A decade ago, several small-scale fishing communities embarked on collective action that changed the course of fisheries in South Africa.

The exclusion of the sector from rights allocations in 2004, led to court and mass action by the fishers, who were led by Masifundise and Coastal Links.

The Hook is running a series to reflect on this process and its aftermath. This week, we speak to Jackie Sunde a researcher and member of the International Collective in Support of Fish workers (ICSF), an international organisation working with small-scale fishing communities.

The Hook (TH): Tell us about the factors that led to the court and mass action ten years ago and about elements of the small-scale fisheries policy.

Jackie Sunde (JS):  In 2005, small-scale fishing communities embarked on collective action that changed the course of fisheries in South Africa. Now, ten years later, we are starting to see some positive impacts of the fishers’ struggles, although there is still some way to go.

In 2005, when the Fisheries Department opened the applications for long-term fishery rights, small-scale fishers discovered that the new policy promoted an individual, big business-orientated affair where fishers had to compete for rights with their fellow crew, their neighbours and even their own family members. A handful struck it lucky but the majority of fishers were denied rights.

Coastal Links and Masifundise worked together, mobilising fishers and developing various strategies in response to this. The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) helped the fishers launch court action against the Minister. But the fishers did not stop there. They developed a powerful campaign called ‘Fishers’ Rights are Human Rights’. The campaign raised awareness amongst fishers that their fishing rights could not be separated from their broader human rights under the new Constitution in South Africa. Women leaders in Coastal Links played a key role in this campaign.

After the Equality Court ordered the Minister to develop a new policy that would recognise their rights and their social needs, Coastal Links started discussing what the fishers would want to see in a new small-scale policy. They realised that they didn’t want a system that just created wealth for a handful of lucky rights holders. They wanted a system that would ensure that all those living in coastal communities who have depended on the sea for their livelihoods will benefit. This is when they started saying “We want a community-based policy and we want a policy based on our human rights”. The fishers raised issues that are critical but are not normally seen as fishing policy issues such as their right to social security, funeral and other development schemes that help with job creation and marketing.  At the same time, fisher organisations internationally were making similar demands to their governments. The South African government was forced to hear this message and ensure that the new Policy on Small-scale Fisheries was a community-based one that would promote equity and sustainable fisheries.

This is the most significant change in the history of South African fisheries even though I know that many of the current departmental officials don’t really understand the full implications of this slogan “fishers’ rights are human rights’ or what a community-based approach really means.

TH: Sketch developments during the period in which the policy was formulated and the Interim Relief system has been in place.

JS:     Since the introduction of the Interim Relief (IR) I feel we have not maintained the collective focus on what a human rights-based approach to fisheries means and we have not done enough work on informing others, like DAFF, what this means.

The IR and the permit system has entrenched an individual rights approach to fisheries. The IR system may have caused many fishers to lose sight of their original objectives. They have forgotten that they wanted something better than this – for themselves, and their communities.   Prior to the Court Case the fishers used to say they wanted a system that kept the social support systems that they used to have going in their communities, they wanted fishers to be treated equally, they wanted women to again be able to work by cleaning and selling fish.  We also said we want a community based legal entity that will hold the right on behalf of the community. It will be a communally held right but the rules of the legal entity will protect the rights of each individual.

When Oom Pieter Cloete from Olifantsrivier drowned, fishers said they want to make sure that NEVER again will a fisherman be lost at sea and his wife is left without a burial policy and insurance for his children.

However, we have now all got used to IR and have stopped thinking about these other important aspects. We even see some of the leaders that we worked with making deals with marketers behind their communities’ backs, we see a few women leaders putting their names on the list and getting rights but what about the other women in the community?

We used to criticise ‘paper quotas’ but now we see lots of our own Coastal Links members with paper IR quotas themselves.

The new Draft Regulations that DAFF has just released are like Interim Relief dressed up a bit – pretending to be a community based approach but if we really unpack what they are saying…they are like the old system all over again.   I think there is a serious danger that we will fail to achieve the human rights of small-scale fishers if we don’t quickly address these problems.

TH: What are some of our main challenges as we move forward?

JS:    The biggest challenge that I think we all face is to make sure that the Regulations that are put in place to implement the new SSF Policy, are really carefully designed regulations to make sure we begin to see the benefits of a human rights based approach. This is very hard. This means that we as activists and fishers working in this SSF sector have to work really hard to put forward alternatives to the current individual, wealth-based approach that is dominant.

This means we have to ask ourselves:  How can we design a rights-based system that is not just about one person for themselves, but really does help to re-build our communities, and to re-claim the values of mutual support and respect that we feel we have lost during Apartheid and in the years since Apartheid, when crime and gangsterism and violence against women has grown in our communities?

For example, we have to think:  how can we make sure that the right the community will get, that will be held by the cooperatives, includes the things that make it a real ‘human rights based approach’.  This means that it must tackle the difficult, sticky issues such as how to share the benefits of the right equally. The IR has created even more inequity. What rules can the cooperatives develop to make sure that the rights of each individual within the cooperative are protected?  What rules to make sure that the ordinary members know what is happening to their money from their catch and no one leader is able to go behind their backs and make deals with marketers or use their money? The Cooperatives must have a scheme to ensure that each member has a burial policy and some sort of insurance. Men and women need to sit down in each community and agree on a plan to create work for women and to include them in the cooperatives. DAFF has formed a partnership with DTI for funding for Cooperatives.  What about asking DAFF to also form a partnership with the Department of Social Development to support the introduction of a scheme that creates work for women and youth in all SSF communities to become involved in ‘Caring for the Coast’? DAFF and DTI should be asked to think about how they can provide these extra activities and services that together, will contribute towards a more human rights based approach. What about asking for a special grant for those fishers and families who have been negatively impacted by Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)?  If we just accept the current Draft Regulations and carry on with the current way of working together, we will see inequity, poverty, poaching, crime and violence increasing in our SSF communities. If we want the new rights system to address the wrongs of the past, to include real ‘redress’ of small-scale fishing communities’ customary and other human rights, we have to try and get it right now.

I am excited that Masifundise is hosting a National Workshop on Tenure Rights next month.  This comes at a critical time as tenure rights are about who has the power to make decisions about who can use what resources. Tenure is at the heart of the SSF fishers’ struggle.  SSF fishers face double oppression when it comes to Tenure – many of them have lost their tenure rights in land along the coast AND they have lost their tenure rights to their marine resources. The draft regulations impose a very narrow, state controlled one-size fits all tenure model onto all SSF communities. It fails to recognise the customary tenure rights of many communities and fails to realise that each community needs a tailored approach that fits with their histories and the particular ecosystem in their area.  We can use these opportunities like the National Workshop to put our heads together and support Coastal Links and other fishing communities in understanding their human rights and developing clear, practical policy proposals that will help to ensure that they can enjoy these rights.

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