Sores Florus has been arrested and jailed 14 times for doing what his ancestors have been doing for thousands of years.
Sores has presence, both in terms of his tall, strong diver’s body, a halo of dark hair, springbok-skin waistcoat and warm affability. He’s also forceful when he needs to be and highly articulate, making him a formidable activist for Aboriginal fishing rights and a target for authorities when he challenges them, which is often.
We’re standing at a wide hotel window overlooking Table Bay where a Human Rights Commission hearing into fishing rights has just ended. A stern trawler is heading for the breakwater between massive container ships anchored in the bay.
‘It doesn’t make sense’
Sores looks at it reflectively for a moment and says: “They call me a poacher. Those boats are ripping up the ocean and I get arrested for two abalone. It doesn’t make sense.” His fight, however, is not about two abalones but about the ancient right of his people, the Hessequa, to gather food along the seashore.
“You have to understand the context,” he tells me. “For thousands of years, my people fed their families by honest means along the shores from present-day Namibia to KwaZulu-Natal — the midden and rock art are there as evidence. Then we were colonised by immigrants and migrants who made laws for themselves with unconditional voting systems in the form of politics to their own advantage. Everyone knows the history of this country.”
Don Pinnock: Can you verify your Aboriginal rights?
Sores Florus: I absolutely can. I come from Genadendal which is the first Aboriginal land where the Moravians founded a missionary station on Hessequa territory. The Moravian Church decimated a lot of our culture but also preserved a lot because they kept records from the very beginning. The people they took in were Hessequa, who are Hottentot people, the original citizens of southern Africa.
Bot Rivier, Hemel en Aarde, Hermanus, McGregor through to Riversdale, it’s all Hessequa territory amongst other tribes. That’s documented by the missionaries as well as our people when they learned to read and write.
When I was still at school, I helped with the museum in Genadendal and got to understand my origins. I know who I am. We have always collected wild plants for food and medicine, wood for fires and fished as part of our livelihood.
DP: So that gives you fishing rights beyond licences and quotas?
SF: Yes, because as Aboriginal Hottentots we understand our rights to food. During my childhood, there were no licences for fishing, no trespassing laws for firewood collection and interdicts prohibiting us from moving onto our own land. The legal system prohibited fishing for our people and then introduced a permit and licence system.
The licences were complex and costly, essentially ringfencing them for big-money immigrants and migrants. Permits for our people were based on racially based policies as we are not Black African or Afrikaner in particular as defined.
I got five-year ‘rights’ renewed four times over the past 20 years on a 500kg abalone quota. Our grandfathers in the past had two tonnes or more during the ‘70s to ‘90s and there were no quotas before their time. The insatiable export markets were not yet there.
And there was a catch. Under the new fishing rules you needed state-vetted experience, a commercial diver’s licence, a boat with a compressor and an agreement signed by a local processing plant. We didn’t have all those assets and infrastructure. You also had to sell your entire catch to the processing plant, mostly for export. Not a single abalone, crayfish or fish can be taken home for consumption by ourselves or our families.
DP: Who owned the processing plants?
SF: That’s the right question. They were and are owned by people who had the capital to set them up. They bought boats that complied with state specifications and rented them to locals with fishing quotas at R55,000 a season.
On top of that, you have to pay R16 000 a year levy to the government and maybe you have to take out a R10 000 loan — which they misrepresent by calling it an advance.
These actions are technically prohibited because the interest over the loan period is way higher than the legal interest rate. However, quota holders are forced to take these high-interest-rate loans to survive the season.
Because you’re not allowed to harvest for food, you now have to use their ‘advance’ to buy the fish that was caught off your local beach by yourself. This fish is also now in a tin with a multinational company label on it.
I have an invoice where I paid R1 600 a kilogram for my own quota of abalone from the same processing factory that paid me R450 a kilogram that very same year. The plant pays you for your catch on a sliding scale dependent on the size of your advance. With an R10 000 advance, you get R650 a kilo for abalone, for double that advance, you get R500 a kilo. And so it goes, less and less.
On top of that, the Department of Fisheries started cutting our quotas. I went down from 500kg to 150kg then 130kg. Do the sums. A lot of fishers are earning R6 000 a year and the processing plant R250 000 on the very same quota.
DP: You told me earlier that non-local people were also getting quotas.
SF: They are. We’re up against BEE guys — voting fodder — who know nothing about fishing, maybe live in Soweto, Crossroads or Khayelitsha and get quotas as traditional fishers which they almost exclusively sell to the processing plants, totally excluding the local inhabitants.
It gets worse. The processing plants also get state quotas — up to, but not limited to 120 tonnes for abalone and crayfish. There’s one foreign national fishing company that received the fish right 100 000 tonnes in our waters… BBBEE compliant. Without our consent.
DP: I guess my next question has to be about poaching.
SF: Of course! It’s inevitable. But can you call it poaching? It’s a label stuck on people, many of whom are exercising their Hottentot rights. Even with quotas, people struggle to survive. But many are disallowed licences.
DP: Why is that?
SF: A few reasons. First, we are not declared Africans. In terms of legal definition, we disappear as a people, no longer Hessequa. When we are arrested for harvesting our food in terms of our culture, be it fish or game. It’s defined as poaching and criminalised.
Then, if you are arrested, it makes you ineligible for a permit or licence. From the West Coast, Hawston to Ggeberha and East London, I estimate that excludes about 70% of the fishing community. That stands until you can get your record expunged and that takes up to 10 years.
So now what do the inhabitants do? They don’t want to act illegally but the system has excluded and evicted them from their own land and food resources. They’re the guys who do the work, not the middlemen or transporters, and they’re the guys who go to jail. And they can’t work with the processing plants so they have to plug into the organised crime networks who screw them the same, but without a government rubber stamp of approval.
DP: Have you been arrested?
SF: Yes, arrested and jailed 14 times, once in Pollsmoor Prison. Right now I’m out on bail pending yet another constitutional and human rights violation matter. They want to put me on trial for contravening the Marine Living Resources Act. My bail conditions are that I cannot talk to individuals, groups or organizations.
DP: Or me?
SF: Probably not. To be here today I had to get permission from my investigating officer to leave my municipal area. By 10am tomorrow I have to be in Jeffrey’s Bay to sign in. I’m not allowed to be on any beach or have any fishing equipment. It’s very stressful for my family every time I leave the house.
DP: You must spend a lot of time in court.
SF: I do, and every time it costs me money to hire legal assistance and travel to court hearings. But you can’t reason with a policeman who has just beaten you to a pulp, confiscated all your equipment and is now dragging you through the criminal courts for feeding your family, collecting firewood or harvesting medicinal plants. All our food, fuel and medicine are now deemed private property.
DP: So you’re saying there’s a deep injustice here.
SF: There certainly is. Our people are branded poachers and what do you imagine a poacher looks like? You don’t picture black or white guys as poachers. Poachers are Coloured people in Hawston or Hout Bay, right? That is now the definition of a poacher. Gangsters.
They’re guys who have to go out at night and crawl around in the bush like thieves, some of them on their bellies. It’s a white beach and they may crawl 500 metres. Some have been eaten by sharks. That’s the desperation level, what it entails to be a Coloured fisherman. And this has become the norm and it has become cool because some of the guys have been flashing stacks of money.
It’s not sustainable. It’s not regular. But it comes with the industry. You have to give up your honest right. You must accept that what you’re doing is now an illegal act you’re a part of. And to accept that willingly is one of the hardest things to do.
So I hate the fact that our people are branded poachers when they try to earn an honest living out of the sea. I hate the fact that they say a small amount of abalone constitutes poaching when one commercial boatload of permitted abalone would probably make up a month’s diving of a whole community the traditional way. Who are the poachers here?
Targeting branded poachers
When we talk about poachers and illegal poaching, I want to continuously reiterate, that we’re talking about Aboriginal divers who are desperate, who are branded poachers and criminalised because the system is doing exactly what it’s intended to do — to criminalise the real owners and to legalise illegal guys. Nobody looks at the big commercial boats ripping up the ocean.
The factories are set up as a one-stop shop and have a central market with a value chain for international buyers. The people benefiting from this continent and its resources are comfortable, but not the true owners of the resource. We from whom it was stolen by foreign invaders are used to mine it. They get rich and we get arrested.
Sores is packing his bag and his transport is waiting. I ask him what will happen if he doesn’t report in by 10am tomorrow.
SF: Probably get arrested…again.
This article was first published by Daily Maverick.
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