Fishing communities from around the country marked World Ocean Day on 8 June by raising a number of serious threats to their way of life experienced by South Africa's small-scale fishers during the lockdown period, and demanding that the government "legitimise" the sector as a matter of urgency.
While welcoming the recent lift in lockdown restrictions on fishers, they took the opportunity to call on government to protect the livelihoods of coastal communities who have been dependent on the ocean for generations.
Like many of the poorest communities they faced harassment by the South African Defence Force (SADF) and the South African Police Services (SAPS), who interfered with their legitimate right to continue their fishing activities and had the permits to prove it.
According to Liziwe McDaid from the Green Connection - a NGO working to empower coastal fisher communities in Langebaan in the Western Cape and in Port St. Johns and Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape - they reported being harassed by the military and police services, even though they had government permission to fish.
This year's theme for World Oceans Day was 'Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean'.
McDaid said, "In all our conversations with fisher communities around the country, one of the key issues that came up over and over again, was that government took away their independence - that is, their ability to fish, for food or for sale - to make them dependent on insufficient and inconsistent hand-outs."
The Green Connection was formed to help empower fisher to protect our oceans, as part of its new Ocean Protection Campaign Who Stole Our Oceans?
This campaign is involved in the fight for climate justice by opposing deep-sea oil and gas exploitation. It argues that there still is a small window of opportunity to prevent fossil fuel exploitation in our ocean, and that if government can be forced into action it can save the country's coastline, and beyond to the African continent as a whole. "It is necessary for South Africans to act quickly," organisers said.
They want to avoid situations like that experienced by Nigeria's Ogoni people who became the target of the Nigerian government when they came out in protest against the devastating environmental degradation caused by the Shell Petroleum Company's oil pollution.
McDaid said; "While our initial focus is on protecting the oceans and raising awareness amongst coastal communities, including rights of small-scale subsistence fishers, from abuses by the Oil and Gas industries, the situation under lockdown was too dire to ignore.
Ntsindiso Nongcavu of Coastal Links in Port St Johns said, "to me the ocean means to be free and independent. It feels good that I am able to fish to feed myself and my family. This way I have dignity. I do not have to beg from anyone to put food on the table. And, when we work together as a community, sharing our catches or harvests, then we have a variety of seafood to choose from and everyone eats well. And, if everyone takes responsibility, through fishing we can also improve our local economy."
Nongcavu comes from a fishing family. "Our family has been able to thrive, through fishing. While the methods of fishing may have changed over the years, our ability to be independent and live and make a living from the ocean, has not changed. Growing up, we did not have to buy too many things except what we could not produce [those] ourselves. That is our way of life, we live by doing things for ourselves. We don't want to be dependent on others, and we want to live the way we have been and protect this place. We have been reliant on the ocean for many years."
Phindile Phikani, also from Coastal Links, said, "the first challenge was being locked-up at home, prohibited from fishing - our livelihood - and being told to wait for government assistance, which never arrives. In the rural areas especially, we are out of reach [of] government. This lack of support from government has led to other challenges, such as not being able to register our cooperatives. This meant that we could not fish, and many families in our community had to suffer [with] hunger."
Phikani said fishers has been caught and prevented from fishing whatever documentation they had. They were told that they are not permitted to enter areas such as game reserves due to lockdown. In Port Alfred, the SAPS confiscated some fishers' fishing equipment. "Even though we asked for support from DEFF [Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries], no assistance was received. This only increased our troubles, because people were apprehended while trying to (legally) provide for their families," added Phikani.
Solene Smit, a fisherwoman from Langebaan and chairperson of the regional branch of Coastal Links, said that since small-scale fishers do not belong to a sector, "there are no policies in place to govern the sector", which was a key reason that the Covid-19 lockdown was unnecessarily difficult for many local fishermen around the country.
"Imagine the stress for our communities when, with government permission to fish, members of the military abused our people and refused to let them fish. While we did have a session with Minister Barbara Creecy during this period, far too many of our issues remained unresolved. Not only did they not give us sufficient information, DEFF offered no support to assist with the imminent issues we face," said Smit.
She added: "Our community did receive a once-off delivery of food parcels handed out during lockdown, while neighbouring towns continued to receive food parcels. What I do not understand is why the government took away our ability to fish, and therefore at least feed our families. Why did they want to make us dependent on handouts?"
Langebaan-based Hilda Adams from the umbrella movement, the SA Small Scale Fishers Collective, said that local fishing communities were completely unprepared for the lockdown, and that bureaucratic red tape - "which affects much of the lives of our communities "- created even more challenges.
"We could fish during lockdown, if you had a permit. But, to get this, fishers needed to travel far and needed to arrange for accommodation, and these places were all closed and people ended up with no permits during this period."
The Who Stole Our Oceans? campaign aims to empower local ocean-dependent communities to preserve fishers' livelihoods and sustain their tools and knowledge. It supports their effort to engage with decision-makers when it comes to the protection of the oceans.
Organisers have warned that the history of oil extraction in Africa is one of greed, complicity, destruction of livelihoods and natural habitats, as well as human rights violations. This year's theme for World Oceans Day was "Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean".
Author: Moira Levy