Sea change for South Africa

English: Fishing boat, Cape Town, South Africa

English: Fishing boat, Cape Town, South Africa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a new dawn for small-scale fish farmers and others in rural farming communities as legislation and business practices open markets and improve food security, writes Jackie Cameron.

Amid heated labour protests that have swept the country and made international headlines, it is easy to forget significant progress has been made in empowering many of the country’s poorest. Behind-the-scenes, a small army of community and business leaders has been tackling the unglamorous task of improving life for the disadvantaged who rely on the land and sea for survival.

In what is undoubtedly a major victory for the downtrodden in coastal communities, Parliament recently published a policy for the small scale fisheries sector in South Africa. This is the first time marginalised communities who depend on the sea for their livelihoods and food security have been placed centre stage in legislation. Fishing artisans and sea harvesters have been competing with commercial capital for at least a century over the country’s marine resources.

Recent legislation omitted small-scale fisher folk altogether, making it difficult for them to earn a living legally from the sea because they have only been able to catch fish on recreational permits. But, a court battle in 2005 ultimately led to an order to Parliamentarians to draw up the small-scale fisheries policy in order to allow some 30 000 subsidence fishermen and women to sell their catch.

The policy has taken seven years to reach the Government Gazette. Next is to flesh out implementation plans, expected to be unveiled in the first half of 2013. The National Economic Development and Labour Council, the committee that plays a guiding role in all things economic, is set to meet soon to finalise details.

Artisanal Fisheries Association chairman Andy Johnston, who played a key role in bringing the matter to court in 2005, is optimistic the policy will lead to improvements for fishing communities. He says that, although there are still many challenges ahead, particularly in identifying beneficiaries of the policy, the legislation is generally positive. “Whole communities can benefit if the policy is properly implemented,” notes Johnston.

Naseegh Jaffer of the fishing community-focused Masifundise Development Trust, which has also campaigned for small-scale fishers’ rights, predicts the policy will transform the sector “in a major way”. “Change for the better will be minimal after the first year and will grow exponentially thereafter. It is our view that the policy implementation approach must be gradual as some of the policy provisions are quite complex and require significant cooperation across various government departments and provinces,” he says.

Significant early change, says Jaffer, is that fishers will have the right to go to sea and harvest multiple species. “They can earn a better income and therefore have more money to spend at local level. This, in turn, will have a cascading effect, especially in rural communities.”

What’s more, middle players will be removed, notes Jaffer. “This means more value stays within the fishing community and fishers are less vulnerable to the upfront loan agreements keeping them in debt and exploiting them from their earnings.”

It is not just the people with the rods and nets who will benefit, though. As Jaffer points out: in the medium term value adding at local level  ― through ventures ranging from jewellery creation, tourism, boat-building, retail outlets, fish processing and other related services ― is likely to boost employment levels.

Women, who face the extra battle of patriarchal structures in fishing communities, are expected to benefit considerably as new legislation is put into place. For starters, the policy now enables women to also do harvesting if they so wish, says Jaffer.

Other women, who mostly do pre- and post-harvesting will have their work brought into the mainstream and therefore they will also find legal and economic protection under the legislation, he says. “The policy suggests women should be among the primary beneficiaries from adding value in the post-harvest and marketing processes,” points out Jaffer.

Other features of the policy that acknowledge the critical role of women in this sector include having gender sensitive ablution facilities at harbours and landing sites. Childcare facilities are also set to be developed in order to make it easier for women to work in the small-scale fishing sector.

Not to be overlooked is that the policy isn’t just about allocating fishing rights, but about livelihoods and food security. “It is a development policy for small-scale fishing communities that addresses their dependence on fishing and related activities as well as their broader social and economic situation,” says the community activist.

Opportunistic business operators are in for disappointment if they think the policy will open fresh entrepreneurial avenues. “No new entrants will be allowed in this sector. Already the resource is under serious pressure to accommodate those who meet the criteria. In fact, the policy recognises that supplementary livelihoods must be investigated as the resource is not enough to meet the needs of fishers,” says Jaffer.

Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Tina Joemat-Pettersson MP, includes the small-scale fisheries policy as one of the country’s tools to tackle the “triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty”. Speaking to business leaders at an end-of-year function in Johannesburg, she emphasised that: “Feeding the nation is not just about providing food, but is also about creating a conducive environment for citizens to take part in the production of their own food.”

Roughly a quarter of all South Africans don’t get enough to eat each day and smallholder farmers and co-operatives are seen as playing a key role in increasing food production as well as employment levels. “We need to review the decisions that we took earlier on in our democracy, some of which left us with practically no support to a strategic sector like agriculture, in the face of continuing and in some cases increasing agricultural support in some of our major trading partners,” says Joemat-Pettersson.

She cites low levels of technical ability, low productivity, lack of access to finance and inability to meet quality standards demanded by sophisticated markets as among the obstacles to growth. But, the country’s food security policy aims to tackle many of these challenges and includes a “reprioritisation of government procurement of food to provide markets for community food production”, says the Minister.

Already making an effort to improve access to markets for smallholder farmers are some of the country’s biggest retailers and agro-processing firms. Joemat-Pettersson has singled out the Massmart-Walmart chain for starting to partner smallholder farmers, providing technical assistance and sourcing fresh produce from them for their stores. SAB Miller and Tiger Brands have similar schemes, she notes.

With widespread hunger and at least one-third of under 30-year-olds unemployed, chronic poverty and food insecurity are arguably South Africa’s biggest challenges. As Joemat-Pettersson says: “We cannot wish our problems away..this is not the time for blame. We have a multi-generational problem that will take many years to solve, but the time is ripe for us to do that now.” Policies like that aimed at the small-scale fisheries communities take the nation another step in the right direction.

*  This article was first published in African Leader magazine. The journalist, Jackie Cameron, conducted interviews from her base near Edinburgh, UK. Jackie Cameron writes about business, investment, economics and current affairs for titles around the world.

Contact the writer at: jackiecameron.uk@gmail.com.

Copyright: Jackie Cameron 2013.

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