Small-Scale Fishers In South Africa struggling for survival as the Government pushes for permits and corporate investments

Small-scale fishers in South Africa have been done a raw deal in the country since 2005, when the South African Government started to implement the Marine Living Resource Act (MLRA) of 1998.

Before that, the oceans for small-scale fishers had been open. With the new legislation, all those involved in fishing were required to apply for fishing permits. In the past, only recreational fishers were required to apply at the South African Post Office for recreational fishing permits, big corporate fishing businesses and other smaller fishing companies applied for fishing quotas, and small fishers were free to catch fish to provide for their livelihoods. But all this changed in 2005, when the MLRA of 1998 got implemented.

The MLRA allowed for the awarding of long-term fishing rights for up to fifteen years which, once awarded – in many instances to lawyers, doctors, teachers and other professionals, the politically connected, and people from inland provinces – meant many fishers all of a sudden discovered that they could not launch their boats to go out and earn a living.

This was a huge travesty of justice for fishers from the Western Cape (WC), Northern Cape (NC), Eastern Cape (EC) and KwaZulu Natal (KZN), as their livelihoods now came under serious attack, and subsequently many fishers were jailed, fined, their boats and fishing gear impounded, as fishers discovered that it would be much better to defy the unjust law, than to succumb to hunger and drive their families into the stage of destitution.

After the dawn of democracy in 1994, fishers also became more and more aware of their rights and soon started to organise themselves, especially in the Western Cape. Fisher community organisations soon started to be established in small towns all over the Western Cape.

By 2000, these small fisher community organisations decided to come together and in Langebaan they formally launched the organisation, ‘Coastal Links’, which would later become Coastal Links South Africa (CLSA).

Coastal Links started to make links with fishers in the Northern Cape, and in 2007, Coastal Links connected with fishers from KZN and the EC through the National Summit that was organised by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), the department at the time that was responsible for fisheries.

After this first initial contact, Masifundise and Coastal Links set up a national footprint programme which worked towards the establishment of Coastal Links South Africa (CLSA), which was launched in 2012.

Through Coastal Links and Masifundise Development Trust, the fishers instructed the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) to act on their behalf, and decided to take the government to court. The main argument of the fishers was that they have been fishing for generations, it is in many instances a tradition and custom they are carrying forward, left behind as a heritage by their forebears. Never in the past did they have to apply for the right to fish and the application process was way beyond the means and capabilities of the fishers, many of whom live in poverty and who by circumstances had to curtail their education in order to contribute to the livelihood needs of their families.

In order for fishers to have qualified for fishing rights under the MLRA, they had to fill in complicated application forms and supply documents they did not know how to access, that being one of the main reasons why so many professional people were given fishing rights under the MLRA. Fishers also did not have at their disposal vast sums of money to pay lawyers and professional people to help them with the application process, as so many big companies generally do. Many fishers did not even have the inclination, or understood the implications of not applying for fishing rights under the MLRA as the authority responsible for allocating the rights did not make an effort to engage the fishing communities in this regard. Fishers also staged massive protests against their exclusion from the fishing industry, and notably the most significant was when some of the fishers decided to chain themselves to the gates of Parliament to symbolically show how the MLRA have turned them into slaves.

The Equality Court finally made a ruling in 2007 and instructed the Government to develop a Small-Scale Fisheries Policy for the small-scale fishers of South Africa. In the meantime, the government was to implement an Interim Relief (IR) system for the fishers. The IR system is basically a basket of fishing resources given to different fishing communities, which in most cases consist of crayfish and handling fish. In some communities it would also be specific to what is available in the oceans around the communities. For instance, Langebaan will also get a net fish permit, since that is how the community have been fishing over the centuries.

The IR system also came with its problems, and was only supposed to have been in place for two years – it has now been in place for more than 10. Many fishers are still excluded from having fishing rights as the IR can only accommodate a certain amount of fishers and, on top of that, fishers from KZN and the EC are totally excluded from the IR. In some cases whole communities in the Western Cape are excluded, Melkhoutfontein being a case in point.

It is also alleged that there has been political interference in the IR system and that corruption in its implementation is rife. People who in the past have never been fishers were put on the lists of communities to benefit from the IR and the allocation of a high-value specie like crayfish as part of IR has also opened up the IR to corruption, where the marketers enter to get their hands of the crayfish of the communities. They seem to not want to leave any stone unturned in order to access the crayfish of the fishing communities and sell it on the lucrative international market.
Over the years, CLSA has consolidated itself, contributed towards writing of the small-scale fisheries policy, and anxiously awaited on the government to implement the policy. Somehow the process got bogged down within the bureaucracy of the state, and by 2014, the South African Parliament managed to pass an amendment to the MLRA which allowed for the implementation of the policy.

Eventually, in 2016, the President of South Africa signed the proclamation to implement the small-scale fisheries policy (SSFP), and in all earnest the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries started with the implementation process of the policy.

Fishers started to be registered in the Northern Cape, and the last province, KZN was registered by August 2016, and a Provisional List of Small-Scale Fishers was published by DAFF. Each province had their deadlines by which to appeal against the published provisional list.

Appeals had to be lodged by individual fishers whose names did not appear on the provisional list, the Northern Cape completed their appeals in October 206, the Western Cape in December 2016, the Eastern Cape’s appeals were supposed to have been completed by January 2017 and KZN by February 2017. However, the EC only completed their appeals by April and the state of the appeals in KZN are still unclear.

At this stage, the next steps are unclear and fishers are not certain what is happening going forward. They are now considering different options to push the department into action.

This article has been sourced from a report of La Via Campesina that was recently published, which featured a compilation of cases of violations of peasants’ rights. Click here for the full report