Covid-19 Impacts Women in Fishing Communities

The covid-19 pandemic has brought many challenges to South Africa, making inequalities worse particularly for women. Women play acritical and largely unrecognised role in our society, providing more than twice the amount of unpaid care work than men. In many families in South Africa, women provide both the physical and financial care to children and are the shock absorbers for the financial and practical caring in the family.

Women are the population group that is most affected by the economic consequences of covid-19, often working in the informal economy with limited to no healthcare. They face a double burden in times of crisis. They are already vulnerable due to existing gender inequalities,  employment opportunities and  roles in the household.

Women in small-scale fishing communities are often involved in the pre- and post-harvest processes, including value-adding activities. This work has been affected due to social distancing and the ban on non-essential work in the lockdown restrictions, making it difficult for women to make a living. Rowina Europa, a small-scale fisher from Arniston and Coastal Links leader in her community, spoke  during a webinar hosted by PLAAS (Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies) where she explained that  women have a huge responsibility in their communities while also  carrying the weight of the child caring and running households. Rowina spoke of how the women’s groups in the West Coast communities’ arts and crafts do, make jewellery, sell jams and pickles, and are in charge of cleaning and packing the fish. The majority of these resources come directly from the ocean.

Particularly in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal, women harvest intertidal species such as mussels, which is an important and nutritious source of food for their families and communities. However, conservation authorities and the South African police have been chasing them away from the shore, preventing them from collecting food and forcing them to rely on processed food which are usually less nutritious.

Social grants and food parcels have become an important provision for poor struggling households. However, according to Rowina, these social grants are only a drop in the ocean. Although women are the receivers of almost two thirds of social grants (2 thirds of child support grants and one half of elderly care grants), these are paid to women as the carers of dependants.

There are millions of children across South Africa that rely on school feeding schemes for a nutritious meal each day. The closure of schools and creches has had a serious impact on women who are now having to provide more food and practical care for their families, in the midst of depleted resources.

The pandemic has is deepening the existing inequalities. It is necessary  that strategic plans of government, in responding to the pandemic, must be grounded in strong gender analysis which considers the unequal roles and responsibilities within families and society as a whole. In the small-scale fisheries sector, a lot of women have been excluded from benefitting from the SSF Policy. While they are supposed to benefit from adding-value opportunities through secondary cooperatives DEFF has not yet made any arrangements in this regard. And no investments have been made to create the appropriate infrastructures in fishing communities, thus hampering the potential of women and youth in these communities to contribute to the local economy and food security.

Government Fails to Fund Small-Scale Fishing

On 24 June 2020 Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, delivered the supplementary budget speech to the nation. In a moment of extreme difficulty for South Africans and the country’s economy, the he decided to go the austerity route. He cut budgets and services, instead of using this moment to address some of the structural challenges of SA’s Economy. He missed the chance to make bold investment choices towards creating and supporting livelihoods.

The supplementary budget failed to address the major needs of small-scale fishing communities. Small-scale fishers were recognised as essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet no support structures have been put in place to enable fishers to sell or market their fish effectively. The lack of support in the form of infrastructure in the small-scale fisheries sector has resulted in major hardships and created barriers for fishers.The budget cuts for Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), which reduce the already underfunded fisheries management budget by R88 million, will penalise the small-scale fisheries sector. Minister Creecy and DEFF officials continuously promise support, capacity building and training programmes to develop the SSF sector. But no such provisions are made in this budget to provide that support for small-scale fishers. More capacity and human resources are needed in the Department in order to meaningfully implement the coastal Small-scale Fisheries Policy. Additionally, capacity is needed to finalise and implement a policy framework that will recognize the livelihood and food provision activities of inland small-scale fishers, operating on freshwater bodies like dams.

In the budgetary reallocations, nothing has been allocated towards the fisheries sector, overlooking thus undermining the importance of this sector on providing food, nutrition, and income security for much of South Africa. However, both Biodiversity & Conservation and Climate Change & Sustainable Development have received additional allocations. Although we recognise that these sectors are particularly important, it is necessary that sustainable development includes environmental, socio-political, and economic sustainability, in line with social and environmental justice and human rights principles. At the same time, there are concerns that the use of law enforcement for environmental protection undermines the tenure rights of small-scale fishers and minimise their ability to practice livelihood activities and ensure local level food security.

The supplementary budget lacks any attempt on transformation and maintains the vulnerability of the poor in our society. It does not address the immediate needs of the people but rather it places them in further deficit particularly in small-scale fishing communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the faults in South Africa’s food system. It has highlighted the need for an integrated approach that emphasises the principles of food sovereignty and localised food systems. Food sovereignty addresses the most urgent and pressing needs of the people, to have healthy, nutritious food, grown and harvested locally. The lack of support given to inland and coastal small-scale fishing communities is to the detriment of equitable access to food during this massive food crisis. The government’s inability to create afavourable environment for small-scale producers, local markets, and short supply chains is increasing food insecurity.

As Masifundise we tabled a submission to national treasury highlighting these challenges while making the following demands:

  1. We call on the Minister of Environment Forestry and Fisheries and the Department to make an internal budget re-allocation towards the Fisheries Management programme, particularly towards the Small-Scale Fisheries unit and its support and capacity building programme.
  2. Prioritise measures that strengthen and support the development of local economies and food systems as well as investment into cold storage, processing, and marketing facilities. The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) needs to support small-scale fishers with the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as well as other inputs, including gears, training, and capacity building.
  3. Due to the lack of a clear, national-level policy and legislation regulating the inland fisheries sector to date, inland fishers mostly operate informally and/or use recreational fishing permits – the only permit option that currently exists for them. This means that inland fisheries fall within a legislative and policy vacuum. There is no protective mechanism to guard and defend their rights as bona-fide small-scale fishers. Therefore, funding is required to ensure that the development of this policy continues in order to ensure food security and the protection of inland fishers’ livelihoods. We call for more active participation of social movements, small-scale fishers, and other civil society organisations in decisions on budget allocations and programmes DEFF, not just as recipients of decisions made by the Department.
  4. Masifundise supports the concept of a Universal Basic Income Grant (UBIG), to provide basic income security to each individual, regardless of their marital or household status. It is easier to administer than selective grants, as it requires no means testing or conditionalities.
  5. We call for the implementation of the UBIG but emphasise that the amount must be sufficient to actually support individuals. A UBIG will lessen the blow of a crisis such as this on the most vulnerable and poor communities and minimise the glaring poverty in the country.

Norvalspont (Northern Cape) fishers take Initiative in Fighting for their Fishing Rights During Lockdown

The emergence of the national lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened  pre-existing challenges in the small-scale fishing sector. Inland small-scale fishers have particularly bore the brunt of the lockdown. The lack of legal recognition has meant that inland fisheries fall within a legislative and policy vacuum. There is no protective mechanism to guard and defend their rights as bona-fide small-scale fishers. The lockdown further created an environment in which inland fishers became even more vulnerable and alienated than before. The South African Police Service (SAPS), local conservation and water management authorities have prevented inland fishers from accessing traditional fishing grounds during the lockdown. The continued harassment by these authorities led to an act of civil disobedience in order to put food on the table for their families and communities.

On 18 April 2020 frustrated inland fishers, Danile Wilfred Soul, Ryan Hartman, Nathaniel Afrika, Nomfundo Soul and Khaya Mpambe, from the Northern Cape travelled from neighbouring town Norvalspont,cto fish at an traditional fishing ground in the Oviston Nature Reserve. This Reserve had been cordoned off from fishers since 2009 despite their forefathers having spent generations fishing in that very same area. Upon arrival the Northern Cape fishers were fined R1000 each for trespassing and threatened with arrest by the Oviston Nature Reserve rangers and Venterstad police. These fishers refused to be intimidated and as a result they took upon themselves to engage with the Venterstad magistrate directly to solve this issue. Together with the fishers, Masifundise lobbied the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, the Northern Cape Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform for fishers to obtain exemption permits to allow them to fish.

The Oviston Nature Reserve water body represents a sacred traditional fishing ground that has been used by nearby fishing communities for generations. It has historical relevance and importance to the inland fishers living on the shore of Gariep Dam and the Orange River. The lack of access to this water body presents a number of challenges for inland fishers. They are unable to carry out their livelihoods. COVID-19 has dealt Inland fishers a double burden, in which they receive no assistance from the government like food parcels or other relief measures, yet they continue to be prohibited from fishing. The role of inland fishers has been rendered invisible, yet they perform the very important function of food security and have the potential to support tens of thousands of livelihoods throughout the country.

Fishers Demand Special Relief fund

On 22 June 2020 Coastal Links South Africa (CLSA) tabled the first of three letters to the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), Barbara Creecy.  One of the letters reprinted below illustrates their frustration and highlights their demands

“Dear Minister Creecy

We the traditional, subsistence and small-scale fishers’ sector of South Africa feel like a fish out of water.  We cannot breathe. The life is being squeezed out of us.  Fishers in all four provinces feel like this even if many of our concerns are different across the provinces.  For eg, in the Eastern Cape and KZN we have no boats yet DEFF has given us species in out baskets for commercial use that need boats. In these two provinces most of the baskets for the small-scale sector are filled with species on the SASSI Red list and most of the other species you need a boat and we don’t have boats. In many areas DEFF has not negotiated with the MPA authorities properly so our SSF rights are not properly recognised in these areas. in all the provinces so many fishers were excluded by DAFF and now they are turned into criminals overnight.  In the Western Cape we also have the problem that we got very little crayfish compared to the companies and now with COVID 19 impacts we could not get our crayfish out of the water and yet when we ask for a transfer to other areas we are told no.   We are told DEFF does not want to hear about fish in the water.

In 2007 the Equality Court ordered that the Minister must develop a policy that recognises our social and economic rights.  We have waited so patiently. We are still waiting for our social and economic rights.  We have not yet had our rights that were taken from us given back to us through restitution or redistribution.  The land claimants got their land but we have not got our waters back. Instead we hear day after day of all the mining applications that have been approved by the government. Our coastal areas are being eaten up by mining and DEFF is approving this mining.  We hear now that there is another application on the West Coast for mining from Olifantsriver mouth all the way south to Elandsbaai, in our main fish breeding and nursery grounds.  And on the Aghulas Banks we hear there is another mining application for oil and gas mining in our squid and line fish grounds.  If it’s not a mining application then it’s another MPA that’s being developed without consulting us. We are tired of promises and of waiting.

We are suffering now with COVID19, like the small-scale farmers have suffered. Yet they got disaster relief but we have not had any relief.  We did not get UIF and we could not apply for relief. The snoek only supports a sector of fishing communities in the Western Cape. It does not support us all and now it has gone.  Now there is very little in our baskets. And where we can fish the markets are still dominated by the commercial marketers.  Where is the capacity building and infrastructure support that we were promised?  Our Policy for SSF says there will be restitution for what was taken from us all those years of colonialism and apartheid.

We as small-scale and subsistence fishers throughout the country we ask you for

  1. Restitution of our rights to our fishing areas and our coastal lands.
  2. Our right to participate in decision-making through co-management
  3. A Disaster Relief fund”

Masifundise in the Media


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