South Africa


Hangberg: Why fishers have been turned into poachers

Hangberg: Why fishers have been turned into poachers
The sun sets over the Atlantic ocean behind the Sentinel mountain and the Hangberg community at its foot in Hout Bay, Cape Town, South Africa, 24 April 2014. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

Wedged between South Africa’s complex racial politics, ill-conceived fishing quotas, and vagaries of the international market, small-scale fishers in Hangberg, Hout Bay, have found their livelihoods increasingly under threat. To survive, many have resorted to poaching prized catches, such as abalone and rock lobster, and must therefore navigate the most dangerous corners of Cape Town’s informal economy and its unforgiving coastal waters. It is here, at the margins of the global economy, where fishing has become a matter of life and death.

Taped to the wall of a small concrete house perched on the side of a mountain are nearly a dozen pictures of men, all previous residents of Hangberg in Hout Bay, a suburb of Cape Town. These, my interviewee tells me, are the photographs of his friends that have died while diving off the coastline surrounding Hout Bay.

As our conversation progresses it becomes clear that over the past 15 years there have been many deaths of Hangberg residents due to late-night poaching in rough waters around the bay. The deaths reflect serious and deep-rooted concerns around livelihoods and illegality in Hangberg. Indeed, as we look at the pictures of his friends that have died, he explains: “What they were doing was illegal, but it was the only way they could help to feed their family.”

Why then has poaching become a way of life for so many residents in Hangberg? There are two key reasons. On the one hand, blame lies with the way the South African government has implemented small-scale fishing policies. Fishers feel it has failed to fairly allocate fishing quotas to historically disadvantaged fishing communities. This is a developmental governance issue. On the other hand, there is a strong black market demand for the rock lobster and abalone (a pale-coloured form of large sea snail), the two main sources of illegal fishing in Hangberg. This is a market governance issue. Poor implementation of developmental state policy coupled with the pull of the market, has led to the increasing criminalisation and marginalisation of an historic fishing community.

One could ask why this community has not been able to influence government policy. This is because small-scale fishers are coloured, and belong to a politically powerless class, trapped between race and history. There is a widespread narrative amongst many coloured residents in South Africa that during apartheid they were “not white enough”; now, under a black-led ANC government that has race-based affirmative action policies, they “are not black enough”. Small-scale fishers live in Yiftachel’s ever growing “grey spaces”, trapped in the zone between the “whiteness” of legality (fishing permits) and the “blackness” of crime and insecurity (poaching).

The trouble with the South African State’s Fishing Policy

The irony is that this community is marginalised despite the fact that the post-Apartheid government wanted to extend access rights to traditional fishers, and had instituted several reforms, some of which have backfired. The most recent of these is the Small-scale Fishing (SSF) policy, which moves away from the commercial sectoral focus of earlier fishing policies. It recognises the socio-cultural-ecological and economic linkages of small-scale fishery systems. This policy however, has not been able to deal with problems around quota allocation. The majority of small-scale fishers feel that fishing rights have not been granted in an equitable manner, with the “total allowable catch” (TAC) favouring industrial companies, leaving individuals with a disproportionally small proportion of the total allocation. Furthermore, the question of who is allocated rights in a community such as Hangberg, causes ongoing tension.

Many fishing permits are allocated to new entrants (including white commercial players) who were able to use skills and business acumen to apply for permits. Even where permits were allocated to historical fishers, the quotas are too small, explain a group of poachers we are talking to in their house on the Hangberg mountainside. However, once fishing quotas are in place, anyone fishing without a licence or exceeding their quota is engaging in an illegal activity.

From Fishers to Poachers

The black market for abalone and crayfish creates a very strong incentive to turn towards illegal fishing – often the only option of generating an income for those who do not have fishing quotas. The state regulations give them no legal option; if fishers harvest their catch without a permit, there is no legal way for them to sell their catch. Even if fishers have other livelihood strategies, the income they can gain from the black market make poaching an appealing choice. Abalone in particular is a high value resource for organised illegal fishing networks, especially from buyers in China. Dried abalone can fetch anything between $400 and $900 per kg once it reaches Asia.

Fishers and their support crew in Hangberg do not make this kind of money, but poaching is still lucrative for individuals. Divers can earn approximately R10 000 ($700) per operation, whilst boat owners can earn R7,000 ($500). In comparison, the average salary for a worker on an abalone farm is about R4,000 ($285)/month. Fishers can make considerably more money from poaching than from legal activities such as abalone farming. It is not clear who exactly runs the syndicates that buy abalone – the poachers themselves explain that the abalone get sold to “the Chinese” and that it is Chinese triads that control the market. There is certainly a large demand from China and the East for abalone.

Marginalisation and the Rise of Informality

The fisheries policy on quotas and tight regulations banning fishers from catching rock lobster and abalone without a permit coupled with strong global demand for these fish, has led to the rise in informality in Hangberg. In other words, fishers turn away from state control, bypassing laws and the state’s attempt at order. Rather than being governed by the state, they are governed by informal actors, including gang leaders.

Informality is, however, often produced by formal authority, such as state departments, and it is always intimately related to this. In Hangberg, the prevalence of poaching is a direct outcome of fisheries policy in the sense that it declares a long-standing practice as now illegal, and makes it nearly impossible for traditional fishers to continue traditional practices in the new legal framework. Faced with an impossible choice, many choose to risk the law rather than risk starvation.

Fishers in Hangberg become criminal “others”, outside of, and partly abandoned by, the formal system. The unintended consequence of developmental state policy has its own further effects: first the perceptions of disorder and of “criminals” residing in Hangberg creates new, as well as further entrenches, existing, spatial and racial segregation; second those that are “informalised” take one step further towards exiting the state altogether; third informality can lead to resistance and conflict. All these consequences of informality make informal fishers, as urban residents, feel progressively more marginalised from the state and the broader community in which they live.

The sense of perceived marginalisation is voiced clearly by poachers when they explain that “we were the ones who fought apartheid with our brothers…now it’s like we don’t exist or something… they are marginalising the coloured people”. The legacy of apartheid is an important reason for the rise of an illicit market trade in abalone and rock lobster. Coloured fishers have developed a political consciousness that for them sanctions taking the fish. They expected democracy to lead to the speedy implementation of a fair fishing regime. But they are also deeply suspicious of the new government betraying the coloured working class.

As Steinberg explains: “This cocktail of expectations and fears could not have been more propitious for abalone poaching… many people who had lived their lives on the coastline believed that they were entitled to it, and to a share of the benefits that accrued from harvesting it.”

Living in spaces of informality often leads citizens to respond in two ways: increasing exit from the state or conflict with the state. In our case, poachers have followed both paths. The former is demonstrated by themes such as a well-developed black market, and the careful avoidance of the law and policy. The latter is clearly expressed as a future option by self-confessed poachers in Hangberg.

When I asked them what the way forward is for fishers in Hangberg they explained: “Ag nothing… poaching… it’s all we have…the last option is to burn all the boats in the harbour, then they will listen. We are not afraid… there is nothing more that can happen to us.” DM

Fiona Anciano is in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape. This article is drawn from the forthcoming book published by Routledge, United Kingdom, by Anciano and Piper (2018) titled Democracy Disconnected: Participation and Governance in a City of the South


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