Hanging in Hangbergby Kimon de Greef / 24.12.2013
Originally published 19 July 2013
The call came late last week.
“Kimon! Where have you been? There’s big shit going on here and you need to write a story.”
It was Ralph, a fifty year-old fisherman I’d gotten to know while researching abalone poaching in Hangberg last year. We hadn’t spoken in months. He was angry I hadn’t answered earlier — I’d been working in the restaurant all day — and hung up after I promised to visit.
Monday was the first chance I got. I packed a voice recorder, notepad and camera and selected a padded jacket in case the men took me hiking. And then I left.
Driving into Hangberg is always windswept and grey. A gull hung motionless above the traffic circle where Hout Bay ends and the harbour, the coloured settlement and the workingman’s sea begin. Sand covered the road. A man with a missing forearm kicked the sand. His shopping packet twisted in the wind.
There were men I didn’t recognize outside Ralph’s apartment, dressed in beanies and worn jeans, packing a bottleneck. Ralph stepped onto the pavement to greet me.
“New guys,” I observed, conscious of their gaze.
“Scrap dealers,” he said. “Here for recycling.”
There was a damaged bakkie outside piled with barbed wire and other fragments of metal.
“You know Bonteheuwel? They’re from that side.”
One man flashed his teeth. He had a muscular jaw and suede boots.
“You drove all the way to Hout Bay?” I asked.
“Too many people hustle scrap on the Flats. Everywhere we go the stuff’s already taken.”
He was handed the bottleneck and then his face was shrouded in smoke. The smoke cleared and he smiled again. Ralph had disappeared inside.
The lounge was ashy and dim. Ralph’s wife was smoking cigarettes. There were Black Label bottles on the table and three small glasses. Her guests, whom I presumed to be a couple, were slumped in their chairs.
“You must interview him,” said Ralph, pointing, but the man with pale whiskers said nothing.
“Let’s walk to the nek,” said Ralph, pulling on a beanie. “We’ll have a long chat.”
We took a winding route uphill through the shacks. The council flats they back onto, including Ralph’s block, were built in the 1950s to house workers from Hout Bay’s fish processing factories. Within 20 years the flats were completely overcrowded. People spilled out into backyard dwellings, and later into bungalows that spread haphazardly across the slopes.
Ralph and I zigzagged up a sandy path, stepping over rubbish and puddles. Voices called from deep within the maze and Ralph shouted back. We were crammed in tight between corrugated metal walls, ascending splintered flights of stairs. Rubber tires had been stacked to fortify the slope.
In September 2010 the City of Cape Town attempted to forcibly remove shack-dwellers from a firebreak high above the settlement. A riot ensued, tires were burned and four people lost eyes to rubber bullets. Most of the bungalows remained.
“Kom, julle, he’s a journalist,” Ralph urged the men. They were sitting in a dark one-room shelter, playing cards. One I knew; the other two ignored me. I stepped outside while Ralph hassled them, still not sure why I’d been invited.
From the damp patch of earth in front of the door I could see lopsided shack roofs, the council flats, the harbour and Hout Bay’s expensive mountainside suburbs rising on the far side of the valley.
“Come,” said Ralph, followed by the man I’d met before, who had a cell phone plugged into a portable speaker.
“The rains have made it difficult,” he said as we navigated the mountain path. “Look—the guys dug channels to drain the water.”
Torn plastic bags lay in the bushes, discarded by carriers running perlemoen into Hangberg at night. Slipping in the mud could mean a broken ankle. The channels didn’t seem to have made much difference.
At the nek the mountain falls away and you’re confronted with an ocean that stretches to the Antarctic. The wind is freezing. The peninsula bends in wide arcs to the left: Chapman’s Peak, Noordhoek, Kommetjie. Below, Duiker Island is blanketed with seals, and their grunts carry upwards with the eternal shrieks of the gulls.
We sat on rocks encircled by cigarette butts. The other men from the shack joined us, saying nothing. One unwrapped a finger of ganja and began rhythmically sifting out seeds. I took out my voice recorder and waited for something to happen.
“I was born in Hout Bay; I’m a fisherman,” began Ralph. “I travelled the east coast and the west coast, catching snoek and squid. In 1996 we heard about the new quota system, got told we could apply for fish. I applied but when the papers came out I was unsuccessful. I don’t know why I was unsuccessful.”
He was telling me an old story, one that’s been mythologized in coloured fishing communities since the end of apartheid. In the dark days of National Party rule only whites could apply for commercial fishing rights; everyone else had to work on boats or in factories. This guaranteed cheap labour and uncontested profits for the minority who controlled the sector, a tested recipe that underpins the entire South African economy.
Then democracy happened and the fishing industry opened up. Previously excluded fishermen were invited to apply for permits that would entitle them to own and sell their catch. Can you imagine the anticipation after generations spent waiting at the door?
But the transformation drive came with two important caveats: that viable fish stocks were maintained and that the economic stability of the sector wasn’t compromised. This placed a hard limit on the number of new quotas that could be issued, and many hopefuls who applied came away with nothing. Meanwhile, disproportionate numbers of politicians, schoolteachers, preachers and other well-connected individuals with no fishing credentials benefitted, cashing in on their skin colour and a superior ability to fill out forms.
“Because we’re fishermen, see,” explained Ralph’s friend, who’d belatedly joined the conversation. “Many of us didn’t, you know, write so good. Many of us were illiterate.”
We sat a while and listened to the gulls. In spite of the wind a match was struck to light the pipe. The men passed it between themselves, two of them middle-aged and two in their twenties. The smoke evaporated instantly. We’d spoken about poaching, quota misallocations, shady deals, race relations and the unending struggle of eking a living from the sea.
And I’d learned nothing new, because we’d discussed all these things before.
“It’s a long story, this,” said Ralph, watching the sea. His hair was greying on top and his cheeks were riven with grooves. In the thin evening light even his red tracksuit pants looked faded. My ears were cold and when the men were finished smoking I stood to leave.
“Kimon,” he said as we descended, “you must come back soon for more.”
*All images © Kimon de Greef