Fear, anger and uncertainty hang over the small-scale fishing communities living along the northern coastline of KwaZulu Natal. From Sokhulu to Mazambane on the Mozambican border, these communities are unsure how they will feed their families and send their children to school. Despite the fact that at a recent Imbizo held in Sokhulu Minister Zokwana of DAFF promised them that by December they would be able to enjoy their small-scale fishing rights, the fishers of this region remain doubtful. This is because of the many mixed messages they get from DAFF and the provincial conservation management authority, Ezemvelo EKZNWildlife together with Isimangaliso Wetlands Authority, a World Heritage site.
Since 2012, DAFF officials have promised small-scale fishers recognition of their fishing rights, capacity building and training and access to infrastructure. They have been encouraged to prepare to set up cooperatives so that they can establish commercial enterprises. On the other hand, they continue to face harassment by rangers from Ezemvelo Wildlife Authority. In some areas, such as around St Lucia Estuary, where the Isimangaliso Park Headquarters are, they face daily harassment. Isimangaliso planning documents suggest that far from having their rights to fish confirmed, they will be further restricted in future. The zonation plans for Kosi Bay Estuary and St Lucia Estuary and the draft iSimangaliso Integrated Management Plan suggest that fishers living and fishing in these regions will be very tightly controlled and only very limited subsistence fishing and harvesting activities will be permitted in certain areas. Contrary to the MLRA and the SSF policy, these documents are silent about recognition of the customary rights of these fishing communities. Instead they show that the conservation authorities operating in Northern KwaZulu Natal would like to eliminate all small-scale fishing in the longer term and instead promote tourism and conservation as the main activities in this region.
The results of the DAFF SSF application and verification processes in the village of St Lucia are shocking: Over 300 fishers applied for SSF rights but only two persons were successful. One SSF fisherman, aged 35 reported that he has been fishing since he was very young and has been arrested more times than he can remember. He says that since a very young age he has been arrested and harassed by the rangers for fishing. With his latest arrest, three years ago, his wooden boat was chopped in half by the rangers, he was kicked by them and he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for fishing in the St Lucia estuary. Yet, despite this history of fishing, even evidenced in court records, he has been unsuccessful in his application as a fisher! The majority of the fishers in the villages surrounding St Lucia estuary and False Bay can tell stories of arrests and harassment by the conservation authorities. They note that the area has become a tourist playground and all efforts are put into protecting the hippos and crocodiles in order to draw tourists to the area. Conservation has become the primary extractive industry in this region, dispossessing people of their access to their waters. In the words of a leader from Nibela: “our government prioritises nature over people and there is no balance, even though the constitution says there should be a balance”.