Culturally, traditionally, spiritually fisher people belong to the sea. When you work so close to nature and the ocean, it becomes part of you. That is why to many fisher people, being able to fish is a matter of pride, of dignity.

John Grandfield remembers growing up only 300 metres from the ocean, with the sound of the crashing waves everywhere and the feel of the South Easter wind breezing through the rooms of his ancestral home. But the entire community of Skipskop was demolished to make way for a Military test site, ravaged by the Apartheid system of white supremacy and privilege.

Now almost 60 years later, Grandfield has become part of a global movement of indigenous fisher peoples, fighting for their ancestral rights to harvest the oceans freely and for the right to live a dignified life.

Grandfield (56) who now lives in the community of Struisbaai on the South Coast, travelled to Cape Town this week to become part of a gathering of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), where fisher peoples from more then 25 countries intend to, “Assert our Rights, Restore our Dignity”.

The General Assembly of the WFFP has brought together representatives from the Caribbean, South East Asia, the Indian Sub-continent, Europe, New Zealand, Ecuador, Honduras, Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia and other countries.

The World Forum of Fisher People.

The World Forum of Fisher People.

Founded In India

The World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP) was founded in India on 21 November 1997 by fisher peoples from 24 countries and 35 support organisations and its founding documents speak of the following intentions:

“Uphold our human and fishing rights as fisherfolk of the world, protect our livelihoods, pursue social justice for fishing communities, preserve and promote the culture of fishing communities worldwide, affirm water as the source of all life and commit ourselves to sustain fisheries and all aquatic resources for present and future generations of the world.”

Bongo said the purpose of the 6th General Assembly of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples in Cape Town (about 120 delegates attended) was to bring the world’s fishing communities together to see how best they could continue to fight for food security, human rights and dignity.

The forebears of the fishing peoples all around the world, have been living in communion with the sea and this cannot be changed, even when those with guns and money come to steal the ocean from them.

In a downtown hotel the World Forum stalwarts met without much fanfare, in the heart of a city that is home to some of Africa’s biggest fishing and trawling companies. Out there, beyond Table Bay and the host country’s territorial waters, the global giants that scour the oceans weighed anchor. While powerful and strident the gathering had the air of Davids punching at distant Goliaths.

The lives and struggles of small scale fishing communities and activists were brought into sharper focus by this gathering. Andy Johnston, a representative of the Artisanal Fishers Association, a campaigner for the rights of fisher peoples since 1952, said the fight for fishing rights is about preserving a way of life.

“Culturally, traditionally, spiritually fisher people belong to the sea. When you work so close to nature and the ocean, it becomes part of you. That is why to many fisher people, being able to fish is a matter of pride, of dignity.”

Johnston, who was instrumental in growing a global movement for fisher peoples, said it was the Indonesian and Filipino fishers who were brought to the Cape as slaves, who taught the Cape’s Indigenous peoples how the fishing culture could grow from a subsistence industry to more complex forms of community fishing.

“These fishing communities were then able to supply cheap food to the broader community”, said Johnston.

Making Way for the Rich

Johnston described how local peoples were taken away from the sea as a result of Apartheid policies. Fishing peoples were displaced from sites like Oudekraal and the Clifton beaches, making way for prime, whites-only, seaside residences. In recent years land prices have skyrocketed in these areas, occupied now by mostly foreigners.

John Grandfield, who is the Chairperson of the Coastal Links movement in Struisbaai, says he still has vivid memories of his childhood in the community of Skipskop and of his first days as a fisher man.

“At the age of 13, I had to leave school to help my father on the boats. It was my first time at sea and the open ocean was new and quite strange for me then. I remember asking my father about the houses I saw drifting on the water, on the horizon. Of course they were not houses but ships.”

Paternoster Fishers. Photo by John Garland.

Paternoster Fishers. Photo by John Garland.

He said many of the displaced people who were forcibly removed from Skipskop still carry the pain.

Singing the Pain

“There is a little song, about the removals that we still call the Skipskop song. It went something like this, ‘Take all your little things, stick it on your head and get on the road”.

Although Grandfield now owns his own little “chug-boat” and has been given some fishing rights in the past, it was the desperation faced by his fellow fishers that made him decide to join the fight.

Grandfield said government took quotas or fishing rights away from small scale fishing communities and gave the rights to big companies. Small-scale fishermen were also not happy with the way fish were declared endangered and how the fishing season was decided. Grandfield said all these regulations and restrictions made it impossible for fishing communities to make a living.

“The small scale fishing communities live close to the ocean and depend on the fish for a living so we are the best people to protect our own food source”.

Grandfield said small fishing communities are restricted to fish only one kind of fish or food source, like either crayfish or line fish. They are now fighting for the right to harvest any kind of fish or food source from the ocean.

“At this time we are restricted to only fish in certain places. We want the coast line to be opened so we are able to harvest food anywhere.”

Langebaan activist Solene Smith.

Langebaan activist Solene Smith.

Solene Smith (59) travelled from the community of Langebaan on South Africa’s West Coast, to participate in the WFFP gathering. She believes it is important to learn from small-scale fishing communities elsewhere in the world.

Smith, who is the chairperson of the Coastal Links movement in Langebaan, said she became involved with the struggle of small-scale fishing communities, after she helped her husband overcome a family tragedy.

A Family Drowned

“His father, brother, nephew and brother-in-law all drowned while working at sea. He was devastated and I had to help him to start again.”

Smith said local fisher peoples could fish where they wanted until the Apartheid government grabbed the land from them and divided it into a National Park, a Military base and the rest as a Marine Protected Area.

“The Langebaan lagoon area was all traditionally our land. It used to be only us, fisher peoples who lived there. We were born there, grew up there and then they forced us out.”

Smith explained: “The fishing fields in Langebaan are now divided into 3 zones; Zones A, B and C. Zone C is a “no-take” zone where no fishing is allowed, Zone B is for the exclusive fishing of 3 white commercial fishing operators. This leaves us with the Zone A as the only place we can fish, but we have to compete there with sporting fishermen, kite surfers, jet skiers and many other events. All this activity makes it impossible for us to fish there as all the fish are scared away.”

The Langebaan small-scale fishing community has now taken the National Parks Board and the Government’s Department of Environmental Affairs to court.

“We want to return to our ancestral fishing grounds. We believe we are being discriminated against. Why are white fishing establishments given exclusive fishing rights?”

Smith said they were the best people to own and protect the Langebaan coastal lands and to harvest from the sea.

We Know the Sea

“Indigenous fisher peoples know the sea, they have indigenous knowledge of the sea, when to go to the sea and when not to, when to harvest which fish and when not.”

Smith said they remained determined to continue fighting for dignity.

“The light shines bright on the other side. We must hold out, persevere, and keep on. In the end we will win.”

This message of perseverance was a theme running through the General Assembly of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples. In his contribution, Andy Johnston encouraged the Assembly to take action. Johnston said: “The fisher people have a saying, ‘In order for the boats to return to the harbour, you must send them out to sea.”

The song Skipskop – made popular by David Kramer and Sonja Herold – immortalised the injustice of uprooting a whole community with cutting lyrics. The following translation is functional and does not do the poetic song full justice:

Pack up pack up
Put your bags on your head
Tomorrow we go away
far away from here
Skipskop, Skipskop

When does it all end
Hardship lies just beyond
The blue mountains yonder
I’m a child of the Overberg
Here I was born
Here at Skipskop
Like my father and his father way back
In these dunes lie all our tracks
Here on the beach, by the seaside I was born

But what can I do
I am one with these blue waters
I am the clouds and the winds that blow here
But sell your little boat, pack up your things
And say so long Skipskop, Skipskop say goodbye
And say so long Skipskop, Skipskop say goodbye

To the right or to the left
Where are we going, such confusion
Please sir, just tell me again
Is this the road that tomorrow we all have to follow
A piece lies here and a piece lies there
Pieces of my life scattered everywhere
Pick up Shorty and pick up the doll
Go fetch that little monkey and watch the kid

But what can I do
I am one with these blue waters
I am the clouds and the winds that blow here
But sell your little boat, pack up your things
And say so long Skipskop, Skipskop say goodbye
And say so long Skipskop, Skipskop say goodbye