A small-scale fisher from Keurtjieskloof along the Vanderkloof Dam in the Northern Cape writes about the lives and struggles of the fisherfolk. Masifundise and Coastal Links South Africa are working with small-scale fishers in the area.

 I live behind the hill

There is a hill in Vanderkloof.  On one side of the hill lies the town, with its feet on the edge of the dam; Sweeping views of the dam, people going off to work, living. A large iron cross looks over the town, at night lit, shinning its light over the town.

I live behind the hill, in the township of Keurtjieskloof. I cannot see the dam nor the light of the cross. The hill is in my way.  We are in the shadow of the hill.

I am a fisherman, I fish with my old trusty rod, fixed, but workable. My line is short, so my cast is near. I fish not for fun, though I do enjoy the fishing.  I fish for food. It puts food on the table, and keeps me living. If I could catch more fish, I would be able to sell it and earn enough to buy electricity for the whole month. You see, I live behind the hill and I can’t see the lights of the cross.

At the end of a day’s fishing, with my catch in one hand and my rod in the other, I walk the long walk up the hill.  Along the way I have to walk past the town’s dump to my township.  The symbolism that the town’s dump was placed behind the hill, on the road to my township is not lost on me.

I wish somebody could remove this hill, when I am tired and my catch is small, the hill always seems to be bigger.  When my catch is big and heavy, the hill seems to shrink.  But it’s always there, keeping my eyes away from the dam and in darkness from the light of the cross.

The hill is always on my mind, and what lies on the other side. People busy with work, living.  But I wonder if they think of me, existing, behind the hill.

Maybe they see me when they drive to the dump to throw out their waste.  It’s the road to my home.  I wonder.

The dam of Vanderkloof is large, I am told about 90km in length.  I can’t visualise that amount of water. The truth is that as large as they say this dam is I can only fish on less than half a kilometre of bank. Fences, gates with keypads, restrictions and regulations keep me locked in. In the land of my ancestors I am locked in, between a rock and a hill.

There are many recreational anglers who come to Vanderkloof, not including the people who live in the town who also enjoy to fish.  They come from far, Kimberley, Johannesburg, driving big cars pulling even bigger boats; the engines of their big cars flattening the hill. They slip into the water, shining rods, purring boats engines and then vanish behind the hill to fish on distant waters; waters that I have never seen.  The fishing must be good, as they come back with more rods.

I am still on the bank, trying to see behind the hill.  But this hill is still there, large. To be fair, not all of the recreational anglers in the town have boats.  Some of them also have to fish on the bank. But there is a difference; when the recreational anglers fish they do it for fun, to wind down after a hard day’s work.  The difference if they catch a fish or not is whether they will be able to post a picture on facebook with their catch or not; for me, it’s far more basic.  It simply means if I can put food on the table. So while we may share the bank that we cast from, we cast for very different reasons.  There is a saying that a rich man and a poor man look at bread in different ways.

When we heard that there was process by government to look at developing an experimental fishery on the dam to determine if a small scale fishery could be established we were elated.  It was as though they were saying that a bulldozer was coming to flatten the hill.

The possibility of having a boat and to be able to fish behind the hill, coming back with a load of fish to sell and earn a living is something we yearn for.

For too long we have been stranded on the bank and have to watch other people enjoy these waters.  We need our fair share, no more and no less.  But equally important we need to be heard and seen.  No more will we be hidden by the hill, our voices simply echoing back to us.

I am told that on the internet and social media the recreational anglers from the town and far away, are up in arms and have started a campaign and petition to stop the proposed fishery.  We don’t have the resources to keep track of these conversations or to even participate, but it does not mean we don’t equally have strong views and opinions.

While we support freedom of speech, an ideal that we fought for, it needs to be tempered with respect and humility. We find it incredibly disrespectful that anglers and angling organisations, living far away, are trying to determine our future and have the audacity to tell us what is best for us.  At a recent meeting it was suggested that we should give up the hope of becoming small-scale fishers and to be content as guides for the recreational fishers.

So in other words, we are being told, to go back to the bank and sit there and wait for a recreational fisher to come and maybe to employ us for the day to carry their bags and bait.  We think not.  We are going to become the captains of our destiny, and earn a living based on our hard work and endeavours, and not on the whim of a recreational fisher who may or may not come to Vanderkloof and may or may not hire us for the day as a gillie. The days of carrying other people’s load is over.

The reasons that the recreational anglers put forward as to their opposition for government to assist us to develop an experimental fishery on the dam is the largemouth yellow fish.   They say if we fish on this dam this fish will be threatened.  This fish which we have known since our beginning, live with us in our rivers, and it will continue to live with us.  The fish is not endangered and is found in over thousands of kilometres of rivers on the Vaal-Orange river system.   How can a small scale fishery confined to a small corner of the dam be such a threat?

Maybe the perceived threat that we pose is not about us fishing, but that we are now coming out of the shadow of the hill.

I urge government, not to capitulate by the pressure the recreational anglers are exerting.  It is insulting to us, that amidst the poverty and hopelessness that we face every day, that recreational anglers, from Vanderkloof and further away are attempting to block our constitutional rights to share state resources.

We will not rest, nor give up, we will claim our space, away from the shadow of the hill.


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