More support is needed for South Africa’s subsistence fisherwomen

South African women fish for a living, and for their lives.

Fishing for a living is a hard life, everywhere. Subsistence fishing can be brutally difficult, but it has its dignity. For example, in Durban, on the east coast of South Africa, women and men have been subsistence fishing off the piers and beaches for over a hundred years. Generation after generation, they have used the skills their forebears brought when they came from India as indentured workers. Across generations and for decades upon decades, subsistence fishing brought fisherwomen and fishermen economic income as well as spiritual and cultural fulfillment.

Four years ago, that all came to a crashing close when much of the harbor was closed to fishing. On one hand, there were `security’ issues. On the other hand, there was rapid private development, referred to `expansion’. It wasn’t `expansion’. It was privatization; it was theft of public and common space. The results for the subsistence fisherwomen and fishermen were devastating, and continue to be so.

For the fisherwomen and fishermen, the act of fishing successfully, of bringing home food and some money from the sales of their day’s labor, is value. Honoring the labor of their forebears is value. Being on the water, being together, being a community, is value.

For those who occupy the commanding heights of Durban, real estate is value, and the water, the beach front, recreational fishing, have all become big business, and promise to intensify, or `expand’, in the future. For them, extraction is value.

For fisherwomen, the closure of and exclusion from public spaces has particular, gendered aspects. Fishing together off the piers provided safety. As the spaces closed, competition increased. As the competition intensified, tensions turned to violence. This occurred in an environment that was already hard on fisherwomen. Women’s subordinate position in fishing communities generally made them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. This has meant high levels of HIV and AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence. With the reduction of available spaces for fishing, the loss of income, increased and intensified unemployment, the daily lives of fisherwomen and of women in fishing communities predictably became more perilous and more toxic.

It’s the predictability that has to be taken into account. None of this is a surprise and none of this is a secret. It’s public policy; it’s part of the development scheme for Durban … and beyond.

During the last two decades, South African fisherwomen have organized. The South African Fisherwomen’s Association, organized by Sahra Luyt, has been on the frontline of integrating women into the fishing industries, as well as combating the increased difficulties due to climate change. There’s the Oceanview Fisherwomen’s Association, colored women from the Cape Flats who took up fishing to survive and to live with dignity, as documented in Penny Gaines’ 2002 documentary, “Strong Enough”.

That women fish for a living, and for their lives, in South Africa is well known, except at IRIN, “a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs”, which ran a news piece today headlined, “More support needed for South Africa’s subsistence fishermen.” The article should come with a disclaimer, “No fisherwomen were interviewed in the making of this article.” Nowhere does the article reference fisherwomen. Not even fisherfolk. Only `fishermen’ make the IRIN cut.

South African subsistence fisherwomen have always had a tough time in fishing communities. More recently, they have been under attack by State and private developers. And now they are erased by coordinators of humanitarian affairs. More support is needed for South Africa’s subsistence fisherwomen.



(Photo Credit: Lee Middleton / IPS)

Women at work, not miracles, feed the village

At the end of November, Durban, South Africa, will host COP 17, the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As happened last year, in the run-up to the Cancun conference, the press yet again `discovers’ women farmers, women fisherfolk, women workers, who are at the core of the struggle for climate justice, both as active participants and as targets of environmental devastation and climate change. Yet again, the story is that women `bear the brunt.’

This story takes one of two routes, miracle or mercy. According to the first, by some miracle, women discover a way to feed their communities. According to the second, the slow death of climate change shall have no mercy on women. This week’s Mail & Guardian offers a prime example of the miracle narrative.

In “The `miracle’ tree”, the village of Tooseng is saved by the `miracle’ of the moringa tree. It was no miracle. It was instead Mavis Mathabatha, of the Sedikong sa Lerato drop-in center, which feeds 320 children and provides after-school care. As well it was her mentor, Mamakgeme Mphahlele, who directs Lenkwane Lamaphiri drop-in center, in Mphahlele Seleteng. Both Mathabatha and Mphalele have committed their centers to planting the super-nutritious moringa trees. The moringa leaves are a treasure of nutrients: calcium, vitamin C, potassium, iron, vitamin A, protein, and lots of each.

There was no miracle. Mathabatha and Mphalele, as women in charge of drop-in centers, did what women in charge of drop-in centers do. As Mavis Mathabatha tells the story, the women performed research. They asked questions. They went on-line and researched some more. They found the information, then they found the agencies to provide the seeds, then they found the means. They took care of the children, the community, and, in their way, the world.

Climate justice. Sustaining and sustainable food. Healthy children. These are not lofty, impossible goals, and they are never the result of miracles. They are, instead, produced by women who live in the everyday, in the odinary world we all inhabit, and who struggle to improve it. We have had too many stories of miracle workers. Instead, let’s hear about the neighbors and friends, the women around the corner or in the next village, and what they’re doing. Let’s admire Mavis Mathabatha and Mamakgeme Mphahlele for their radically ordinary pursuit of well being for all.


(Photo Credit: Mail & Guardian)