The man’s gait and sun-beaten features are unmistakable, the archetype of those storied souls who have lived a life at and from the sea.
For 50 years, he has drawn his living from the waters of Hout Bay, toiling endlessly for his catch and returning home to ponder what the next day will bring.
There was a time, he said, when he did not have to worry too much. The oceans teemed with fish, factories were open and no one ever went hungry. Even at apartheid’s crushing height, the fishers were able to forge a happy existence.
“That changed with the new government in 1994,” said the man, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
“Suddenly we were told that our catch was to be limited. Weights went from 175kg to 98kg and then back to 110kg. They were taking away a lot of fish that we needed to sustain our livelihoods,” he said this week.
While white-owned fishing companies held power over the industry during apartheid, coloured fishers had still managed to draw profits from whatever they sold to companies like Sea Products and Amalgamated Fisheries, he said.
“There was a lot of work for us in those years. The sea was full. But when the new government came in, they did not monitor the quota system properly. Limitations were also put on the fishing season, from June to November, whereas in the past fishers could fish all year round.
Some of the companies that had been set up in the community had taken advantage of the fishers, he said.
“These directors would take our IDs from us to set up the companies, calling us stakeholders. We gave them to them because we didn’t know anything about business.
“Once these companies were set up, you would hardly hear from them. You would catch the fish, hand it over to them, and they would sell it to the big companies. Maybe once or twice the fishers would be called to a meeting where we were given R100 or R200 each, and that was the end of it. The next thing you heard, the company had been deregistered.”
The veteran fisher added that some directors had other ways of “tricking” the system. “Sometimes they would register their companies using different names. So they would deregister one company and open up another using a different name.”
Another problem, he said, was the introduction of lawyers, many of whom had no previous experience in the fishing industry.
“The directors would give these lawyers a share of the profits to look after their interests. They also knew that the ordinary fishers did not have the money to pay for their own lawyers.”
While the man said he was not hopeful the situation would change any time soon, he believed the best way for fishers to regain what they had lost was to form “trustworthy” co-operatives.
“You get somebody you can trust – and there are people in our community we can trust – to manage a co-operative of no more than 10 people, a small group. Then you make sure that this person is keeping his or her books in order, and you have regular report-back meetings. That is something we didn’t know before, but we do now. Then I think the fishing industry can be fair again.”