Poaching: a high price

South African kung fu champion Peter Michaels was arrested along with 18 suspected abalone poachers but charges were later dropped.

The recruitment of of children as young as 11 to serve as “runners” for abalone-poaching syndicates is destroying the fabric of the Hangberg community, as these youngsters are also drawn into sideline drug dealing that promises them material rewards beyond the means of their impoverished parents.

While an investigation by the Sentinel has revealed that poaching syndicates use children in Hangberg, as their status as minors makes it unlikely they will be prosecuted in the event of them being caught with abalone, the situation is being exacerbated by rampant drug dealing at schools, believed to be carried out on behalf of poachers.

The situation, according to various community stakeholderssources, is leading to violent attitudes among the youth, who spurn authority and have taken to threatening anyone those who try to get them to turn their backs on crime.
Beverley Schafer, Western Cape legislature standing committee chairman for economic opportunities, tourism and agriculture, recently announced that poaching syndicates had turned to paying members of small fishing communities in drugs to assist them in their activitiesfor their help – a transaction that prominent Hangberg community leader Pastor Philip Frans worries that it’s not just abalone being poached but also the very essence of childhood.

“Young children being used as runners is a major problem. You will often see them carrying bags at Duikerskip for the poachers,” the pastor said.

“Some say they are doing it to put food on the tables for their families, but that is not true. I have had these boys’ parents coming to my house asking me for food because they are so hungry. What they really want is money so they can emulate the poachers, who drive around in fancy cars and spend money on girls. They are extremely selfish.”

There is an overwhelming sense that poaching in Hangberg has been allowed to thrive due to the area’s small-scale fishing community being excluded from long-term fishing rights in favour of commercial fishing interests.

After years of legal wrangling, in March this year the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries formally invited small-scale fishermen in communities like Hout Bay to register as fisheries entities.

But Ikram Halim, a representative of a small-scale fishing co-operative, said many members of the community felt that even when fishing permits were granted by the government, they received nothing more than “crumbs”.

“It is not enough to sustain their livelihoods, and it is one of the reasons that people are turning to abalone poaching. But even then it is not enough. It is the syndicates that make the real money,” he said.

“The Hangberg community is hugely impoverished, so you find situations where mothers and fathers are not there for their kids. So where do these children get money? They start to work for the syndicates to get money to survive.”

This view is shared by Peter Michaels, a South African kung fu champion, who was arrested along with 18 suspected abalone poachers in Hout Bay on October 19, before the charges were withdrawn.

“For years, the people of our community have been living off the sea, and then the permit issue came up. People are poor, and so, in order to survive, they get involved in poaching,” he said.

As a prominent member of his community, Pastor Frans is well known to the poachers and receives regular threats to stop interfering in their activities. In 2007, when he first became involved in the local neighbourhood watch, he was kidnapped and pistol-whipped by unidentified assailants as a “warning”, he said.

The effect of children being recruited by crime syndicates was being heavily felt at schools.

“They (pupils) have easy access to drugs, and are selling drugs at school for the poachers. The situation is completely out of control,” Pastor Frans said.

A teacher at Sentinel Primary School, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said “getting the children to attend school at all” was a huge challenge in the current climate.

“It is so difficult. You’ve got parents at home who are abusing drugs and alcohol, and then the poachers come along and give these children attention. They use the children to do their dirty work because they know under our laws the children won’t be prosecuted,” the teacher said.

“We have kids who are coming to school who are tired because they have been up all night running for the poachers. These same kids are using dagga and selling drugs to other children on school premises. Obviously they are selling the drugs for someone.”

The teacher said that in addition to drugs, knives and high-end cellphones were also confiscated.

“When this happens, we are threatened by the children. They say that can easily access guns, and unless we return their possessions they will come back and shoot us. Remember, we are talking about children of 10 or 11 years old. But we are teachers, and we have to carry on trying to educate our children.”

Although he only took office four months ago, Hout Bay and Llandudno councillor Roberto Quintas has already been threatened as a result of efforts to curb the poaching scourge.

The councillor has received warnings from community members that his home was being watched by poachers. Furthermore, during site visits to Hangberg “local residents between the ages of 15 and 20 dressed in diving gear” have sworn at him and warned him that they know where he lives.

“I have been contacted on several occasions by law-abiding residents of Hangberg with complaints regarding the alleged poaching activities and their fears in dealing with their neighbours and other residents within the community,” Mr Quintas said.

“I have personally addressed block committees in the City-owned apartments on the social ills such as drugs, poaching and gangsterism and informed them that the City and law enforcement will be addressing the situation constantly. Subsequent to that I made contact with an officer of Marine Law Enforcement, and he and I have met and communicated on an ongoing basis regarding poaching and this has resulted in two raids and several arrests in the past four months since my taking office.

“I have had cloaked threats and warnings as a result of these operations. However my resolve remains unchanged.”

New Hout Bay police station commander, Colonel Khuthala Nebhisi, has recognised that law enforcement needs to act quickly if recruitment of young people is to be brought under control.

“I was stationed in Hermanus previously, and the police are facing the same problem there with the recruitment of children,” she said.

“These children are taught very well (by the poachers) how to do what they do. You can even zoom in to this police station. Children are taught to monitor police vehicles leaving the station to see where they go, so they can alert the poachers. Parents are crying for their children, because when they start with perlemoen poaching or drugs or gangsterism they are not going to stop.”

She said in her experience children frequently were caught during raids on suspected poaching syndicates.

“Sometimes the arresting officers won’t click immediately they are involved, but this is later established once they have questioned the child.”

She said the poachers were well aware that even in cases where minors were caught, the juvenile detention centres were full and it was likely they would be released.

“It is a massive problem, but we will be having more operations. We will be patrolling more, and we do have resources we can call on such as the police’s Tactical Response Team and Marine Law Enforcement.”