The alleged shooting of Hangberg resident Deurick van Blerk by a police anti-poaching task team has once more placed the spotlight on the dire economic circumstances forcing local men and women into illicit trades.
It has also raised issues of police brutality, and whether anti-poaching units are using unnecessary force in apprehending suspects.
Violent protests erupted in Hout Bay on Sunday August 12, as a large group of angry fishers marched through the village.
The protesters claimed Mr Van Blerk, 25, whose girlfriend is eight months’ pregnant, had been shot by the task force while he had been fishing for crayfish with two other men on the Chapman’s Peak side of the bay between 4am and 5am on Saturday August 11.
While the other two men were apprehended and taken to Table View police station, Mr Van Blerk’s body was not recovered.
The men’s fishing boat was seized, and photographs provided to his family, which have been seen by the Sentinel, indicate the vessel was struck by bullets in several places, including the engine.
Believing Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) officials were responsible for the alleged shooting, the protesters burnt down two departmental offices in Hout Bay harbour and also torched the Milner road home of DAFF official Bennie Smal.
Later on Sunday, the Sea Freeze fish factory was set alight after being struck by a flare fired by protesters as police shot teargas and rubber bullets during a tense stand-off.
Mr Smal and his family have subsequently been taken to a place of safety.
The protests continued on Monday afternoon, August 13, with the Bay Harbour Market looted by a breakaway group of protesters.
DAFF, however, has denied any wrongdoing, with spokesperson Khaye Nkwanyana saying DAFF officers were only on standby for the anti-poaching operation, and had not actively taken part.
“The department wishes to place it on record that neither its vessels nor personnel were involved in the anti-poaching operation,” said Mr Nkwanyana.
Police spokesperson Sergeant Noloyiso Rwexana said the search for Mr Van Blerk was ongoing.
She did not answer a question about whether the Independent Police Investigative Directorate was investigating the alleged shooting – something Mr Van Blerk’s parents have called for.
IPID has since confirmed it is investigating.
Hout Bay police spokesperson Warrant Officer Tanya Lesch said the operation had been conducted by the border police’s water wing.
“Two suspects, aged 37 and 45, appeared in the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court on Monday August 13. Both are out on bail. A third suspect fell or jumped off the boat. NSRI and EMS Chopper did a search for the person. On Saturday, the search was called off by NSRI,” she said.
For Roland Wichman, a 20-year veteran of the Hout Bay fishing industry, the events of last weekend are symptomatic of the huge economic problems facing the local fishing community.
“It is the system that isn’t working, plain and simple,” Mr Wichman said.
“As local fishers, we have been completely forgotten. I am a licenced commercial fisher in the near-shore sector, and I am even battling to get by. I think there is a perception that we’re making big money, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
In May, Mr Wichman’s boat broke down off Lambert’s Bay, and every cent he made from the fishing trip had to go back into repairing the vessel.
Since that time, he has been unable to work due to illness.
“I’ve got crayfish rights, yet I’m still heavily in debt. My allocation for the season is 528kg, which means that I will be bringing in R150 000 to see me through for the entire year. From that I have to cover the salaries of my three-man crew as well as the costs of fuel, which is 200 litres a day, and you know how expensive fuel is already. Then I also have to pay back my loan from the fish factory.
“Now consider that my crew and I still have to buy food and pay school fees for our kids. Then there are the municipal rates for your home. You tell me how you are supposed to cover all these costs?”
Mr Wichman wanted people to understand that this was the harsh reality for fishers in Hout Bay, and it was why so many people resorted to poaching.
He said it was not uncommon to find fishers well over the age of 65 still active in the industry.
“They never get to the point where they are able to save for their retirement, because they are always trying to put food on the table or pay off debts.”
Mr Wichman said he would not be surprised it it transpired that Mr Van Blerk had indeed been shot.
“The guys in this community are always telling me stories that they are being shot at by cops while they’re on the water. The police also hit them when they catch them. Why is it necessary to beat them up when you’ve already caught them? Do they get some sort of sick satisfaction out of it?”
He said to his knowledge, fishers did not go out with guns, but he feared that would change with Mr Van Blerk’s disappearance.
He said small-scale fishers were always accused of depleting the fishing stocks, but it was common knowledge that the big commercial fishing trawlers were mostly responsible for that.
He also suggested scientific research that pointed to depleting fishing stocks was not being done correctly.
“These scientists are only doing research in the known or working fishing areas, but why aren’t they exploring the whole coast? I can tell you now there are fish.”
He said the targeting of small-scale line fishers by the authorities was making the sector a “dying trade”.
On Monday this week, as police divers continued their search for Mr Van Blerk’s body, his distraught family, including his heavily pregnant girlfriend, Cleo Adonis, waited on the banks for any news.
Describing his son as a “sweet people’s person”, Edward van Blerk said the lack of work opportunities had forced his son into poaching at the beginning of the year.
“He was really looking forward to being a dad, very excited,” he said.
“But the government has not been working for us. If we look around, there are no job opportunities for the young people.”
Christine van Blerk, Deurick’s mother, said they were a very close-knit family, and always sat down together for lunch every Sunday.
Mr Van Blerk had been saving money for a home in Rodevos Road, Hangberg, so that he and Ms Adonis could raise their child together.