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Dr Melanie Samson

Position: Senior Lecturer in Human Geography

Qualifications: PhD (York University)

Phone: 27 11 717 6515


Office: BP115



GEOG1000 Space and Society

GEOG3019 Economic Geography

GEOG4021 Integrated Environmental Management


Research Interests

Before joining GAES in 2015 I worked for a number of trade unions and NGOs, including: the South African Municipal Workers Union; the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa; and the global research-policy-action network Women in Informal Employment, Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). I have also previously worked as a researcher at the Education Policy Unit (EPU) and Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP), both at Wits University.

My research interests have always grown out of and fed into my work supporting unions and social movements, both in South Africa and globally. My current research projects focus on processes in South Africa and other BRICS countries to integrate reclaimers (also known as ‘waste pickers’) into municipal waste management systems and the recycling economy. Linked to this I’m running the national stakeholder process to develop National Guidelines on Waste Picker Integration for the Department of Environmental Affairs. I’m interested in questions related to reclaimer integration because this is a pressing political, economic, social, and environmental issue, and also because careful analysis of this contested process allows me to engage in a range of theoretical debates including: the form and nature of politics and the economy in post-colonial contexts; the production of urban space; articulations of race, class, gender and nationality; approaches to comparative analysis; the  nature of informality; informal worker organizing; and political ecology.

My research appears in academic journals such as Historical Materialism, Current Sociology, AntipodeEnvironment and Planning D, International Feminist Journal of PoliticsStudies in Political Economy, and Review of African Political Economy. I have also published several popular books on reclaimers and privatized waste workers, and co-authored the animated video Just Recycling ( I was recently awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Academic Writing Residency to write an academic book provisionally called Rising from the Rubbish: Revitalizing Johannesburg’s Recyclables, Re-thinking Postcolonial Economies, Polities and Environments.    


Research interest and areas of supervision

  • Environment: environment and society; political ecology; environmental policy
  • Waste: waste pickers, waste and society, waste policy
  • Intersectionality: Articulations of race, gender, class, sexuality and nationality in urban, economic, and social processes
  • Feminist theory: feminist geography and feminist political economy
  • Post-colonial theory: postcolonial geography, politics and political economy
  • Informality: informal workers, informal economy, urban informality
  • Economic geography: general topics in economic geography
  • Collective organising: social movements, informal worker organisations, and unions
  • Urban studies: municipal services, urban transformation; urban informality; the local state; gender, race, class and cities.



2017: “Not Just Recycling the Crisis – Insights into the Production of Value from Waste Reclaimed from a Soweto Garbage Dump,” Historical Materialism, 25(1): 36-62.

2017: “The Social Uses of the Law and Struggles Over Waste – Reclaiming the Law and the State in the Informal Economy,” Beyond Dichotomization: Informality and the Challenges of Governance in Cities of the Global North and South, special edition of Current Sociology edited by Julie-Anne Boudreau and Diane E. Davis, 65(2): 222-234.

2015: “Accumulation by Dispossession and the Informal Economy – Struggles Over Knowledge, Being and Waste at a Soweto Garbage Dump,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33(5): 813-830.

2010: “Producing Privatization: Rearticulating Race, Gender, Class and Space,” Antipode, 42(2): 404-432.

2009: “Wasted Citizenship? Reclaimers and the Privatized Expansion of the Public Sphere,” Africa Development¸ 34(3-4): 1-25.

2009: “(Sub)imperial South Africa? Reframing the Debate,” Review of African Political Economy, 36(119): 93-103.


Book Chapters

2017: “Hybrid Organisations, Complex Politics - When Unions Form Cooperatives: A Political Analysis of the Formation of Cooperatives by the KKPKP Trade Union of Waste Pickers,” in Edward Webster, Akua O. Britwum and Sharit Bhowmik eds. Crossing the Divide: Precarious Work and the Future of Labour. Durban: UKZN Press, pp. 143-164 . With Malati Gadgil.

2016: “Old Trash, New Ideas: Reconceptualizing  the Public in Waste Management,” in David McDonald ed. Making Public in a Privatized World: The Struggle for Essential Services. London: Zed Books, pp. 41-58.

2011: “Towards a ‘Friday’ Model of International Trade: A Feminist Deconstruction of Race and Gender Bias in the Robinson Crusoe Trade Allegory,” in Ulla Grappard and Gillian Hewitson ed. Robinson Crusoe’s Economic Man: A Construction and Deconstruction. New York: Taylor and Francis, pp. 187-201. (Reprint of an article)


Popular Books

2009: Refusing to be Cast Aside: Waste Pickers Organising Around the World. Cambridge, Mass: WIEGO. [also translated into Spanish]



2015: Just Recycling: The Social, Economic and Environmental Benefits of Working with Waste Pickers. Available at:




2016: “Decolonizing the Science Curriculum: Perspectives of a Human Geographer”, Input at Faculty of Science Teaching and Learning Symposium.” Plenary Presentation at Faculty of Science Teaching and Learning Symposium, September 2, 2016, University of the Witwatersrand Science Faculty, Johannesburg, South Africa.

2016: “Co-Governing Environmental Sustainability with Informal Actors - Insights from Innovations in the Brazilian, Indian, and South African Waste Management Sectors.” Plenary Panel on Governance, Environment and Sustainable Development, South Africa-China Conference on Social Governances, June 9, 2016. National Institute for the Humanities and Social Science (NIHSS)/ South African BRICS Think Tank (SABTT) & Institute of Sociology at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Cape Town, South Africa.

2015: “Enclosure, Epistemic Dispossession and Challenging Notions of Disposability.” Plenary Panel on Capital, Disposability, Occupations, Antipode Institute for Geographies of Justice, June 22-26, 2015. Antipode Foundation, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

2014: “Gender, Empowerment, and Women’s Leadership in the Informal Economy.” Plenary session, Women in Informal Employment, Globalising and Organising General Assembly, November 11-12, 2014. Women in Informal Employment, Globalising and Organising, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

2014: “Revaluing Rubbish and Marginality.” Panel on Bare Life, Surplus Population and the Value of Human Life, Poverty Reduction, Development Value and Future Research OR, ‘To Value or Not to Value: That is the Question’, June 18-20, 2014. South Africa Research Chair Initiative in Applied Poverty Reduction Assessment, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban, South Africa.



2017: “Whose frontier is it anyways? Reclaimer ‘integration’ and the battle over the ‘waste-based commodity frontier’ in the city of Gold.” American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting. April 5-9 2017, Boston, USA.

2016: “Don’t Waste the Space: How Theorizing Relations Between Space, Waste, and Organizing Contributes to Comparative Analysis of Informal Worker Organizing.” Third ISA Forum of International Sociology, July 10-14, 2016. Vienna, Austria.

2016: “Getting Dirty Dealing with Nationalism – Thinking Alongside Gill Hart and a lot of South African Trash.” American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, March 29 – April 1, 2016. San Francisco, United States.

2016: “Recycling Relations: Reconstituting Social Relations on a Soweto Garbage Dump.” American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, March 29 – April 1, 2016. San Francisco, United States.

2015: “The Social Uses of the Law and Struggles over Waste – Reclaiming the Law and the State in the Informal Economy.” South African Sociology Association Congress, June 28 – July 1, 2015. University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa.

2015: “Making Something From Nothing – Insights into the Reconstitution of the Economy, Labour and the Polity Gleaned from a Soweto Garbage Dump.” Society, Work and Development Institute 30 Year Colloquium, May 13-15, 2015. University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

2015: “A Dump with a View – Insights into the Forging of Johannesburg’s Urban Political Economy Gleaned from a Soweto Garbage Dump.” American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, April 21-25, 2015, Chicago, United States.

2014: “Trashing Solidarity – The Production of Power and the Challenges to Organizing Informal Reclaimers.” Paper presented at the International Sociology Association Congress, Yokohama, Japan, 13–19 July, unpublished.

2014: “Forging a New Conceptualisation of ‘The Public’ in Waste Management.” Putting Public in Public Services: Research, Action and Equity in the Global South Municipal Services Project Conference, April 13-16. Municipal Services Project, Cape Town, South Africa.

2013: “Organizing Waste Pickers in South Africa: Some Lessons from the Global Experience.” Organizing Vulnerable Workers: Comparing India, South Africa and Ghana Conference, December 3-5. Chris Hani Institute, Johannesburg, South Africa.

2013: “Wasting Value and Valuing Waste: A Critical Review of Literature on Waste and Value.”  Things of Order Workshop, July 29. University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

2013: “The Trash Heap: Insights from the Underbelly of Consumption.” The Trajectory of South African Modernity Conference, May 13-15. Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. 

2013: “Accumulation by Dispossession and the Contested Enclosure of Waste – Struggles over the Production of Knowledge, Meanings and Identities at a Johannesburg Garbage Dump.” Things of Order: The Materiality of Value in Cities of the South Conference, April 17-18. University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

2013: “Accumulation by Dispossession and the Contested Enclosure of Waste – Struggles over the Production of Knowledge, Meanings and Identities at a Johannesburg Garbage Dump.” Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting, April 9-13.  Los Angeles, California, United States. 

2012: “Not Just a Commodity Cemetery: The Dump as a Space for Urban Re-Integration and Redistribution.” South African Cities Studies Workshop, November 19-20. University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. 

2011: “Common Waste? Race, Gender and Nationalism in the ‘Waste Common’.” Colloquium on Work, Production and the Common, July 17, 2011. Johannesburg, South Africa.