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Trashing Solidarity: The Production of Power and the Challenges to Organizing Informal Reclaimers

  • Melanie Samson (a1)


This article presents a nuanced social history of how reclaimers at the Marie Louise landfill in Soweto, South Africa, organized against each other on the basis of nationality instead of uniting to combat the effects of the 2008 global economic crisis. Through this narrative of struggles at one particular dump, the article contributes to debates on informal worker organizing by theorizing the importance of the production of identities, power relations, space, and institutions in understanding how and why informal workers create and maintain power-laden divisions between themselves. The article argues that organizing efforts that seek to overcome divisions between informal workers cannot simply exhort them to unite based on abstract principles, but must actively transform the places and institutions forged by these workers through which they create and crystallize divisive identities and power relations.



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Research funding and support was provided by the International Development Research Centre, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the National Research Foundation, and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing.

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2. Current academic interest in presenting informal workers as the new leading agents of working class struggle may underpin this silence, as the literature focuses on establishing their progressive and transformative potential.

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8. An important exception is Claire Bénit-Gbaffou's nuanced analysis of organizational divisions between street traders in Johannesburg. Bénit-Gbaffou, Claire, “Do Street Traders Have the Right to the City? The Politics of Street Traders, in Inner City Johannesburg, Post Operation Clean-Sweep,” Third World Quarterly 37 (2016): 1102–29.

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14. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, 1974).

15. Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Minneapolis, 1994), 154.

16. Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 168.

17. Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 121.

18. For more detailed discussion of the processes through which reclaimers transformed the dump into a resource mine, see Melanie Samson, “Accumulation by Dispossession,” 813–30.

19. Although municipal waste workers continued to extract small amounts of high value recyclables, their role in salvaging remained peripheral.

20. Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council, iGoli 2002: Making the City Work – It Cannot Be Business As Usual (Johannesburg, 1999).

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22. Statistic based on survey conducted by the author.

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24. Landau, Loren B. (ed.), Exorcising the Demons Within: Xenophobia, Violence and Statecraft in Contemporary South Africa (Johannesburg, 2012).

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26. Meagher, Kate, Identity Economics: Social Networks and the Informal Economy in Nigeria (Suffolk, 2010).

27. Albo, Gregory, “Contesting the New Capitalism,” in Varieties of Capitalism, Varieties of Approaches, ed. Coates, David (London, 2005), 79.

28. Samson, Melanie, “The Social Uses of the Law and Struggles Over Waste – Reclaiming the Law and the State in the Informal Economy,” Current Sociology, 65 (2017): 222–34.

29. Samson, Melanie, “Not Just Recycling the Crisis: Insights into the Production of Value from Waste Reclaimed from a Soweto Garbage Dump,” Historical Materialism, 25 (2017): 3662.

30. Cohen, Jennifer, “How the Global Economic Crisis Reaches Marginalised Workers: The Case of Street Traders in Johannesburg, South Africa,” Gender & Development 18 (2010): 277–89; Cohen, Jennifer. 2013.  “From Wall Street Traders to Bree Street Traders: The Global Economic Crisis and Street Traders in Johannesburg,” in Dirty Cities: Towards a Political Economy of the Underground in Global Cities, eds. Leila Simona Talani, Alexander Clarkson and Ramon Pacheco Pardo (London: 2013): 161–91; Zoe Elena Horn, No Cushion to Fall Back On: The Global Economic Crisis and Informal Workers. Synthesis Report (2009). Available at:; Horn, Zoe Elena, “The Effects of the Global Economic Crisis on Women in the Informal Economy: Research Findings from WIEGO and the Inclusive Cities Partners,” Gender and Development 18 (2010): 263–76; Millar, KathleenTrash Ties: Urban Politics, Economic Crisis, and Rio de Janeiro's Garbage Dump.” in Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations,  ed Alexander, Catherine and Reno, Joshua (London, 2012): 164–84; Mehrota, Santosh, “The Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Informal Sector and Poverty in East Asia,” Global Social Policy 9 (2009): 101–18. International Labour Organisation, Tackling the Global Jobs Crisis: Recovery Through Decent Work Policies. Report of the Director-General, International Labour Conference, 98th Session, Geneva (Geneva, 2009). Available at: Labour Organisation, Global Jobs Pact Policy Briefs: Including the Informal Economy in the Recovery Measures. Policy Brief No. 3 (Geneva, 2011). Available at:

31. Asef Bayat, “Un-civil Society: The Politics of the ‘Informal People’,” Third World Quarterly (1997): 53–72.

Trashing Solidarity: The Production of Power and the Challenges to Organizing Informal Reclaimers

  • Melanie Samson (a1)


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