The Indian subsistence fishers of South Durban and surrounding districts, together with the non-racial community of poor, subsistence line fishers that has joined them in the KwaZulu- Natal Subsistence Fisher’s Forum (KZNSFF), have been historically cast out of the legal and policy regime for fisheries in South Africa. Whilst this process of systematic exclusion has taken place over the past century, the Covid-19 lockdown, with its restrictions on the freedom of individuals to sustain their livelihoods, has revealed the underbelly of the post-apartheid state.
The Covid-19 lockdown has put a spotlight on this exclusion of thousands of fishers. It has exposed the continuation of a racist, exclusionary approach to subsistence fishers in KwaZulu Natal that denies their Constitutional right to food security, to their culture and to redress for past injustices. When President Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act and introduced Lockdown Level 5, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries approached the National Command Council and commercial fishing and small-scale fishing were declared ‘emergency services’, exempting these fishers from sections of the Lockdown regulations and enabling these fisheries sectors to continue to fish. The Department circulated permit conditions to all SSF cooperatives and informed them that all fishers must carry these permit conditions and a copy of the cooperatives Letter of Grant, which is the letter confirming them as a recognised small-scale fishing cooperative with a fishing right.
For the thousands of fishers who have been excluded from the SSF cooperatives in KZN, the Lockdown Level 5 regulations were a harsh blow. These fishers once again found themselves cast out, at sea. Unable to fish to feed their families, many were desperate. The KZNSFF immediately began to find out how their members, the traditional, subsistence fishers, who have been recognised by TRANSNET as port users, could be similarly exempted and permitted to fish.
SDCEA and the KZNSFF requested a meeting with Minister Creecy and subsequently met with her and the Acting DDG, Ms Sue Middleton. In this meeting, whilst sympathetic about the plight of the fishers who cannot fish with their recreational permits, Ms Creecy did not concede that these fishers had been excluded and marginalised. She agreed to discuss the issue of recreational fishing with the National Command Council. However notably, the Acting DDG informed Desmond D’Sa that subsistence fisheries no longer exists, that subsistence has been erased from the statute books with the amendment of the MLRA.
These fishers have been once again cast out. The exclusion of the subsistence line fishers of KZN Fisher Folk Forum and others from the policy and access to fishing rights has had enormous consequences on the lives and livelihoods of these fishers. In addition to the impact on their household food security and income, the annual cost of recreational and bait permits and restricting their ability to purchase basic household and family necessities, these fishers have faced harassment and discrimination from enforcement officers and the general public. The state’s refusal to let these traditional fishers fish to feed their families, particularly during a time of crisis, is a violation of their dignity as human beings and as workers trying to be independent of the state, to subsist and support their families. This is a culture and tradition that they have practiced since time immemorial. It reflects continuity with the socio-cultural practice of the indentured labourers of the 1800s who fished to become independent and able to provide for their families and contribute towards community food security. Sadly, the state’s action reflects a continuity of the discrimination and prejudice of the racist, colonial era in post- apartheid South Africa.