Artist Interview - Mpumelelo Buthelezi

Hi, Mpumelelo!  You're both a photo-artist and an activist.

I think of my work as a mixture of storytelling, documentation, and activism. My camera has taken me to places with which we may be familiar but which we do not stop to examine. This project is meant to educate society about full lives lived in the margins. 

Mpumelelo Buthelezi

How did the waste collectors project get started?

To be honest, it was ignorance.  I kept on asking myself, "Why do these people come every Friday to rummage in our bins?"  I finally engaged with one of the pickers, who explained everything to me in full detail. I accepted an invitation to visit them at one of the landfills where they recycle.

Meeting with and listening to the stories of many of the workers, I determined that it was my duty, then, to document the waste pickers daily journey and to communicate their stories about how they make a living through their work collecting scrap metal, plastic

bottles, paper, cardboard, and then sorting and organizing the collected material, hauling everything across town and reselling to reclaimers and buyback centers. It is a story of work that is difficult and much more complicated and important than it looks.

Your work shows that, as in other countries, South Africa's wealth depends on the poverty of its working poor.  

Individuals, organizations and governments the world over are currently considering and conversing about ‘the future of work’. Most of these conversations place emphasis on automation and artificial intelligence as solutions – with the promise of more time for leisure and “higher-order thinking”.


Very few of these conversations are centered on the poor and those who contribute and create a livelihood through the informal sector. The politics of labour and leisure are inextricably linked to the capitalist system that produces and perpetuates poverty. The same system is used to oppress and exclude millions of citizens from participating in the fruits of a productive nation. My camera has become an ally in the fight for sustainable change. Hence that’s why most of the work I produce touches on the themes of research concerning sustainable change, issues affecting humans from a human's perspective, social documentary (social activism), and religion.

You, and the others born since the end of Apartheid, are known among South Africans as the "born-free" generation.

I was born in the heart of the struggle, in Pimville, Soweto, Johannesburg's largest township, a sprawl of formal and informal housing where culture drummed the heartbeat of resistance.  I was born in the year of democracy, 1994.  Although I wanted to be a photographer, my parents had a different dream for their born-free child.  I was sent to study formally, and obtained a Diploma Degree in Engineering from Central Johannesburg College, even 

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