As you are reading this letter, an illegal diver is entering the Atlantic Ocean along the coastline of Hermanus. In broad daylight, and in full view of locals and tourists alike, he scours the rocks of the shallows in search of a protected marine resource. An hour or so later, he emerges with a net full of abalone ripped from the ocean floor, many too small for consumption. There are no fisheries officials to question him, no police force to arrest him, and no community member brave enough to intervene for fear of being threatened by gang bosses.
On the beach mere metres away, a young man sits, the son of generations of fishermen and women, denied access to the very ocean his people once forged a life from, still waiting for his fishing quota from the National Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. He considers following a path taken by many of his friends and family – to poach abalone illegally out of desperation to put food on his family’s table using the only skill he and his family possess: fishing.
President Ramaphosa, as you are reading this letter, thousands of tonnes of South African abalone are arriving in Hong Kong, 65% of which have been illicitly harvested and trafficked. Here in the Western Cape, international crime syndicates have lured gangsters to police and control wild abalone stocks for poaching and trafficking, in exchange for drugs and money. A billion-dollar industry, capable of employing thousands of our residents, and bringing billions of rand into our economy, is left to the mercy of illegal transnational exploitation.
All the while our fishing communities are begging your Fisheries Ministry for a quota to access our oceans and make an honest living. All the while these communities are losing children to the drug use and gangsterism slowly permeating their towns, taking control of a supposedly protected industry laid bare for all to pillage. All the while your Fisheries Ministry’s Fishing Transformation Council sits on its hands while exclusive commercial fishing quotas are handed out, leaving our small-scale fishermen and women out in the cold.
President Ramaphosa, as you are reading this letter, the Western Cape Provincial parliament’s Abalone Report sits on a shelf at the National Assembly. Compiled with community input from small fishing communities, industry bosses, and politicians alike, it highlights the impact of abalone poaching on small-scale fishing communities, providing a number of recommendations to national government to tackle the issue in the best interests of everyone involved.
When I tabled it for discussion at the National Assembly, your government merely tossed it aside. When I summoned the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to my Standing Committee to explain their inability to allocate fishing quotas to our people, they failed to respond. When I pleaded for an intervention into the gangsterism ravaging our province and gaining ground in the illegal abalone trade, you cut your national police officer allocation by 3,000, and have yet to allocate water wing police enforcement to South Africa’s only province bordered by not one, but two, oceans.
President Ramaphosa, as you are reading this letter, your Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is facing allegations of bribery and corruption in order to prioritise abalone processing and fishing quotas to select businessmen in my province. It is alleged that he received a bribe payment of R300,000, with former president Jacob Zuma receiving R1-million as part of the deal. This followed the arrest of nine departmental officials in connection with abalone poaching just this month.
This while abalone confiscated by the SAPS in busts across the province is sold below market value by the department, of which the money accrued seemingly disappears among officials instead of funding abalone protection initiatives. All the while bureaucrats in Pretoria with no access to or knowledge of our oceans decide the fate of fishermen and women whose family have fished our waters and known our oceans from birth. The fishermen and women for whom fishing is not merely an act, but a means to make a living, a lifeline to opportunity and an honest living, and a rich cultural addition to the history and heritage of the Western Cape.
President Ramaphosa, as you are reading this letter, your Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is captured. Your Minister has failed to deliver on his departmental mandate, and his duty to permit and protect the access to our ocean and the immense economy it could sustain is corrupted.
Your ministry is allowing an illegal trade to plunder our oceans, driving our marine resources to the edge of extinction, and removing any chance for future generations to make a sustainable living from the rich and diverse waters that lap our beautiful country. President Ramaphosa, it is evident that your national government is inept at presiding over our country’s fisheries. I implore you, please, act now. Our oceans may be on the brink of collapse by the end of this decade if South Africa’s fisheries continue to be ransacked while our province is left helpless.
President Ramaphosa, the Western Cape has no mandate over the police service. We have no mandate over the country’s fisheries, and yet we are left to deal with the severe and destructive effects of abalone poaching which threatens the safety of our communities and renders them tragically and systematically unemployed. I have done everything within my power, followed every process, consulted with each and every stakeholder affected by this disaster, to bring this matter to your government’s attention, only to be tossed aside.
President Ramaphosa, if your ANC national government is incapable of managing our country’s small-scale fisheries, I will begin to push for this mandate to be decentralised and moved to the provinces. It is high time we, as a country with a 2,500 kilometre-long, two-ocean coastline, take charge of our waters and the economic potential they can unleash for our people.
If your government, with little understanding of our province’s oceans and fishing communities, cannot manage fishing, then we will gladly do it for you. Let our province govern over the issues only we know best. Let us use our oceans to create employment for our people, and let us turn the tide on the poaching of abalone which threatens to tear apart the society of our small fishing communities. If you cannot do it, then we will. DM
Beverley Schäfer MPP is Standing Committee Chairperson on Economic Opportunities, Tourism and Agriculture, Western Cape Provincial Parliament