Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen

Where the ocean floor is raped while a patrol craft is laughed at

An unidentified boat passing Dyer Island, a protected Cape Nature zone, off Kleinbaai. The area is a poaching hotspot. (Photo: Angus Begg)

As a man allegedly breaks his house arrest conditions pending his trial for allegedly starting a devastating fire, residents of Betty’s Bay and neighbouring Mooi Uitsig, Pringle Bay and Kleinmond continue to live with a plague of perlemoen poaching that has become more sophisticated and better equipped.

A man under house arrest in Cape Town pending his trial for firing the two flares that started the devastating Betty’s Bay fires in 2019 has, according to a number of locals, been repeatedly breaking his bail conditions. 

Shelton April, it is reported, is meant to be under house arrest at his sister’s house in Elsies River. He is not allowed to visit Betty’s Bay.

“I’ve seen him a couple of times walking,” said one Mooi Uitsig parent. “He doesn’t care who sees him.” The same parent says April and the mother of his (two) children are “24/7 on tik”.

April is not allowed to contact Heinrich Adonis, the man who claimed to have seen April firing the flares on New Year’s eve, which allegedly started the almost two-week long raging inferno. 

EyeWitness News (EWN) reported at the time that 41 houses were destroyed, 28 damaged, one woman died and “a 71-year-old man was in an induced coma after he suffered 71% burns as a result of the fire”. 

Suspected poachers off Kleinbaai. (Photo: Angus Begg)

A volunteer firefighter, Adonis claimed on his FaceBook page at the time that April had shown him a flare “around Christmas time”, and that he saw flares fired from in front of April’s Mooi Uitsig yard on New Year’s eve, a night of extremely high winds. Adonis’ story was carried by various newspapers and online news sites.

He said on his Facebook page that he was threatened by April’s uncle at the time, and again more recently.

 “I don’t give a sh*t. I’m not scared of him or anyone else in his family. What is wrong is wrong and what is right is right. That’s the way I was raised. I don’t see how a wrong can be right. This is why this country is in such a mess with all this corruption. People don’t want to stand up and do the right thing.”

Visiting the Cape Nature-run Klipgat Caves with his children at Die Kelders, on Walker Bay, the author witnessed suspicious-looking men emerging from the water in wetsuits and getting changed behind rocks. He saw them later picked up by a bakkie at the security boom and gate to Klipgat. Another group was first dropped off and headed down the path to the rocky shoreline. (Photo: Angus Begg)

It wasn’t the first time April had a run-in with the law, according to National Prosecution Authority (NPA) regional spokesperson at the time, Eric Ntabazalila. 

“He has about four cases of assault which were either mediated or withdrawn. The complainants in all four cases indicated that they were afraid of him as he has threatened to kill him. These complainants included his sister who was present in court,” said Ntabazalila.

Speaking out?

It’s therefore not entirely surprising that people are reluctant to come forward with evidence supporting Adonis’ initial testimony to a newspaper, explaining the number of anonymous interviewees featured in this article. Even Heinrich Adonis is a worried man.

It is believed that he and the other witnesses to the shooting of the flares are no longer prepared

Billie and Ronel Theron, owners of Nomads Land Backpackers in Bettys Bay. With their unobstructed view of the ocean they say they have seen poachers being dropped almost daily into the water off Stony Point, ‘the Cape Nature hut’. (Photo: Angus Begg)

to testify against April. Word on the few streets, mountain and beach that make up Betty’s Bay and the suburb of Mooi Uitsig (Nice View) – where April lives and where everyone knows everyone’s business – is that people are simply too scared of him to speak.

April has been seen regularly in the village by various people. “We all know he’s there,” said a village resident, citing a specific example of having seen him and watched him cross the road.

“He doesn’t even try to hide,” he says.

Residents of Bettys Bay and Mooi Uitsig live in fear of the perlemoen poachers who operate in full daylight view of residents in Bettys Bay. (Photo: Angus Begg)

Residents of Betty’s Bay and the neighbouring Mooi Uitsig, Pringle Bay and Kleinmond settlements, each separated from the other by a few kilometres and sandwiched between the Kogelberg and the Atlantic ocean, had apparently believed that because of Adonis’ eye-witness testimony, it was believed April would be imprisoned.

“There was cellphone footage of him, there were witnesses. We all knew finally there was something on this gangster that would stick,” said another resident who has apparently been “waiting for 19 years to have him put away”.

A Betty’s Bay resident who has been diving the coast for decades says the challenge for Betty’s Bay and its neighbouring villages goes far beyond setting fires.

A run-down structure in the fishing village harbour of Hawston, long known to be a poaching base. As the Greater Hermanus Stakeholders forum founder Masizole Mnqasela says, poaching will only be curbed if ‘we…utilise the ocean’s economy’, sustainably supporting the small fishermen and the coastline. (Photo: Angus Begg)

“There’s always criminal activity. A lot of it is out of anger.” She says many holiday homeowners who visit once a year have their houses robbed for having fishing quotas. “It must be frustration as those holiday homeowners don’t even need them, but those who live here do.”

It’s a question of need and hunger; this is where the poaching started. The talk moves to fishing permits, a subject of deep hurt to local and traditional fishermen along the southern Cape coast in particular, from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. 

It was widely seen to be corruption within the national department of fisheries, permits for backhanders so to speak, that saw village fishermen in places like Hawston, Kalk Bay and Kleinmond being denied permits in favour of big corporations, losing their livelihood and thus driven to poaching to survive.

The link between crime and perlemoen

It is common knowledge that tik is widely used in the poor areas on this coastline, locals say, and that related housebreaking is probably directly linked to the perlemoen poaching. 

The Betty’s Bay resident says the same people, with April at the helm, are responsible for the poaching that has been ripping up the coastline with a quiet but steady ferocity over the past decade. And as the recent video of police catching 47 poachers at Betty’s Bay that went viral shows, the poaching is increasingly serious.

However, word in the rockpools and bars of the Overstrand suggest it’s no longer about survival. With big money involved, like rhino horn, it’s now a lucrative career. 

Big Business

“This past year has seen the poachers arrive and leave from the beach, perlemoen in the bags, in expensive vehicles. Sounding like a chapter of what could be called the Rhino Diaries, the perlemoen poachers have according to one well-travelled resident also upgraded their tools. 

“Their equipment used to be a mishmash, even their booties (wetsuit boots) were different colours, now they have state of the art equipment,” says one resident, adding a bizarre piece of poaching trivia.

Condoms, in which the poachers put their phones, had until recently been found daily at every single beach entrance for 18 months.

A neighbour further around the bay says in 2016 poaching “got far worse”, with poachers being paid in tik pipes. The poachers’ profile also changed.

“There has been a massive influx of people in the past few years. They look different these days, not only local Mooi Uitsig poachers, but tall, dark Africans, and with it the poaching has increased.” A local councillor claims that Congolese and Zimbabwean nationals are among the new breed of poachers along this coastline.

She says they waved a gun at her once for looking at them. “We’ve been warned by Cape Nature not to take pictures of goings-on from our own gardens, because they will know from which garden it came.

With the poachers using scuba tanks, they can stay under for longer, raping the ocean floor. Forty of them every day for most of the year, at the same place, can arguably strip a piece of coastline of its biodioversity.

“Another veteran diver chimes in. “People can’t see the damage, because it’s under the water. Every rock on the seabed, from a metre to 10 metres down, has been turned over, where the abalone hide, by poachers. The sponges that can’t exist in sunlight die. The biodiversity is fucked.”

There are stories of the big rubber duckies arriving off Stony Point, just off the Cape Nature office at the penguin colony, in broad daylight, dropping off about 30 divers. 

It reminds one of Hout Bay harbour at 4am, of Dyer Island at 11am – in full view of tourists on marine cruises – and of poachers being dropped and collected by a bakkie at the boomed security entrance to Die Kelders Cape Nature facility (which rather aptly has a visual display describing how early man harvested the coastline).

Back to Betty’s Bay. 

Fightback?

A 2005 Independent Online article referred to the launch of this then US$19-million craft: “South Africa’s ability to take on poachers in the Southern Ocean received a major boost on Monday when it took official delivery of its first deep-sea patrol vessel, the Sarah Baartman.”

“We said we mean business, and we are showing it,” former environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk had said at the handover ceremony. 

The 83-metre-long vessel, South Africa’s first deep-sea patrol vessel, patrolling the mostly inshore coves where the poachers hide and ply their trade, had no effect.

The locals laugh at the mention of the boat. They say that if it’s known that the Baartman is at Pringle Bay, for example, the poachers just move to the next bay. 

A friend of the former sea fisheries inspector for Betty’s Bay told of a defining incident when the inspector called the SAPS to enact an arrest of poachers. “The SAPS arrived, apparently they received a phone call, and then left, leaving the frightened inspector with the poachers.”

That inspector no longer lives in Betty’s Bay. 

“We cannot trust our cops,” says another resident, referring to self-interest and political will, as we walk along the tranquil beach with a non-dog-walker, interrupted only by the occasional thump of a breaker on the beach.

“It’s not that simple,” says a local councillor, who says the poachers have informants in the SAPS and know how understaffed and ill-equipped they are, regarding both vehicles and weapons.

Finally…

The authorities finally seem to be taking action, largely because Overstrand residents swamped the Overstrand mayor with their fears and concerns in what is a location of great beauty.

I learn that as a result of said sustained and increasing complaints of recent years the police ombudsman visited the area in June 2019, to hear residents’ concerns about both their own safety and protection of the marine resources.

Sitting in a resident’s lounge the owner says that listening to a Mooi Uitsig woman describing for the ombudsman the blatant threat that they all live under was “hair-raising”.

The solution?

Someone who knows about threats to residents is the founder and convenor of the Greater Hermanus Stakeholders forum, Masizole Mnqasela. We met during the 2018 riots that rocked Hermanus and the Whale coast to its pretty boots. His own ward residents were being intimidated and bullied, and right and left were firing irrational shots at each other.

The likeable Mnqasela, who grew up in Tsolo in the Eastern Cape and came to Cape Town as a 12-year-old, has moved up in the political sphere, and as the Democratic Alliance Overstrand MP for the provincial parliament, with a particular community focus, is involved in tackling the poaching and crime.

“The SANP and the SANDF are stationed at various points along the Overstrand coastline, in an operation that started three months ago.” It explains the helicopters heard overhead for the past few days. In a throwback to my 1990s start in journalism, I even saw a Casspir vehicle in Hawston, full of soldiers.

While he confirms that the business of protecting our shores is a national competency, the MP says provincial government had to step in with funds as national government was unable to afford the project. With soldiers and police needing to be accommodated and fed it’s an expensive operation, clearly unsustainable.

“For starters, we have to utilise the ocean’s economy, as with Operation Phakisa. We need other interventions in the value chain, we have to do away with the corruption that saw permits being unfairly awarded.”

Suddenly Shelton April of Mooi Uitsig and his allegedly bullying self seems a lot smaller than he was. His fellow residents, and those of Betty’s Bay, will surely hope so. MC

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