to in the old days when only domestic workers were
allowed into the 'white' suburbs. However, with changing power
relations in today's South Africa this does not seem to work as
automatically as before. Another householder comes out and
joins the conversation, saying that she sympathises with these
poor people and feels that householders should separate the
recyclables beforehand so that the pickers do not have to pick
through the garbage themselves, as this is a way for diem to earn
money. The angry householder retorts that even more people
would then be drawn to this suburb, along with the increased
crime and stolen trolleys widi which they are associated. Further
on, a picker tidies up after someone who has left garbage lying
all over the street, saying that she would rather clean up than
leave an impression in the suburb that the pickers are untidy,
which most of them are not. This is a clear expression of emerging collective norms for behaviour among the pickers. It also
indicates that pickers have pride in the job they are doing.
Organizing the collection of recyclables: As recyclable waste
accumulates, the pickers dutiip it at a collection site in the suburb, and after finishing their rounds they setde into sorting their
waste. Two more women join the group of seven pickers and
this becomes a time for general conversation. The women chat
to each other about a sick child, or a child who needs new
school shoes, or a housing application that is taking a long time
to be processed, or a husband who is drinking too much and
3. This section is in a different font at the request of the author.

61
tending to violence. Here we see partictJarly the women sharing
a common identity, considering themselves responsible for the
survival of their families. Some ofthe men joke with each other,
mocking each other for poor pickings, or showing off an item of
value or something unusual. Two of die men are taciturn, just
focused on packing their goods. They are solitary men who
wander off with their trolleys after soning them, without a
word, and make their own way to the waste recycling depot.
Evidendy the pickers range from homeless individuals to couples living in informal housing areas, supporting families. The
more interactive members are part of a loose network, always
collecting in the same areas, using the same collection point and
collection routines, and catching up with odier's news and views
whilst sorting waste. Since this procedure repeats on a daily basis
in different residential areas, we may consider waste picking an
emerging profession, with more or less fixed working procedures.
Transporting the recyclables: Once the waste has beeTi
sorted into piles by the pickers, a housewife comes out to offer
to telephone the waste recycling depot for transport. Shortly
thereafter the depot truck arrives, with friendly greetings
exchanged between driver and pickers, and a few jokes while the
bags are loaded, each with an identifying string or tape. One
woman shouts at a quiet man to pick up any left over rubbish
and make sure the place is tidy. Trolleys are thrown on top ofthe
bags of waste, and people climb in and hang onto the side railings. The driver explains that the traffic officers turn a blind eye
to these truck loads of bags and people as they only drive a short
route, and are careful about safety. He explains that the Municipality has designated collection points for waste collection
because of public objection to pickers moving randomly around
the town and leaving a mess behind them. This step prompted
the waste recycling depot to offer to transport the pickers and
their waste to the depot so as to make the collection process
more efficient. Thus a link was established between the informal
waste pickers and the formal and business-orientated recycling
company. There are three such depots in Stellenbosch, each having agreements with various businesses to collect recyclable
paper, glass, cardboard, plastic and metal products, which is
paid for in relation to weight. This collected material is sorted at
die depots and transported to the major recycling industries for
final processing. Individuals taking recyclable waste are reimbursed according to the weight of the tnaterial, a means of
income-generation that has become poptilar in many South
African cities.
At the recycling depot: At the waste recycling depot the
sympathetic rapport between depot management and pickers is
cotispicuous. The truck arrives, people jump off and help each
other offload, one collector arguing with another over an
unmarked bag, but resolving the isstie quickly. At this point the
seven pickers, whom the researcher has accompanied, merge
into the larger gathering of waste pickers from all over the town.
These include Coloured and Xhosa people ranging from young
children to eldedy people. The women are mostly betweeti the
ages of 25 and 40 while the men are older and in the majority.
The depot foreman greets the people informally, often by name,
and jokes about the day's pickings, praising those who have large
bags, noting the more unusual items. The attiiosphere is friendly

62
and relaxed, with people chatting and laughing as they gather
their goods and stand in the qtieue to weigh in. After getting the
slip of paper with the value ofthe goods, the people queue at the
barred window of the office, which is the cash payout point.
The waste pickers are paid between RIO and R40 depending on
their pickings, most of them working from very early morning
until midday. One picker, who has been laughing with a friend
in the queue, peers through the office window and notices that
his friend is featuring on the closed circuit television set in the
office...'daar staan die clown op die T V (the clown is on die
TV), he cries, and those around him burst into laughter and
mockery. But not everyone is cheerful, some of the older men
are silent and go through die process without a word. In general
the women move though the queues quickly and immediately
walk off with their money, sometimes accompanied by a male
partner, but otherwise with other women. Many women, as they
walk away from the depot, become noticeably more proud in
their carriage, straighten out their clothes, one of them unpacks
a smart jacket from a bag and puts it on, thus becoming part of
the normal social scene on the street, no longer associated with
garbage bags. The men who are not in teams with women tend
to hang about the waste recycling depot after getting their cash,
chatting and smoking and laughing together. It seems that while
for women waste collecting is predominantly a way of earning a
(family) living, for men it is cleady also a way of passing the day.
A new waste picker among the men says that although he found
the work distasteful at first, he realises that he will at least get
cash for his work. The other pickers then say that they always
encourage people who are unemployed and hanging around the
streets to join them, even 'tsotsis' (rascals), as this is a way to
make money rather than stealing or begging.... 'jy voel eers
skaam om in mense se vullis te skarrel, maar later besef jy dat jy
iets vir jouself en jou familie kan verdien.' (At first you feel
embarrassed to scratch in other people's garbage, but then you
realise that you can earn something for yourself and your family). Waste collecting then - although far from being an ordinary job - is increasingly considered a decent job through which
people may (re)gain self-respect.
Artefacts of collection: A few trolleys are custom made, even
with some decoration, and those are guarded by their owners.
They seem to represent the artefacts of a craft, symbolising the
owners' identification with it. The supermarket trolleys are
eidier wheeled off by the pickers for use die next day, or left in a
detiiarcated area at the gate ofthe depot where a truck from the
supermarket comes to retrieve them. A picker explains that
while some people keep their trolleys and use them repeatedly,
others look around the town for discarded trolleys to tise each
day, then park diem outside the depot for the supermarket truck
to fetch tlieni, after which they are washed and put back into use
in the supermarket. In explaining this, the picker declares soTnewhat defensively: 'dis tiie steel nie, dis net leen.' (it's not stealing,
it's just borrowing.) Thtis trolleys symbolise different things to
different people, a vehicle with which to earn a living versus a
potential object of tlieft. This turns the conversation to odier
crime issues.
Contrasting representations of livelihood: The researcher
learns, while cotiversing with the waste pickers at the depot, that
the police in Stellenbosch very ofreTi target them after a crime
has been committed. This makes the pickers angry because they
feel they are serious about their work, and shotild not arbitrarily

Anthropology Southern Africa, 2006, 29(l&2)


be blamed for crimes just because they are picking through
waste in the town. On the contrary, the pickers claim to confront people in their areas who are not collecting waste; 'ons jag
die tsotsis as hulle ttissen ons wil skuil terwyl ons werk' (we
chase away the trouble-makers if they try to hide amongst us as
we work). The foreman notes that tnost ofthe pickers are hardworking people, many of whom have 'ordentlike huise' (respectable houses), and well-cared for children who go to school.
Several of the pickers then start joking with each odier about
where they have come from, those from Stellenbosch declaring
that they are serious about the work, unlike the 'troublemaking'
otitsiders.
Recycling management: In contrast to the lively scene of
shouting and laughing people amongst piles of recyclable materials, the management of the waste recycling depot is shut off
from die outside with bars, one staff member taking slips of
paper through the barred window slot and giving cash in return.
A closed circuit television indicates the two queues, one for
weighing and one for paying. The office has such tight security
because of sophisticated criminals who realise diat diere is cash
on the premises, not because of the pickers. The police often
come to the depot to look for crime suspects, but the manager
said that the regular pickers are really not involved in crime.
Apparently the depot management makes a clear distinction
between the shared (and respected) working values of the pickers and those who do not share these values.
The manager of the waste recycling depot explains diat over
time more and more individuals are bringing in recyclable material as the word gets around that one can get money for recyclable garbage. There are abotit 80 informal pickers tising this
depot, and he and his foreman say they know many of them by
name. He explains that initially as more people started to collect
from garbage bags in the suburbs, the public became dissatisfied
with this situation, citing the mess and the potential crime that
would downgrade their suburbs. The supermarkets also reacted
strongly to the theft of trolleys for transporting the goods to the
depot. The Municipality stepped in with regulations, giving
cards to certified pickers, and identifying collection points for
pick-up. This again indicates how informal businesses gradually
become formalised. The depot manager expresses the opinion
that with the increased cooperation between Municipalit)',
depot, sttpermarkets and pickers, the recycling process is gaining
acceptance in Stellenbosch.
When the researcher asks the waste pickers what they do
when they leave the recycling depot, most of them say they
move back to their homes or haunts around Stellenbosch, and
spend their earnings on the way. Many of them take food to
their families at home, while a few of them stop over at local
shebeens (itiformal bars). Most of diem intend to rise early again
the next morning to resume their search for waste as a means of
survival.

Waste-collecting in perspective: a discussion


Tbis research was an attempt at'... seeing familiar landscapes
with different eyes ...' (Bate 1997:1149). Waste pickers can
easily be regarded as individual fortune seekers. However,
this short study reveals that there is, in fact, an increasingly
organised world beneath the street picture with itinerant
trolleys. The seemingly individualistic pickers happen to share
a certain 'mental luggage' which they constantly use in daily

Anthropology Southern Africa. 2006, 29(l&2)

practice. It is clear from the symbolic events we present here


that power differences, cultural understanding, and identity
development are noticeable at ali times, yet each concept
reveals different aspects of the same social event. Power differences were reveaJed in the pickers' willingness to submit
obediently to the demands of the more powerful spheres of
householders and depot management in order to realise their
own needs and objectives. The use of power resources was
evident in the strategic actions of the Municipality and depot
management to facilitate the efficient collection of waste. The
identity perspective highlighted the way the householders
and the pickers distinguish themselves from others, and the
rather paternalistic role taken on by the depot management.
The culture perspective reveaJs how the organising processes
work, and how people come to share similar patterns of
interpretation. Waste collecting is justified by the pickers as
work following certain rules, something the waste depot
managers acknowledge when they defend the motives of the
pickers as making an honest living.
Gender differences: striking in this study is the complex
manner in which this organising process is developing, and
the diversity of needs being met through this occupation.
Being with the pickers while they went about their tasks,
watching and listening to their interactions, and chatting to
them, the 'positions of the players' and the 'rules of the play'
were revealed in people's interactions at different levels.
Many of the pickers support families, and are unable to find
employment in the formal seaor, so they have turned to this
occupation (some apparently regretfully) to earn their living.
Several pickers pointed out the lack of employment opportunities in an almost defensive way, as if to justify their involvement in recycling work that they implied is menial. The
women in particular made regular references to their identity
beyond the depot, their children and their homes. Whereas
some of the men bemoaned the lack of better jobs, the
women appeared far more at ease about their identities as
waste pickers. It would seem then that in general the women
attach a functional meaning to the v/ork and try to escape its
context as quickly as possible, whereas the men have less of a
sense of urgency, perhaps not being so directly concerned
with providing for children. The work therefore has a
broader meaning for them, a warm, friendly circle of friends
in a place where there is always action to comment upon and
joke about. One could even say that their work becomes
inflated with the corresponding characteristics noted by
Alvesson (2002:147ff) such as setting further goals and using
work as a source for creating stories.
Ethnic divisions: Ethnic identity positions were also
noticeable in this study. The pickers tended to group themselves along ethnic lines, Afrikaans-speaking Cape Coloured
people staying together, and Xhosa-speaking people together.
The managers, administrative staff, one driver, and the foreman are Afrikaans-speaking whites, and the waste recycling
depot employees and other drivers are Coloured and Xhosaspeeiking people. Apart from occasional interactions in isiXhosa amongst the black people, everyone communicated in
Afrikaans. The Coloured people used a lively, descriptive and
informal Afrikaans amongst themselves as they chatted, and
occasionally threw out a comment to the Xhosa-speaking
pickers, but basically remained in their own ethnic context.

63
Even the Coloured newcomers from out of town were
quickly made part of the Coloured group although they were
good-naturedly teased about bringing trouble from outside.
While there was no noticeable animosity between the Xhosa
and Coloured pickers, the Coloured pickers gave the impression of lively and noisy cohesion, whereas the Xhosa-speaking
pickers worked either singly or in pairs and only chatted qui-'
etiy to each other, as if they were not quite at ease in this
environment.
Power play: Power balances are uneven in that the pickers are in a position of dependency regarding access to gar bage in the suburbs, as well as access to the exchange ol
waste for cash at the depot of the waste recycling company
Pickers therefore, must comply with expectations of both
suburban householders and depot management. Whereas
there is some reciprocation from the depot managemeni in
that transport is provided, there is not always co-operatiofi
by the householders, many of whom seem intent on having
the pickers banished from their sanitised middleclass neighbourhoods. In general there was an impression of harmony at
the interface between the waste depot and the pickers, a
respect for each person's role in the organising process,
which overrode the small disagreements that arose, and led
to their rapid resolution. While there was a spirit of competition amongst some of the pickers regarding how much they
had earned for the day, this did not translate into competitive
jostling between pickers to sell their goods, since the organising process ensured that each person was fairly reimbursed
according to the category and weight of their products. The
security measures, barred entrances to office and surveillance
cameras, aaed as strong symbols of power, but remained
benign during everyday activities, only being activated when
necessary. Presumably the cooperative relationship is advantageous to the organisation in that the pickers facilitate the
recycling of a great deal of material which increases turnover
and therefore profit for the organisation.
Waste-collecting in context: Alvesson (2002), Bate
(1997) and Kamsteeg & Wels (2004) emphasise that a theory
of organisational culture should account for the broader
social context because of the influence of the ideas, values
and symbols shared by groups of people in regions, industries
and occupations. The present study of organising processes
demonstrates the need to consider both local and macro
contexts so that cultural manifestations can be understood.
The South African context, for example, was referred to indirectly on a number of occasions by the pickers in explanations of their poverty and lack of work opportunities which
forces them into informal waste recycling. While South Africa
celebrates its tenth year of freedom from the oppressive
apartheid regime, certain social problems still hold sway in
the country. More than half the population live in poverty,
one third are unemployed, and widespread illness and death
caused by the HIV/AIDS epidemic entrench the poverty further On the other hand, the middle class and elite sectors of
society are thriving on an increasingly capital-intensive economy, reinforcing the fragmented urban landscape, and thus
widening the gap between rich and poor. Government legislation is attempting to correct the imbalances in society, but
there are still enormous backlogs, especially in housing,
health and education services (Daniel, Southall & Lutchmann

Anthropology Southern Africa, 2006, 29(l&2)

64
2005; Terreblanche 2002). This social context provides a
backdrop against which to better understand the emergence
of organising practices that offer poor people a means of
earning a living. Three pickers commented that the collection
of waste offered them a means of making money through
their own efforts rather than by depending on others. This
indicates that the organising of elementary work generates
meaning and helps the pickers to gain dignity and access to
resources even through a distasteful task, when the social
context is not conducive to such self-realisation.
The generally determined and positive way in which the
pickers went about their work, respecting each others' 'territories' vy^ile also adapting their behaviour to the demands of
the social context, indicates the value implicit in this pasttime.
The faa that pickers try to engage others in the working
process, citing it as more favourable than begging or crime
(the primary options in the poor sector of the society), also
indicates implicit meaning in the process. Even the resistance
of some householders to the 'invasion' of poor people in their
exclusive and sanitised suburbs can be explained in the context of the wider society. The elitist way of life that was possible under the proteaion of the previous government has
been threatened by the democratisation of society where
people are now entitled to move around freely. A major
defence is the scapegoating of the pickers by accusing them
of crimes. Yet even this resistance is slowly being diluted as
more householders realise the meanings attached to the colleaing activity, and start responding in co-operative ways.

Theoretical and methodological implications


The 'underside of organisational life'. Van Maanen's (2001)
concept of adaptive but sometimes hidden and unofficial
arrangements by which things get accomplished (or ignored),
became apparent in the observation journey among the
waste pickers. The recycling process has unfolded through a
series of adaptations as obstacles have been encountered and
overcome. The initial public resistance to the pickers, the
suspicions levelled at the pickers by the law enforcers, the
theft of supermarket trolleys have all been dealt with along
the way through co-operation between the waste recycling
depot, the Municipality, police, supermarkets and the pickers.
Whenever there is hurdle, a plan is made, apparently driven
by the determination of the Municipality and the waste recycling depot to avoid conflict, and the pickers' determination
to sustain this income-generating option. It is in this way that
working, or organisational for that matter, culture, emerges.
We have seen that a growing number of people busy with a
kind of semi-dandestine job, have slowly become integrated
into a work routine in which they have learned to share certain values cind reject others. Simultaneously, this same work
routine is given shape by existing economic, cultural and/or
ethnic fissures.
While the ideal is for the (anthropological) researcher to
retrieve the cultural sense-making of those being studied, one

should be sceptical of how people verbalise what they do and


think, since culture is only expressed in words with difficulty
(Kamsteeg & Wels 2004). It mostly rests upon tacit knowledge, which can be gleaned only by participating in the daily
organisational work processes in which the stories find their
roots. Therefore, in this study the researcher accompanied
the waste pickers and, without directly participating in waste
picking, meticulously observed what happens in 'a waste
picker's day'. The waste pickers reverted to more natural
mutual interaction once they became used to the passive
presence of the researcher, as opposed to the more strained
behaviour of responses to direct questioning. This method
offered a v/indow of insight into 'what goes without saying', a
guide into seeing things differently rather than taking them for
granted. However, with this first attempt to apply a processual perspective on the waste pickers of Stellenbosch we only
just begin to uncover the complex intertwining of work,
waste, ethnicity and power at play. It sheds some light on the
culturing bricolage of waste pickers and discusses whether
some kind of texture emerges that suggests the contours of
what might evolve into an organisational culture. The case we
present may enhance the understanding of the culture, identity and power processes involved. Yet their complex interrelatedness and the rapidly changing context require some
modesty as to the broader significance of what was studied. It
is only a first step in a process of further exploration into this
world of apparently surplus people who create meaning out
of surplus material, to be augmented by other accounts of
waste pickers in South Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Thus, we aim to enlarge the scattered knowledge of informal
work and organising processes which, in mainstream organisation studies, tend to be ignored.

Postscript
Since this study in May 2004, the Stellenbosch Municipality
has come under great pressure by some householders in the
middleclass suburbs to remove the waste pickers from their
streets. Associations with crime and untidyness have been
cited, and one resident, known by the waste pickers as 'die
kommandant', drives around with his barking dogs on waste
collection days and threatens the pickers. Interestingly
enough, the Municipality has gone to great lengths to find a
solution that satisfies all parties, rather than merely strongarming the pickers. They have introduced a recycling project
on a pilot basis with the rationale that the local landfill site has
a limited life so requiring householders to sort their waste
and put out recyclable v^^aste on the day prior to the collection day. The Department of Geography and Environmental
Studies at the University of Stellenbosch is conducting
research on the inhabitants' willingness to participate in this
waste separation and recycling scheme. A private company
has been hired to collect the recyclable waste which is sorted
at the landfill site by a group of waste pickers and who are
paid according to the weight. To remedy the initial rush of

4. Examples of other accounts are:


Durban's Local Agenda 21 recycling Initiatives: http:l/www.ceroi.netlreportsldurbar)lmdex.btm:
The people of the rubbish dump of Managua: http:/lvmw.losquinchos.org/englishlalbum /eng.htm;
People who live by garbage, Philippines: http:llwww.peoplesofiheworld.orglindiYidualstpeopk who live by garbage;
The Sao Paulo Rubbish Recyclers: http:ltwww.waror\want.org.

Anthropology Southern Africa, 2006, 29(l&2)

pickers for this job, the three Stellenbosch waste recycling


depots have been given turns to sort, and they infornfi the
pickers associated with them when they may go and sort,
although only a small number of pickers can be accommodated each day. Waste pickers still come to the suburbs and
still find enough recyclable material since not all householders
are cooperating with the project. Initially the pickers
expressed great dissatisfaction: 'hoe sal ons kos en klere koop
as ons nie hierdie werk kan doen nie, sal die Municipaliteit verkies dat ons in die dorp gaan bedelT (how will we buy food and
clothing if we cannot do this work, does the Municipality
want us to beg in town instead?). They have doggedly voiced
their concerns to the waste depot and municipal managers,
vA\o seem to be cooperating to find solutions. These new
developments further illustrate the dynamic organising processes around waste, where power and identity issues are at
stake, and v/here even the peripheral people have somehow
managed to find a voice to declare their needs.

65

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