Fishers in rural northern KwaZulu-Natal who have historically fished the lakes on land that was declared a Unesco heritage site in 1999 say restrictions are being enforced unfairly, resulting in them being labelled as poachers.
Current fishing policies criminalise their livelihoods, while tourism and related development continues to flourish in the village.
The fishers, under a fishing co-operative, say there is a lack of clear understanding between the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and governmental organisation Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife that leaves them in limbo.
Gillnet fishing is prohibited in the area and complaints of conservation officials who work for Ezemvelo and iSimangaliso harassing fishers are nothing new. But the fishing community echoes the sentiments of Loretta Feris, who writes in A Customary Right To Fish When Fish Are Sparse: Managing Conflicting Claims Between Customary Rights and Environmental Rights that “current policies detail the systematic dispossession of marine resources from indigenous communities and the ultimate elimination of possessory interests and any legally protected uses of almost all natural resources, including marine resources”.
Residents reported in September that iSimangaliso sea patrol rangers allegedly shot three fishers. Celimpilo Mdluli died and a second man was shot in the leg, while a third escaped into the woods.
iSimangaliso communications manager Bheki Manzini did not respond to queries regarding the shooting but says all operations and regulations in place at the wetland park are governed by South African law.
“The regulations in place are not only special or specific to the park but to all South Africans. In the fishing context, gillnet fishing is not allowed, and fishing without a permit is also prohibited in the park. Anyone who is found breaking these laws is arrested. iSimangaliso is entitled with the responsibility of safeguarding the park within the means of South African law. The park rangers are trained professionals who react only when in danger.
“The job itself is a dangerous one,” he says, “because there are often armed poachers and other people who break the law who are often armed.”
Manzini adds that iSimangaliso has had an adverse relationship with those who live near the park in the past, but that “the relationship has drastically improved as a task team that was set out to engage and establish a stronger relationship with the communities has been prioritised. We are working well with all the tribal leaders and the results have been positive.”
Neither the police nor the department responded to queries.
‘We fish for a living’
Zebron Mduli says his son, Celimpilo Mdluli, was a hard-working fisher. “My father was a fisher, and so was I. Celimpilo was a breadwinner, solely from the catches of the day. This is the only way we’ve been surviving. There is little to no development, nor resources or opportunities in this village.
“We fish for a living and we know no other way. The death of my son cannot go unnoticed, it is a loud indicator that small-scale fishermen are being oppressed, and now killed, while trying to make an honest living.
“There is no heritage site without its residents. We’ve been living in this village far longer than Unesco, now suddenly we are a threat to this nature. Something needs to change. If they are telling us to stop fishing, they must demonstrate to us how we can survive,” says Mdluli.
“We are at war here. We are going hungry while next door, a renowned lodge is making wealth from the village’s natural resources while we are being deprived. We are arrested and beaten up if found fishing. So instead, we fish at night. We build our own boats and use nets that we share between the group. It’s not much to depend on, but we make at least R300 a day.”
A lake for the wealthy
iSimangaliso describes itself as the second-largest protected area after the Kruger National Park.
“The park contains three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems, 700-year-old fishing traditions, most of South Africa’s remaining swamp forests, Africa’s largest estuarine system, 530 bird species and 25 000-year-old coastal dunes – among the highest in the world,” it says on the park’s website.
Joyce Hlophe, who used to make a living designing and making mats to sell using grass from the lake, says she can no longer support her family this way.
“iSimangaliso came here from overseas to enforce unfair restrictions upon us. Before they came here, we were able to live in peace, take our kids to school and feed our families through carpet sales. The material is unique, strong and makes for attractive and durable mats, baskets and other decorative material.
“We would often sell to visitors, travellers and locals who supported our efforts. iSimangaliso cares not for us, instead they chase us out like criminals, in our own back yards. You can no longer find women in that lake because they also beat us up and chase us away. Apparently, we are not allowed to use or enjoy the lake, but the rich are,” says Hlophe.
The night shift
Simo Bukhosini, 33, and Sakhile Ngubane, 38, are fishing partners. They built their boat and use old wooden planks as paddles and strips of tyre for the handles. Their day begins at 6pm and ends around 3am.
They arrive at the shore three hours before heading to sea. First, they untangle their nets and pack them safely into bags. They each check the condition of the boat, and help other fishers with repairs and to pack for the night shift geared with fishing boots, raincoats and sandwiches.
Bukhosini has a scar just above his eye. He says park rangers attacked him in 2017 while he was fishing at night. “We are deemed illegal here. We are scared to fish during the day because they have chased us off, destroyed and burnt our boats on numerous occasions.”
Thomas Nkuna, the leader of the fishing co-operative, says the community wants recognition.
“Our entire livelihoods depend on the fish from the lake. The lake has been serving us and we have been taking care of it. It is not fair for authorities to allege that we are exploiting the resources that have been keeping us alive for centuries.”
He says they have made countless submissions to the department, but “we are on our own. Residents of Nibela [are] against the most powerful parks authority. We are honest fishermen who have no other survival alternative. We depend on the water, the vegetation, the grass and the fish. We need support, education, co-operation and even partnership with iSimangaliso so they can understand who we are, what we are about and clarify for us the meaning of a World Heritage site,” says Nkuna. “Does this site exist without its people?”
The KwaNibela Peninsula extends into the north of Lake St Lucia and borders the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the highly valued World Heritage site that forms part of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot.
KwaNibela does not have a formal conservation status, but is covered in coastal forest patches interspersed with Maputaland coastal belt vegetation.
The peninsula is home to a rural, Zulu-speaking community who live in family homesteads concentrated mainly on the north of the peninsula.
Lake St Lucia is the largest estuarine system in Africa and fishing by banned methods proved difficult to control in remote areas of the lake. It was consequently prohibited and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the custodian of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, has been actively enforcing Section 164 of the provincial Nature Conservation Ordinance 15/1974, which prohibits all forms other than line fishing.
Despite this, those living on the lake have persisted in catching fish and prawns by means of gill and seine nets. The catch is either sold or consumed.
The fisheries department estimates that about 30 000 fishers can be found in the coastal belt of South Africa, with the majority in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Fishing is an ancient occupation and men and women in coastal communities have made a living from fishing and related activities for generations.
Gill and seine netting has taken place in the north of the Lake St Lucia Game Reserve since the late 1960s. The present policy that prohibits netting has resulted in conflict between residents and conservation authorities.
The Oceanographic Research Institute published a report in 1994, Quantification of Illicit Fish Harvesting in the Lake St Lucia Game Reserve, South Africa, on the implications of traditional and commercial fishing practices in the area. It says the fishers’ “resentment” is aimed at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
The report suggests that to ensure sustainable harvesting of the lake, the areas that should receive fishing rights are those adjacent to Lake St Lucia, such as Nibela and Nkundusi. It recommends that traditional gillnet fishers receive permits decided by traditional authorities.
According to a study on marine protected areas and their impact on traditional small-scale fishing communities, published by the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers in 2008, South Africa legally recognised subsistence fishers for the first time in 1998, with the promulgation of the Marine Living Resources Act.
Before that, fishers harvesting marine resources for purposes other than recreational or subsistence were regulated through law enforcement and considered poachers.
“A Subsistence Fisheries Task Group was appointed in December 1998. The group provided recommendations on the definition and identification of subsistence fishers, areas and zones, procedures for allocation of rights, research requirements, management and monitoring systems, as well as the involvement of fishers in decision-making.”
The project fell through because of compliance issues. The scientists felt it was not sustainable and recommended that subsistence fishing communities be channelled into alternative livelihoods.
But the task group did conduct a survey and create a list of towns and villages that were home to subsistence fishers. KwaNibela was listed as a subsistence fishing community.
The department delegated responsibility for the management of fishing in KwaZulu-Natal to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in 2001. It established a subsistence fisheries unit in the province to introduce a management and permitting scheme for such fishers.
But the unit relied on an extremely narrow definition of subsistence fishing and only recognised about 2 000 subsistence fishers in the entire province, in 12 communities. KwaNibela was excluded, forcing the fishers in this area to fish without permits and be categorised as “illegal fishers” and “poachers”, says Masifundise Development Trust research and advocacy co-ordinator Jackie Sunde.