dispossession and the
informal economy – Struggles
over knowledge, being and
waste at a Soweto garbage
School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand,
Johannesburg, South Africa
Recent scholarship highlights that accumulation by dispossession creates surplus populations who
must sustain themselves outside wage labor, often through informal work. This article theorizes a
different aspect of the relationship between the informal economy and accumulation by
dispossession by analyzing how the state and capital seek to capture new spheres of
accumulation created by informal workers. Drawing on Searle’s theorization of social ontology
it explores how reclaimers at a Soweto garbage dump reconceptualized trash as holding potential
value and transformed the landfill from a commodity cemetery into a resource mine. The attempt
to enclose the landfill therefore required appropriating not only the materials at the dump but the
very framing of these materials as valuable. Reclaimers’ grievance over this ‘‘epistemic injustice’’
fueled their successful opposition to the enclosure, demonstrating the centrality of ‘‘epistemic
dispossession’’ to accumulation by dispossession. Highlighting the epistemic and social agency of
informal workers considered the epitome of ‘‘human waste’’ establishes the need to recognize all
informal workers as producers of knowledge and social reality and facilitates more nuanced
understandings of accumulation by dispossession, how and why it is contested, and how
alternatives can be forged.
Accumulation by dispossession, informal economy, waste pickers, social ontology, epistemic
injustice, epistemic dispossession
A growing body of scholarship highlights that accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2003)
creates surplus populations who must sustain themselves outside wage labor (cf. Li, 2010;
Perreault, 2013; Sanyal, 2014 ; Sassen, 2010). Noting that many of the dispossessed
Melanie Samson, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, Wits Johannesburg Gauteng 2050, South Africa.
Environment and Planning D: Society and
2015, Vol. 33(5) 813–830
!The Author(s) 2015
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turn to the informal economy, this literature establishes the need to interrogate how informal
aspects of the economy are bound up in processes of accumulation by dispossession.
However, there is a tendency to focus exclusively on how accumulation by dispossession
leads people to become informal workers. Disrupting the unidirectional nature of this
narrative, this article explores how informal workers create new spheres of accumulation
that the state and formal capital seek to capture.
The article is based on analysis of the attempt by the Johannesburg Council and its
Pikitup waste management company to grant a tender to a private company to recycle
materials at the Marie Louise landﬁll in Soweto, South Africa. It draws on 42 group
interviews with informal reclaimers who salvaged materials at the dump and 63 individual
interviews with reclaimers, Pikitup management, and Council representatives conducted
between March 2009 and August 2010 as part of a longer social history of the dump.
I argue that the Council and Pikitup’s desire to enclose the dump must not be taken as
the simple eﬀort to dispossess reclaimers of a pre-existing resource. Historically, garbage
dumps have been the ﬁnal burial grounds for unwanted commodities and sites for the
permanent destruction of value. Drawing on Searle’s (2006) theorization of social
ontology, I explore what is required to transform a dump from a commodity cemetery to
a resource mine. I argue that at Marie Louise (as at many dumps across the developing
world), it was informal reclaimers who re-cast the waste as valuable and the dump as a site
for the production of value through a combination of intellectual labor, physical labor, and
struggle. In attempting to enclose the dump, the municipality sought to capture the physical
materials interred within it as well as the very framing and establishment of these materials
as valuable, while simultaneously erasing the role of reclaimers in these processes. The
reclaimers’ understanding that they produced both the knowledge and the new sphere of
accumulation that the Council and Pikitup were trying to appropriate played a pivotal role
in spurring them to contest and ultimately prevent the enclosure of the dump. ‘‘Epistemic
injustice’’ that disregarded the reclaimers in their capacity as knowers (Fricker, 2007) and
epistemic dispossession were therefore central to both the attempted process of accumulation
by dispossession and how it was successfully challenged. Highlighting the epistemic and
social agency of informal workers frequently considered the epitome of ‘‘human waste’’
(Bauman, 2004) establishes the importance of recognizing all informal workers as
producers of knowledge who transform social reality and interrogating the implications
for how we theorize accumulation by dispossession.
The article proceeds in six sections. The ﬁrst reviews literature on accumulation by
dispossession and the informal economy. The second draws on Searle’s (2006)
theorization of social ontology to understand how sanitary landﬁlls are established and
transformed as social facts. The third section explores how reclaimers converted Marie
Louise from a commodity cemetery into a resource mine, while the fourth analyzes how
neoliberalization created a motivation for the municipality to enclose the dump in order to
beneﬁt from this transformation in its social ontology. The ﬁfth section argues that
‘‘epistemic injustice’’ (Fricker, 2007) and epistemic dispossession are central to
accumulation by dispossession and struggles against it. The ﬁnal section draws out
implications for theorizations of accumulation by dispossession.
Accumulation by dispossession and the informal economy
In Capital, Marx (1990) focuses primarily on the dynamics of expanded reproduction within
capitalism. However, since Perelman (2000) highlighted the continuing nature of primitive
accumulation throughout capitalism’s history, a growing body of literature theorizes the
814 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(5)
role, form, and nature of primitive accumulation within contemporary capitalism (cf. de
Angelis, 2001, 2004; Hart, 2006; Harvey, 2003).
The understanding of primitive accumulation as an ongoing process is most closely
associated with David Harvey’s arguments in The New Imperialism (Harvey, 2003).
Harvey argues that in order to assist capital in addressing a crisis of overaccumulation,
neoliberal governments are creating new spheres of accumulation by privatizing public
goods and services and facilitating the enclosure of common resources. As this form of
accumulation is not limited to the birth of capitalism, Harvey argues against calling it
‘‘primitive’’ and proposes the alternative concept of ‘‘accumulation by dispossession.’’
Webber notes that Harvey’s theorization of accumulation by dispossession diﬀers from
Marx’s understanding of primitive accumulation in important ways. Most crucially, while
for Marx primitive accumulation changes class relations by separating producers from their
means of production and forcing them into wage labor, Harvey’s accumulation by
dispossession includes the erosion of common property rights to means of consumption
(Webber, 2008: 401). As it is not focused exclusively on changes to access to the means of
production, the concept ‘‘accumulation by dispossession’’ opens the possibility that
dispossession is not necessarily bound up in a shift to wage labor.
Li observes that even at the time of the initial enclosure movement, dispossessed peasants
did not move seamlessly into waged employment (Li, 2010: 70–71). She and a range of
scholars argue that a key feature of accumulation by dispossession in the current era is
precisely the fact that dispossession is delinked from proletarianization, as capital values
the resources to be enclosed, but not the people who must be dispossessed of them. Rather
than being a central mechanism for bringing people into capitalist labor relations,
accumulation by dispossession plays the opposite role of rendering increasing numbers of
people permanently surplus to the needs of capital (Li, 2010; Perreault, 2013; Sanyal, 2014
; Sanyal and Bhattacharyya, 2009; Sassen, 2010; Soederberg, 2012).
As many of these people turn to the informal economy to generate their livelihoods, this
understanding facilitates fresh ways of theorizing the relationship between enclosure,
dispossession, the informal economy, and capitalism. Scholars working with a classical
Marxist understanding in which the transition to wage labor is central to primitive
accumulation see the rise of the informal economy as pathological and as evidence of a
stalled transition to ‘‘real’’ capitalism (Moore, 2004: 91–92). By contrast, Sanyal sees
informal workers (other than those subcontracted by capital) as part of the ‘‘need
economy’’ constituted by people excluded from capitalist relations. Rather than serving as
evidence of an incomplete capitalist transition, they are an integral part of the ‘‘capital – not-
capital’’ complex that, as Sanyal argues, characterizes postcolonial economies. According to
Sanyal, because India is a democracy, government cannot simply abandon the excluded and
must engage in ‘‘developmental governmentality’’ to reverse the eﬀects of primitive
accumulation by supporting people in the ‘‘need economy’’ to reproduce themselves
outside the circuits of capital. For Sanyal, government support for the informal economy
is not about promoting budding capitalists, but is, instead, about containing the political
eﬀects of dispossession by ensuring that people excluded from wage labor are able to sustain
themselves (Sanyal, 2014 ).
Gidwani and Wainright (2014: 44–45) correctly note that Sanyal overstates the separation
of the need economy and the accumulation economy and fails to recognize that, far from
being permanently quarantined within the informal economy, people move between wage
labor and informal work. In addition, it is important to note how economic activities
themselves cross the so-called need and accumulation economies. While Sanyal and
Bhattacharyya claim there are two distinct spheres within the informal economy – one
linked to circuits of capital through subcontracting and outsourcing and one completely
outside capitalist circuits (Sanyal and Bhattacharyya, 2009: 36) – reality cannot be parsed
into such neat categories. For example, informal reclaimers salvage materials for a range of
purposes that span the so-called need and accumulation economies. They reclaim reusable
items such as food, clothing, furniture, and building materials for personal use and for sale
to people who will use them as is or as inputs into informal production. They also collect
recyclable materials that may initially be sold informally to intermediaries but are
transformed into inputs for formal production as they are sold upwards into highly
globalized value chains.
Reclaimers’ decisions regarding what to collect and sell are informed and conditioned by
a number of factors, including access to waste; knowledge of and access to markets;
conditions in the multiple markets for their materials; relations with the state, formal
business, customers and the community where they work; and power-laden social
relations of gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality between reclaimers themselves.
reclaimers’ actions are, therefore, undeniably shaped and constrained by other actors and the
contexts within which they work, reclaimers are also active and central agents in the forging
of recycling systems. As elaborated below, in most postcolonial contexts, recycling services
were created informally by reclaimers. Until the point when municipalities develop formal
policy on recycling, reclaimers’ integration into formal circuits of capital results from their
own decisions based on known constraints, opportunities, and conditions, rather than being
determined by the informalization strategies of capital as assumed by Sanyal (Samson,
Once it is understood that the formal and informal economies constitute an interrelated,
dynamic, complex whole, it is possible to develop a more nuanced understanding of
accumulation by dispossession and the informal economy than that presented by Sanyal.
Sanyal’s focus on the relationship between accumulation by dispossession and the informal
economy is one-sided and unidirectional, focusing only on how accumulation by
dispossession and exclusion foster the creation and expansion of the informal economy.
However, Soederberg’s (2012) theorization of the extension of formal credit to poor
Mexicans who previously relied on informal lending as a form of accumulation by
dispossession demonstrates that accumulation by dispossession can also involve the
formal economy capturing a sphere of accumulation forged within the informal economy.
Unfortunately Soederberg does not analyze the dynamics of this process or ask crucial
questions related to how the informal market was created, functioned, or was aﬀected by the
capture of a signiﬁcant proportion of clients by formal lenders. She also does not interrogate
how workers and lenders in the informal credit market resisted accumulation by
dispossession or were aﬀected by it. Answering such questions is, however, crucial to
developing a more complete theorization of accumulation by dispossession and the
informal economy. This task is taken up in the remainder of the article through a study
of how the state and formal capital attempted to capture recycling activities created
informally by reclaimers at the Marie Louise landﬁll in Soweto, as well as how this was
contested. As I am particularly interested in understanding how reclaimers informally create
a new sphere of accumulation, I am closely attentive to their role as creators of both
knowledge and resources.
The social ontology of sanitary landfills
Marie Louise is located in the historically African township of Dobsonville. Although
Dobsonville is part of Greater Soweto, it borders the historically white municipality of
816 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(5)
Roodepoort and prior to 1994 was governed by the Roodepoort City Council. Marie Louise
serves as a boundary of sorts, lying nestled between the famed Main Reef Road that passes
through Roodepoort as it connects former mines and mining towns to the centre of
Johannesburg, and Elias Motsoaledi Road, a major thoroughfare linking Dobsonville
with other parts of Soweto.
Marie Louise was opened by the Roodepoort City Council in 1993. Its ownership
subsequently changed a number of times as Roodepoort was merged ﬁrst into a
transitional non-racial council in 1995 and then into the Johannesburg Metropolitan
Council in 2000. Finally, in 2001, the Council converted its waste management
department into the municipally owned, private waste management company Pikitup,
which became the owner of Marie Louise (City of Johannesburg Council, 2001). Over this
period, the very nature of Marie Louise was also fundamentally transformed.
Like all of Johannesburg’s landﬁlls, Marie Louise was established as a sanitary landﬁll.
Douglas (1966) famously argues that dirt is ‘‘matter out of place’’ and many theorists draw
on this understanding to simply equate ‘‘waste’’ with ‘‘dirt’’ and argue that ‘‘waste’’ is
‘‘matter out of place.’’ However, Douglas notes that in order to prevent contamination
and maintain order, all societies designate speciﬁc places for dirt (Douglas, 1966: 97–98).
O’Brien therefore argues that ‘‘waste’’ is ‘‘dirt’’ which has been put in its proper place,
elaborating that ‘‘[i]f dirt is matter out of place, wasting is its reversal, the in-placing of
dirt’’ (O’Brien, 1999: 271). In modern capitalist societies, the places set aside for waste
include the garbage bins that make waste magically disappear from people’s homes, the
trucks that whisk it through the city’s streets, and the landﬁlls that serve as waste’s ﬁnal
resting ground, usually somewhere far-oﬀ the edge of the urban map. This permanent
disposal of commodities is a crucial part of the planned obsolescence that facilitates
continual demand for new commodities and is central to the production of capitalist
value (Rogers, 2005). Landﬁlls, can, therefore, be seen as commodity cemeteries.
A sanitary landﬁll does not exist independently from human action and needs to be
socially produced. In seeking to understand how landﬁlls are created and transformed, it
is useful to critically engage the work of John R Searle (2006). Searle develops a social
ontology to explain how social facts such as money, citizenship, and universities (and I
would add sanitary landﬁlls) are created by humans but also have an ‘‘epistemically
objective existence’’ (p. 12). Searle’s social ontology identiﬁes three elements necessary for
the construction of social facts.
First, there must be ‘‘collective intentionality,’’ which
includes shared intentions ‘‘to do things,’’ ‘‘shared beliefs,’’ and ‘‘shared desires’’ (p. 16).
In the case of the sanitary landﬁll, the collective intentionality is to permanently eradicate
items classiﬁed as waste, based on the belief that they have lost both their use and exchange
values, as well as the desire to remove them from circulation and contact with society.
Second, there must be collective assignment of function (p. 17). The function of a sanitary
landﬁll is to bury and dispose of waste. This is not necessarily related to the physical features
of either the landﬁll or the materials interred within it, for as will be argued below, the
materials could be reframed as holding potential value and the physical space of the landﬁll
assigned the function of a mine for the reclamation of potentially valuable resources. When
function is not related to physical features and arises instead out of collective intentionality
that assigns an object or person with a status that enables it/them to perform this function,
Searle refers to this as a ‘‘status function’’ (pp. 17–18).
Third, once we accept status functions, there are associated ‘‘constitutive rules and
procedures’’ (p. 16). Because these rules and procedures create reasons for actions that are
not dependent on our own personal desires, Searle refers to them as ‘‘deontic powers’’ and
argues they play a central role in forging an objective social reality (pp. 18–19). The deontic
powers of sanitary landﬁlls include rules related to who may be present at the landﬁll and
what they are permitted to do there. People employed at landﬁlls are commodity undertakers
whose sole purpose is to render unwanted commodities permanently valueless by burying
them. Accordingly, at Marie Louise, the permit explicitly forbade reclaiming and the waste
bylaws stated that the landﬁll was the Council’s property and people were only permitted to
enter the dump to dispose waste. This was not an anomaly. As Rogers argues, since its
inception the very concept of a ‘‘sanitary landﬁll’’ as a clean, green space was designed to
‘‘cast wasting as benign while it categorized scavenging [sic] as unclean and therefore
verboten’’ (Rogers, 2005: 7–8).
Searle argues that when a status function becomes regular it can be said that ‘‘X counts as
Y in context C. Thus, such and such counts as a $20 bill in our society. George W Bush
counts as president of the United States’’ (Searle, 2006: 18). The recognition that status
functions are context speciﬁc foregrounds that they can vary over time and place.
However, Searle does not explore how this variation occurs. He also does not
acknowledge that even within the same time and place, there may not be unanimity
regarding the collective intentionality, collective assignment of function, and constitutive
rules and procedures that allow a particular social reality to exist. The three elements of
Searle’s social ontology all rely on collective agreement, yet in societies riddled with power-
laden social divisions, this is unlikely to be forged and maintained automatically. As
Eagleton (1991) reminds us, even when hegemony is achieved it always contested and
unstable (Eagleton 1991). Searle is correct in noting that deontic powers iterate upwards
and interlock (Searle, 2006: 18), particularly once the state legislates social realities like
money, the presidency, and sanitary landﬁlls and can use its authority to enforce their
functions, rules, and procedures. However, even the ability of the state to impose deontic
powers is not absolute and this interlocking is not impermeable. It is, therefore, possible that
although social facts can be said to have an ‘‘epistemically objective existence,’’ this existence
can be contested, undone, and changed, amounting to a transformation in social ontology.
As I elaborate below, this is precisely what transpired at Marie Louise (as well as many
other sanitary landﬁlls around the world) as people excluded from waged labor developed a
diﬀerent collective intentionality, function, rules, and procedures for the place they still
called Marie Louise. Instead of seeing the materials sent to the landﬁll as waste to be
permanently removed from society, they saw potential resources to be harvested to
generate their livelihoods. And instead of assigning the dump the function of commodity
cemetery, they allocated it the function of a resource mine where they could reclaim and
revivify items with latent value. However, given that Marie Louise had an objective social
existence as a sanitary landﬁll, this transformation in its social ontology required the
production of new knowledge, understandings, and claims as well as concerted social
From commodity cemetery to resource mine
Reclaimers have been present at Marie Louise since at least 1994. Because salvaging was
prohibited, their ﬁrst battle involved ﬁnding creative ways to enter the physical space of the
dump. As security guards patrolled the site during the working day, the reclaimers cut holes
in the fence and worked from dawn until just before seven, when they would slip out, only to
return once the guards had knocked oﬀ.
The initial reclaimers were a small group of men who collected discarded dairy products
to both consume and re-sell in the township. Soon they were joined by reclaimers who
previously collected recyclables at another dump and followed the trucks to Marie Louise
818 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(5)
when that dump closed. They brought with them knowledge that was essential for
transforming the social ontology of Marie Louise into a resource mine, including that
recyclable materials could be extracted from the waste stream and sold as inputs into the
formal economy; what types of materials were valued; and whom these could be sold to.
Reclaimers at Marie Louise were then able to begin collecting recyclable materials including
metals, paper, cardboard, and glass in addition to a range of reusable materials.
The knowledge required to infuse new value into items cast aside as waste is far from self-
evident. When reclaimers arrived at Marie Louise, most could not diﬀerentiate what was
potentially valuable from what was rubbish. This is a skill that must be learned (Birkbeck,
1978) and like their counterparts in Rio de Janeiro (Millar, 2008) reclaimers at Marie Louise
noted this often required apprenticing by working alongside those with more experience
(Group interview #10, 26 August 2009). Buyers who purchased recyclable materials from
the reclaimers also taught them to identify materials they wanted to buy:
I took a long time [to learn what to collect] because I did not even know what aluminium was.
When I went to sell someone [a buyer] said to me – do not collect that kind. I just collected
anything! So he showed me the right kind. He gave me a sample to take to the top, and when I
got there I realised that they were diﬀerent. So I got to know what to collect (Interview with
Reclaimer #44, 25 November 2009).
As individual reclaimers became more adept at selecting and sorting the right materials, their
incomes increased signiﬁcantly, in some cases doubling from week to week as their skills
progressed (Reclaimer #7, 25 August 2009). They also learned to watch how prices changed
and to shift to materials receiving higher prices (Group interview #54, 27 March 2010).
Those who collected and sold reusable materials or items they produced out of materials
found at the dump also needed to ﬁnd markets for their wares. This was not an easy task and
some who wanted to copy others and sell items such as milk were not able to do so as they
could not ﬁgure out whom to sell it to (Interview with Reclaimer #54, 7 February 2010).
When buyers realized the volumes coming from Marie Louise, they set up shop right
inside the walls of the landﬁll. Most specialized in the purchase of one or two types of
materials and all sold to larger collection companies. The buyers were not the only ones
to realize that reclaimers had started to transform Marie Louise into a resource mine. As the
municipal waste management workers formally employed to dispose the waste watched the
reclaimers toil, they began to change the way that they saw the dump and understand that
there was potential money mingled amongst the trash. Although legally barred from
salvaging while at work, they exploited their more secure access to the landﬁll to pick the
best recyclables and fought to keep the reclaimers out.
Already frustrated at the brevity of their working day, the reclaimers held a small number
of informal discussions and simply refused to leave one morning in 2009. The police were
called and the reclaimers arrested. As soon as they were released they returned to the dump,
only to be arrested once again. After several years of ongoing clashes, the Council and Waste
Tech (the company contracted to manage Marie Louise at the time) eventually recognized
they were ﬁghting a losing battle. One reclaimer explained:
They tried for a long time to lock us out, to put the fence back on. They would put it up in the
morning and in the afternoon we would take it all down. And then they realised it was useless to
be putting up the fence .... (Reclaimer #54, 7 February 2010).
As the police and private security could not guard the physical space of the dump day and
night, eventually the Council and Waste Tech were forced to relent and accept the
transformations the reclaimers had wrought to the social ontology of the dump. They
asked the 96 reclaimers working at the site at the time to elect a committee to represent them
in discussions. On 15 June 2000, Waste Tech and the Council agreed to let the reclaimers
work at the dump, acknowledging that while Marie Louise was still oﬃcially a commodity
cemetery, it had also become a resource mine. Signiﬁcantly, the municipality and Waste Tech
allowed the reclaimers to govern the salvaging activities at the dump. There were therefore
two diﬀerent collectives developing and deploying diﬀerent intentionalities, functions, rules,
and procedures for the same physical resources in the same physical space, creating a new,
complex social reality.
The neoliberalization of Johannesburg and the attempted
enclosure of the dump
For six months, the reclaimers enjoyed secure access to Marie Louise and the materials with
latent value within it. The number of reclaimers gradually increased until 140 were included
in the agreement and even more worked after 4 p.m. Regular meetings were held between the
reclaimer committee and Waste Tech, but the reclaimers were in full command of the process
of extracting materials from the trash and re-inserting them back into circuits of
reproduction, as well as formal and informal exchange and production.
Unfortunately for the reclaimers they had established the landﬁll as a resource mine at
precisely the moment when local governments in South Africa (and around the world) were
neoliberalizing and repositioning themselves to maximize revenue generation and facilitate
the opening of new spheres of accumulation for formal capitalist enterprises.
Neoliberalization in Johannesburg was informed by developments at the national level.
In 1996, the African National Congress (ANC) government adopted the neoliberal
Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR), which focused on marketizing
the state and promoting international competitiveness (Department of Finance, 1996).
National government subsequently introduced policies and legislation that created material
and ideological pressure for municipalities to implement market-oriented restructuring and
privatization of municipal services (McDonald, 2002: 23; Ruiters, 2002: 79).
In 2000, Johannesburg launched the controversial iGoli 2002 plan, which became the model
for municipal neoliberalization in the country. The municipal administration was marketized
by creating 11 regional administrations to act as contractors to a central administration.
Departments deemed ‘‘noncore’’ were sold to the private sector. The rest were transformed
into three diﬀerent kinds of private companies owned by the Council. Agencies providing
public goods such as roads and parks were fully subsidized by Council. Corporatized
entities received some subsidization to complement revenue generated internally. Utilities
were expected to be fully self-ﬁnancing (City of Johannesburg Council, 2001).
Despite strong opposition by municipal unions and community organizations iGoli 2002
was implemented on 1 January 2001. All of the city’s waste management departments were
merged to form Pikitup Pty Limited, which became the largest private waste management
company in Africa (http://www.pikitup.co.za/jit_default_665.html, accessed 2 November
2014). The Council then contracted Pikitup to provide all waste management services for
which it bore legal responsibility. The city’s waste management departments had always
operated at a loss and required subsidies to provide public goods such as street cleaning.
However, iGoli 2002 made Pikitup a utility in order to force it to be more innovative and
eﬃcient and adopt a greater business focus (Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council,
1999: 19). This orientation was entrenched in the Pikitup Mission statement which included
commitments to ‘‘provide acceptable returns to our shareholders’’ and ‘‘balance good service
delivery with ﬁnancial returns’’ (Pikitup, 2001: 2).
820 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(5)
Although disposal was identiﬁed as a revenue-generating activity as Pikitup could charge
users for disposing waste at the landﬁll sites, reclaiming and recycling did not feature in
either iGoli 2002 or Pikitup’s business plans. However, once the reclaimers established that
extracting recyclable materials from the landﬁlls was a proﬁtable activity, it was not
surprising that Pikitup sought to capture this beneﬁt and exploit it as part of its proﬁt-
oriented corporate strategy. Such a move also brought Pikitup in line with the global trend
to include recycling in municipal waste management systems, which had started in
advanced capitalist countries but was slowly spreading to the developing world, often
with the support of donor agencies. It is crucial to note, however, that the Council and
Pikitup’s embrace of recycling cannot be read as something simply imported from
elsewhere. As elaborated below, Pikitup’s proposed recycling strategy was directly
predicated on the knowledge and labor of the reclaimers, both of which they had
established through hard-pitched battles against the Council. The fact that the reclaimers
had already transformed the social ontology of the dump to become a resource mine was
therefore central to the Council and Pikitup’s desire to enclose it and the way they intended
to do so.
The waste bylaws granted the Council (and therefore Pikitup as the Council’s agent)
ownership of all waste disposed at the landﬁll. However, this had never been established in
practice. This situation is common in developing cities around the world where waste
systems are not fully formalized and informal reclaiming is prevalent on dumps and in
the streets. As the International Labour Organisation notes, in such contexts waste is
better understood as a common property resource. Opening up recycling as a new
sphere of accumulation for capital and a new source of revenue for the municipality
therefore requires the municipality to ﬁrst enclose the landﬁll and dispossess those who
already recycle there informally (International Labour Organisation, 2004: 22). This
process of enclosing landﬁlls in order to grant private companies monopsonies over the
purchase of recyclables is, therefore, clearly a form of accumulation by dispossession
Although Pikitup was formed on 1 January 2001, it only took control of Marie Louise in
April. One of its ﬁrst acts was to inform the reclaimers that their presence there was illegal.
The reclaimers believed that the agreement gave them the right to work at the dump and they
were dependent on it for their livelihood. Harking back to the early days of reclaiming at
Marie Louise, they began to enter the site through holes in the fence. The police were
repeatedly called to remove them for trespassing. As in the past, they returned to Marie
Louise as soon as they were released from jail. The reclaimers also held a number of protests
at the gates of the dump which garnered support in the local press.
Despite mobilization by the reclaimers and condemnation in the media, on 21 January
2002 Pikitup awarded a tender to a private company to salvage materials on all ﬁve Pikitup
The contract was oﬃcially granted to Reuben Recycling, a black-owned company
with no prior experience in recycling. It was co-signed by MT Benjamin of the white-owned
company Benjamin Waste Group, which committed to supporting Reuben Recycling to
fulﬁll the contract. Until then Benjamin had been just one of eight buyers at the dump.
As became evident, Benjamin was the real power behind the contract. Granting the tender to
Reuben was a thinly veiled attempt to give a black economic empowerment spin to a
contract with an established white-owned company.
The contract gave Reuben Recycling a monopsony in return for a set fee to be paid to
Pikitup per tonne of recyclables removed from the dumps. It included only recyclable
materials and forbade the removal of other items from the landﬁlls. The actual work of
salvaging was still to be done by reclaimers, who would be forced to sign contracts obliging
them to sell exclusively to Reuben. These would not, however, be employment contracts as
the reclaimers would not receive a regular wage or any beneﬁts and would continue to be
paid per weight for salvaged materials. Reuben Recycling was clear in meetings with the
reclaimers that as it was required to pay Pikitup to access the recyclables, it would pay the
reclaimers less than they were receiving from the eight buyers purchasing their materials at
that time (Reclaimer #54, 2 July 2010). The contracts would remove the ability of reclaimers
to negotiate prices with diﬀerent buyers at the dump
or try to start selling in bulk to larger
companies and would turn them into piece workers for one company earning lower incomes
than when they worked independently. They would also be precluded from salvaging re-
usable materials for direct consumption and sale in the informal economy.
The proposed approach to enclosing Marie Louise therefore demonstrates that
accumuation by dispossession can involve the state attempting to seize control of spheres
of accumulation created by informal actors in order to transfer them to formal private
enterprises. However, it also reveals that this process does not necessarily entail
eradicating the informal economy or transforming informal workers into wage laborers.
While formal private enterprises that beneﬁt from enclosure require workers to perform
the actual labor, as informalization of labor is a key aspect of neoliberalism, it is by no
means given that the enterprises will create formal jobs. One option is for them to hire new
people under precarious conditions. As Pikitup’s and Reuben’s plans demonstrate, another
is to beneﬁt from the expertise of the informal workers who created the resource and the
industry by allowing them to continue to work but rendering them subservient to newly
implanted formal private companies who maximize proﬁts by exploiting their insecure and
unprotected conditions. The process of accumulation by dispossession in such contexts
therefore lays bare state bias towards formal enterprise and the ways neoliberalization
shifts power between informal and formal economic actors.
A number of justiﬁcations were given by Pikitup and Council for granting the tender to a
formal company. In court papers, they stressed the need to ‘‘control’’ reclaiming on the site
as they argued the reclaimers were not capable of managing themselves. Within the context
of iGoli 2002 and the pressure for Pikitup to turn a proﬁt, the ﬁnancial beneﬁts of granting a
formal contract were considered crucial. According to the General Manager Waste Disposal
at the time ‘‘the ﬁrst motive was to extend the airspace [at the landﬁll] and the second was to
get an income [by charging the company to access the recyclables].’’ In keeping with broader
motivations for accumulation by dispossession, he also noted that the creation of business
opportunities for private enterprise was a key objective of the tender (Pikitup Former
General Manager Waste Disposal, 7 November 2011).
Each justiﬁcation was contestable. If reclaimers’ safety was the primary concern, there
were ways Pikitup could have achieved this goal without granting a monopsonistic contract
that would reduce their earnings and control over their work. The airspace at the landﬁll was
already being extended by the reclaimers and there was no requirement for Reuben
Recycling to increase the recycling rate. Lastly, although Pikitup argued that without
such a contract the city was ‘‘being deprived of an income stream’’ (Harris, 2002: 13–14),
the reclaimers reported they had been willing to pay a fee to be able to continue working at
the site independently (Group interview #3, 22 July 2009).
A number of intertwining explanations help to understand why Pikitup was set on
contracting a formal, private company rather than formalizing and deepening control by
the reclaimers upon whose knowledge and labor the contract depended. The ﬁrst relates to
more standard, economistic understandings of accumulation by dispossession. During the
era of Keynesian and developmental states, government would have expanded the public
822 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(5)
service to provide new services. However, the ideal neoliberal state is a minimal one which
uses its power to open new spheres of accumulation for capital. We are therefore witnessing
a privatized expansion of the public sphere in which the state contracts private companies to
provide ‘‘new’’ services such as recycling on its behalf (Samson, 2009b).
However, on its own, this argument does not explain the state’s bias in favor of formal
enterprise. As Webber (2008) observes, primitive accumulation (or accumulation by
dispossession) is driven by extra-economic and not just economic logics. In the case of
Marie Louise, these extra-economic reasons relate to conceptualizations of both modern
waste management systems and reclaimers themselves. In theory, the state could have
contracted the reclaimers to provide recycling services at Marie Louise. In India,
Colombia, and Brazil, reclaimers are forcing the state to do just that. Rather than paying
the state for the right to salvage recyclables, reclaimers in these countries are increasingly
successful in getting the state to pay them for the service they provide, thus undercutting the
neoliberal logic and inverting attempted processes of accumulation by dispossession.
However, this has only been after concerted struggles through which reclaimers have
challenged and overturned the state’s conceptualization of both themselves and the ideal
type waste management system (Gutberlet, 2008; Medina, 2007; Samson, forthcoming).
Common sense understandings of modern, sustainable waste management systems punted
by donors and consultants are imported from advanced capitalist countries with relatively
insigniﬁcant informal economies in the waste sector. When transplanted to developing
countries, these models render the informal economy invisible and fail to take into
account the reality that the informal economy often already provides the services the state
is seeking to formally establish (Assaad, 1996). In addition, visions of modern, ‘‘world class
cities’’ drawn from the north do not include a place for the informal economy. As
prototypical embodiments of the ‘‘detritus’’ of capitalism and modernity (Chari, 2013),
reclaimers are particularly reviled as a visceral, visual denunciation of the purported
unidirectional progressive development of the ‘‘world class city.’’ The following section
draws on Fricker’s (2007) concepts of ‘‘identity prejudice,’’ ‘‘identity power,’’ and
‘‘epistemic injustice’’ to theorize how bias against reclaimers allowed the state and capital
to appropriate the knowledge and transformations in social ontology developed by the
reclaimers, while simultanously erasing their role in these processes so that they could
enclose Marie Louise and transfer control of the recyclables to a formal private ﬁrm.
Epistemic injustice and epistemic dispossession
A growing body of literature argues that because accumulation by disppossession reduces
valuation to monetary terms, it excludes and erases other ways in which spaces and resources
have been valued prior to their enclosure. Given the importance of these alternative
valuations to people’s ways of life and livelihoods, the imposition of narrow, economic
valuations plays a key role in fomenting resistance to accumulation by dispossession
(Ahlers, 2010; Sneddon, 2007; Veuthey and Gerber, 2012). As will be argued below, at
Marie Louise, the reclaimers’ grievance was not that their way of valuing the resources
was erased, but that it was appropriated and their role in establishing the materials as
valuable resources was denied.
The reclaimers were acutely aware that it was they who had produced the knowledge that
the dump could generate value, turned this idea into a reality, and possessed the intellectual
and physical skill required to identify, extract, and prepare items with potential value. They
were highly aggrieved that Pikitup and the Council were attempting to rob them of the
resources they had created without giving them any credit or compensation. As one
When we started working there at the dump, nobody knew what was in the dump. Even those
companies which were recycling -now they are called big recycling companies – they didn’t know
that there was recyclable material in the dump. They saw it because we went and retrieved it and
then we brought it to them. So it was us who started that job there at the dump. Now they
wanted to take over and make as if it was theirs. When they talk about recycling they all talk
about companies. Companies have never been in the dump (Reclaimer #54, 7 February 2010).
This reclaimer clearly identiﬁed how the production of knowledge by the reclaimers was
crucial in establishing Marie Louise as a site for the production of value and that the failure
of the state to recognize the reclaimers’ role as epistemic agents was central to their
Miranda Fricker’s concept of ‘‘epistemic injustice’’ is useful in thinking through the role
of knowledge production and struggles over knowledge in the attempted enclosure of Marie
Louise. Fricker’s philosophical enquiry into ‘‘the ethical and political aspects of our
epistemic conduct’’ works with a socially situated conception of the human subject to
reveal ‘‘the operation of social power in epistemic interactions’’ and ‘‘expose a politics of
epistemic practice’’ (Fricker, 2007: 2). According to Fricker, epistemic injustice is ‘‘a wrong
done to someone speciﬁcally in their capacity as a knower’’ (p. 1). She identiﬁes two types of
epistemic injustice. ‘‘Testimonial injustice’’ is when ‘‘someone is wronged in their capacity as
a giver of knowledge’’ (p. 7) and ‘‘occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deﬂated
level of credibility to a speaker’s word’’ (p. 1). ‘‘Hermeneutical injustice’’ occurs when there
is no concept to describe someone’s experience and when the lack of this concept is harmful
and wrongful, as in the era when the concept ‘sexual harassment’ did not yet exists, limiting
women’s ability to understand, protest, and put an end to their sexual harassment (pp. 4,
149–152). Importantly, Fricker notes that because the powerful beneﬁt from hermeneutical
lacunae they can have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and preventing the
development of more adequate concepts (p. 152).
While someone may suﬀer a hermeneutical disadvantage if a concept does not exist to
describe their condition, it is only a hermeneutical injustice if the absence of the concept
arises out of coerced unequal participation in the production of social meaning or
‘‘hermeneutical marginalization’’ (p. 152). While there can be incidental instances of
hermeneutical marginalization linked to temporary powerlessness, Fricker is primarily
interested in structural hermeneutical injustice, which is inextricably linked to social
marginalization and powerlessness that limit the hermeneutical participation of certain
types of people (pp. 153–155).
Social identity is therefore central to both testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. Fricker
develops two concepts to theorize how social identity enters epistemic practice. ‘‘Identity
prejudice’’ captures discrimination against people based on their ‘‘social type.’’ It is the key
component of structural testimonial injustice as the listener deﬂates the credibility of
people’s statements based on their social identity. It also enters hermeneutical injustice
when prejudice against a social group is used to preclude or limit their hermeneutical
participation (pp. 4, 16, 17, 154, 162). ‘‘Identity power’’ is ‘‘a form of social power which
is directly dependent upon shared social-imaginative conceptions of the social identities of
those implicated in the particular operations of power’’ (p. 4).
Fricker also interrogates the particular harm caused when the concept used to identify a
group is pejorative and the even greater harm when members of the group lack a diﬀerent
concept to name themselves. This not only shapes how others see them and facilitates
824 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(5)
testimonial injustice but can aﬀect ‘‘the very construction (constitutive and/or causal) of
selfhood’’ (p. 168). Both testimonial and heremeneutical injustice therefore have ‘‘identity-
constructive power’’ through which people ‘‘may be prevented from becoming who they are’’
Identity prejudice and identity power both informed the erasure of the reclaimers’ role in
the production of knowledge that underpinned the transformation of Marie Louise into a
resource mine. Pikitup and the Council consistently referred to the reclaimers as
‘‘scavengers.’’ The use of this dehumanizing term was itself a hermeneutical injustice. The
labeling of reclaimers as scavengers is widespread around the world. Rather than valuing
reclaimers for the intimate knowledge they possess about the actual workings of the waste
management system and the crucial role they play in it, refering to reclaimers as scavengers
enables municipal goverments and private companies to dismiss them as nuisances who need
to be eradicated (Samson, 2009a). At Marie Louise, identity prejudice against ‘‘scavengers’’
facilitated testimonial injustice in which reclaimers were not considered epistemic agents with
useful contributions to make discussions on the restructuring of Johannesburg’s waste
management system. Deploying identity power, Pikitup and the Council excluded
reclaimers from consultations and negotiations around the future of recycling at the
dump and unilaterally decided to integrate them into the new system in a way that was
limited to exploiting their labor. While Benjamin Recycling would implicitly beneﬁt from the
reclaimers’ knowledge of recycling at Marie Louise, their epistemic role would not be
acknowledged or rewarded.
Hookway argues that testimonial and hermeneutical injustice are not the only forms of
epistemic injustice, as the denial of someone’s reliability as a sharer of information and the
absence of a concept to describe one’s experience are not the only wrongs that can be
committed against them as a knower (Hookway, 2010: 153). Fricker concedes the need to
more fully theorize the injustice when someone’s full ‘‘epistemic participation’’ is blocked
(Fricker, 2010: 178). The exclusion of reclaimers from policy processes and waste
management planning due to identity prejudice against scavengers is one example of this
type of epistemic injustice.
In addition to being framed as ‘‘scavengers,’’ the reclaimers suﬀered the hermeneutical
injustice of being denied participation in the process of developing concepts to understand
the very social existence of the dump. Identity prejudice which rendered the reclaimers
nothing more than ‘‘human waste’’ (Bauman, 2004; Gidwani and Reddy, 2011) meant
that Pikitup and the city could at ﬁrst ignore the way that the reclaimers had
reconceptualized Marie Louise as a site for the production of value, and could then
appropriate it, without acknowleding the reclaimers as the provenance of this idea. This
form of epistemic injustice, can, therefore, be understood as ‘‘epistemic dispossession.’’
course, the key injustice for the reclaimers was the threatened dispossession of their control
over the resources with latent value at the dump upon which their livelihoods depended. But,
as Fricker notes, the epistemological, ontological, and material are deeply intertwined,
because ‘‘if understandings are structured a certain way, then so are social facts’’ (Fricker,
2007: 147). The planned material dispossession at Marie Louise was, therefore, intimately
related to and predicated on epistemic dispossession.
While Fricker notes that the use of terms like ‘‘scavenger’’ can negatively shape how
people see themselves and lead them to undermine their own agency (epistemic and
otherwise), this was not the case at Marie Louise. The reclaimers repeatedly asserted they
had ‘‘discovered’’ the dump and that they ‘‘owned’’ it. This conﬁdence in their roles as
knowledge generators and founders of the dump inspired the reclaimers to resist its
enclosure. After they were forcibly removed from Marie Louise on 12 February 2002,
they protested outside the gates, ensured no one else could be contracted to reclaim
materials, and prevented Pikitup trucks from entering the landﬁll to dispose waste. They
met with the local ANC councillor and a representative from the ANC parliamentary oﬃce,
believing that because they were creating their own jobs the ANC would support their
struggle to return to work. However, like the Council and Pikitup, these ANC
representatives dismissed the reclaimers as human waste, condescendingly asking them
‘‘why are you ﬁghting for rubbish?’’ (Group Interview #3, 22 July 2009).
Disappointed but undeterred, the reclaimers secured assistance from the Legal
Resources Centre (LRC), a progressive legal centre with a history of defending human
rights during apartheid. Interestingly, the connection to the LRC was provided by one of
the buyers at the dump. Although this alliance may seem surprising, all of the existing
buyers other than Benjamin would lose access to the dump once the tender was put into
eﬀect. By helping the reclaimers to scuttle the tender the buyer was therefore also
protecting his own ability to continue purchasing materials at Marie Louise. The LRC
appointed George Bizos as the reclaimers’ advocate. Bizos had defended Mandela and the
other Rivonia Trialists, as well as many other struggle luminaries. After suﬀering identity
prejudice and being disregarded by the state and their political representatives, the
appointment of Bizos had a tremendous impact on the reclaimers as they felt it
validated both them and their struggle. One elaborated that ‘‘it made a huge diﬀerence.
A huge diﬀerence! I mean, Mr. Bizos used to represent prominent leaders here and
activists. So we felt very honored and people were respecting us’’ (Group interview #3,
22 July 2009).
On 13 March 2002, the LRC obtained a court order allowing the reclaimers to continue
working and interdicting their removal without a court order. On 12 August 2002, Pikitup
and the Council launched a counter case seeking a permanent eviction order against the
reclaimers. The judge presented his ruling on the eviction order case on 11 April 2003. He
found that the August 2000 agreement that recognized the right of the reclaimers to work at
Marie Louise was valid and that the notice period for them to vacate the landﬁll was
insuﬃcient. Signiﬁcantly, his ruling went beyond issues of access to the landﬁll and
addressed the state’s identity prejudice against the reclaimers. The judge cited minutes of
a meeting held between Pikitup and the reclaimers on 6 February 2002 and lambasted
Mr. Dave Harris from Pikitup for referring to the reclaimers as ‘‘scavengers,’’ underlining
the word in his judgment and noting that ‘‘[t]his is a degrading and humiliating term and
shows that Harris had little regard for the respondents.’’ The judge proceeded to observe
that ‘‘[t]he whole tenor of the minutes reﬂects contempt for the plight of the respondents.’’
He explicitly stated that he ‘‘would hope that in the further attempts to resolve this matter,
the approach of the applicants [Pikitup and the Council] will be less abrasive and that the
dignity of the respondents will be respected.’’
This recognition by the court was crucial for the reclaimers as it established them as
epistemic agents with a legitimate right to participate in decision-making processes related
to savlaging at Marie Louise. While the ruling permitted the state to evict the reclaimers in
the future if it followed due process, it would need to engage them as rightful members of the
public sphere as opposed to human waste and respect the role that they played at Marie
Louise. The fact that to this day Council and Pikitup oﬃcials use the name ‘‘reclaimers’’
instead of ‘‘scavengers’’ demonstrates the extent to which this transformation has been
normalized. It is also signiﬁcant that the City and Pikitup have never tried to evict the
reclaimers again and are currently in the process of registering them individually and
encouraging them to form cooperatives that can be formally integrated into the municipal
826 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(5)
Although this article analyzes the speciﬁc case of the failed attempt to enclose recycling at
Marie Louise, it develops theoretical insights relevant to thinking through the relationship
between accumulation by dispossession and informal workers more generally. Rather than
simply pushing people to become informal workers, accumulation by dispossession can also
involve the state and formal capital capturing spheres of accumulation created by informal
workers in ways that either completely exclude them or render them subordinate to formal
private capital. Doing so involves more than simply appropriating a pre-existing resource.
It also entails appropriating the heuristic framing of the material as valuable and the
transformation of the social ontology that creates this as a social fact, both of which
result from the intellectual and physical labor (and frequently concerted struggle) of
informal workers. Paradoxically, dispossession of the material resource entails the
epistemic injustice of erasing the role of informal workers in these processes. Epistemic
dispossession is therefore central to processes of accumulation by dispossession.
Epistemic dispossession is not the only or the most crucial part of accumulation by
dispossession – clearly loss of control of the material resource is of utmost importance.
However, it is important to highlight epistemic dispossession, particularly given the
tendency even within much critical literature to frame reclaimers and other informal
workers as ‘‘human waste,’’ which is itself an epistemic injustice. Focusing on informal
workers in their capacity as generators of knowledge and transformers of social reality
allows us to develop more nuanced understandings of the forms that accumulation by
dispossession takes, how and why it is contested, and how alternatives can be imagined
and created. Ethnographic analysis of these issues in other sites and sectors will enrich
theorizations of accumulation by dispossession and contemporary capitalism more
The author thanks to the three anonymous reviewers, Gillian Hart, Alex Loftus, Isabella Bakker, and
Lucy Allais for comments on previous versions of this paper.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
Funding for the research on which this article is based was received from the International
Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
(SSHRC), the National Research Foundation (NRF) and Women in Informal Employment:
Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
1. See Samson (2014) for further discussion of how power and difference play critical roles in shaping
how informal workers govern their labor processes, organize and are integrated into circuits of
capital. Sanyal problematically erases power and difference in his theorization of the informal
economy, asserting, for example, that income is shared in the informal economy (Sanyal and
Battacharyya, 2009: 38) and that although the employment of workers in the informal economy
is widespread ‘‘the petty employer and his [sic] workers together can be seen as constituting a self-
employed productive agent who is engaged in production to realize his [sic] consumption goal’’
(Sanyal, 2014 , 215).
2. Thomasson (2003) argues that Searle’s social ontology is incomplete as there are other ways in
which social facts can be created and that collective intentionality is not always required. While
there may be a need for a more expansive social ontology, I draw on Searle’s work as the elements of
his social ontology clarify how sanitary landfills are created as social facts and what is required to
3. Reclaimers were also working informally at the other four landfills. They had not, however, secured
agreements to be allowed to work there.
4. Other than Benjamin Waste Group all of the buyers were small businesses that simply purchased
from reclaimers and sold in bulk to larger companies. Although they were mainly price-takers with
respect to the companies they sold to, there was some leeway to negotiate with them as they sought
to outbid their competitors at the dump.
5. Kloppenburg notes that the development and imposition of intellectual property rights to seeds is
based on ‘‘epistemic dispossession’’ of farming communities (Kloppenburg, 2010: 384) but neither
defines nor elaborates the term. Engagement with Fricker’s concept of epistemic injustice allows me
to theorize epistemic dispossession and its relation to accumulation by dispossession.
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Melanie Samson is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography,
Archaeology and Environmental Studies, the University of the Witwatersrand. She was a
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council post-doctoral fellow at the Public Aﬀairs
Research Institute at the time of writing this article. Her research focuses on the relationship
between waste and value and on how analysis of the work and lives of informal workers
allows for the development of theorizations of the economy and polity more relevant to
830 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(5)