First published in Daily Maverick 168
Grassroots organisations in Durban vary tremendously in terms of their scale, and the depth and sophistication of their internal organisation. Some only seem to spring into action in times of crises, while others involve thousands of people in a dense web of day-to-day organisation.
But, because they all work together, they are able to support one another’s demands. No other city in South Africa has this level of grassroots organisation. A few personalities have come to the fore of public life in the city as a result of years of grassroots work. They include S’bu Zikode, one of the founders of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the huge shack dwellers’ movement; Verushka Memdutt of the tenacious street trader organisation the Market Users Committee; and the inimitable Desmond D’Sa.
D’Sa, known to all as Des, first came to prominence in south Durban, where residents of Wentworth, Merebank and the Bluff live with the terrible consequences of pollution from the refineries situated in Wentworth. Rates of asthma and cancer are terrifyingly high in these areas and the ANC, after more than a quarter of a century in power, has done nothing to address the environmental racism that placed these heavily polluting refineries in black residential neighbourhoods.
It was D’Sa, often working with the progressive environmental NGO groundWork, who drew national and international attention to this situation. He is a key player in the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, which has campaigned around issues of environmental justice for years. But D’sa is not a single-issue activist. He is well respected by other grassroots organisations and has played an important role in building solidarity across different parts of the city.
For some years he has also been supporting subsistence fisherfolk to organise themselves. Durban has a long-standing community who survive from fishing. In many cases, they have done so for generation after generation. For these people, the old proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” is literally true.
The fight for the fisherfolk
But the hard lockdown was a very difficult time for the fisherfolk. For the middle class, lockdown was about Zoom meetings and online classes. For the poor, it meant violent evictions from shacks, and a sudden inability to work, to trade in the streets and to fish. People rapidly started going hungry.
It came as no surprise when Desmond D’Sa took up the fight for the subsistence fisherfolk by mobilising and lobbying Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs Minister Barbara Creecy to lift the ban on fishing. In the end, he was successful and the fisherfolk were able to return to the beaches.
Subsistence fishing is one of the areas where the rush to achieve BEE targets meant that poor black fishing communities were largely left out as the spoils were divided between the old white corporates and new politically connected black elites. In some cases, politically connected people living in Johannesburg were given fishing licences and quotas, while poor fisherfolk in places like Durban and along the West Coast – people whose families had made a living from the sea for generations – were left out.
The ravaging of the oceans by industrial fishing is having a catastrophic effect on the natural world. The solution to this cannot be simply to bring black elites into industrial fishing.
The solution, surely, is to do away with corporate-controlled industrial fishing, to take up sustainable forms of fish farming and to allow the fisherfolk to continue with the livelihoods that have sustained their families for generations. DM168