S. Africa seeks fairer division of fish harvest

Nonwhites receive larger allocations, now that apartheid is ended

November 18, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ELANDS BAY, South Africa -- For most of his adult life, Lemmie Klaase, 35, has fished the chill Atlantic seas here as a worker for white-owned companies. These days he is fishing for himself, a man of "color."

He is a member of one of this country's first fishing cooperatives, newly formed in the wake of a government initiative to end traditional white domination of the South African commercial fishing fleet.

The ruling African National Congress is committed to the transformation of the fishing industry as part of its national effort to "uplift" those who are officially described as "the previously disadvantaged" -- mainly blacks and "coloreds," as people of mixed race like Klaase are known here.

Until 1976, there was no restriction on commercial fishing in South African waters. Anyone was free to catch what he could. As a young boy, Klaase watched his father regularly bringing home the sea's harvest.

But then came the imposition of the 200-mile international water boundary to keep foreign fishers out. Next, in 1979, just as he followed his father onto the boats, the apartheid government introduced a quota system, regulating how much fish each company or individual could catch.

Inevitably, the major benefits went to the big white-owned fisheries, leaving black and colored fishermen high and dry.

"We are the fishermen who suffered," said Klaase, outside the white-walled cottage in which he was born in this impoverished seaside community. "The quotas went mostly to the white people in the area. Then, as colored fishermen, we had to work for them."

Soon after its election in 1994, the country's first black democratic government set about giving the fishers here in Elands Bay and other deprived coastal communities more access to the hake, pilchards, anchovies, squid, crawfish and abalone controlled by the quota system.

Its decision: to reallocate fishing quotas, lessening the share of the catch given to established white-run companies and increasing that given to blacks and coloreds.

This has produced what might be called a fine kettle of fish -- alarm in the board rooms of existing fisheries, impatience in local communities expecting rapid change, bewilderment on both sides over who will get what in the new allocations, and accusations of corruption in the corridors of power.

Twenty years ago, the country's two largest fisheries, Irvin and Johnson Ltd. and Sea Harvest Corp., both based in Cape Town, controlled more than 90 percent of the total catch.

This year their share of the 185,000 ton harvest is down to 67 percent, with shrinkage accelerating as the African National Congress has made quota reallocation a priority.

During the campaign for the second democratic election here in June, the ANC used the quota issue in its struggle to wrest from the New National Party control of the Western Cape, the country's major fishing province along South Africa's cold-sea Atlantic coast.

"It's a highly emotional thing down here," said Charles Atkins, fisheries director of Irvin and Johnson, South Africa's oldest commercial deep-sea fishing company, incorporated in 1910.

"There was a lot of talk about dispossession of rights [under the apartheid system], of the communities having been thrown out from the traditional activity," he said.

That, Atkins said, might have been true about inshore fishing for resources such as crawfish, in which Klaase is involved. But highly capitalized deep-sea trawling for hake, in which Irvin and Johnson specializes, was never a traditional activity.

By way of illustration, Atkins pointed out that the company recently paid $6.5 million each for two new trawlers, $9 million for a second-hand, five-year-old factory ship, and $10 million on a processing plant -- fishing on an industrial, not a communal, scale.

"Our position is really that there is no economic justification for redistributing the quota, and we don't believe there is any moral reason in our part of the business," said Atkins.

Today, 43 percent of his company's managers in the seafoods division are black or colored, three black empowerment groups hold 20 percent of the company's equity and union-backed groups are able to take up another 9 per cent.

Many of the new quota owners selected by the government, he said, were not even fishermen, but were simply applying for quotas so they could promptly sell them back to the major companies to make a fast fortune. A quota for fishing hake is worth as much as $400 a quota ton. A 1,000-ton quota can bring the new owner $400,000.

Process criticized

"It's the path to instant riches," said Atkins. "There is no transparency at all in the process. I don't know of the basis they allocate [the new quotas]. It seems to me there is questionable criteria.

"The departmental officials themselves are judge and jury. People who had quotas lost them. They don't know whether they will get them back again. There's a huge amount of uncertainty. Our fear is they will take away more and more."

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