In South Africa, fishing across old barriers

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There is an old superstition among South African fishermen that a woman on a boat is bad luck.

Under apartheid, South Africa's fish resources, like its diamonds and gold, were not for the poor. And as with most of the economy, fishing firms were owned by whites. But that's slowly changing.

Starting from zero two years ago, the women who run Bluefin Holding Co. have parlayed an affirmative-action program into lucrative stakes in six fishing boats and 20 percent ownership of a canning factory. They have government quotas to catch luxury food - 3.5 tons of lobster - as well as 1,400 tons of pilchards, fish that are a major protein source for the poor, who includes most of the women in Bluefin.

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The company's profit last year was roughly $71,000, of which 40 percent was invested in a lobster boat, eight percent was spent on community development projects, and 43 percent was paid out in dividends. At $1,785 per shareholder, that dividend equates to $148 per month, more than many of Ms. Meter's partners would have earned in their casual jobs at fish-processing plants.

Bluefin's shareholders are among the "formerly disadvantaged" majority of South Africa's population who believe the fishing quotas concentrated in white hands under apartheid must now be shared with blacks. "Racist legislation came between the [black] coastal communities and the sea," says Meter, born, raised, and now building her business in the impoverished fishing village of Hout Bay Heights, 20 minutes from Cape Town.

The government is struggling to encourage such "black empowerment" in fisheries, but is facing rough seas. It has been deluged with applications for lucrative quotas: 11,000 this year, "compared to 300 a few years ago," says Monde Mayakiso, chief director of marine and coastal management. He says fewer than 700 are likely to be awarded quotas.

The department has been unable to handle the load. Allocations are announced very late in the fishing season. That, coupled with the government's reluctance to give long-term quotas, means fishery newcomers have difficulty securing loans for expansion. Still, Mr. Mayakiso points out that 45 percent of allocations for pelagic fish now go to blacks compared with some 5 percent in 1994.

Mayakiso says many quota applicants are "chancers" just trying their luck. That's because winning a quota is, for some, like winning a lottery ticket: a lot of gain for little effort. Some empowerment companies have simply resold quotas to existing white-owned companies and spent the profits on things other than building fishing companies.

Such "paper quotas" are wrong, says George Banjwa, chair of the black-owned Sibanye Fishing Company in Hout Bay. He says fish allocations must be used to build new businesses to employ coastal people. In fact, Mr. Banjwa broke with eight of his 14 partners in a previous company after they outvoted him and five others and sold all of their first quota to an established white firm. "When they brought us our share of the money, we put it in the bank to build this new company, Sibanye," he says.

However, there are two sides to this coin. Both Banjwa and Meter point out they had to sell most of their initial fish allocations in the form of paper quotas in order to finance equipment.

"It's difficult to say who's a chancer and who's not," says Mayakiso. "Some of the previously disadvantaged couldn't produce a vessel as an argument for getting a quota - they need the quota to get the loan for a vessel."

Both Banjwa and Meter seem to be fulfilling the spirit of the empowerment program: building viable, sustainable fishing companies that employ and pay dividends to coastal folk, recognized as being among the poorest people in South Africa. Meter says Bluefin now advises subsistence fishermen in Hout Bay on how to apply for quotas.

However, the two also illustrate another, less comfortable truth about quota allocations. "Quite a number of politicians have got fish quotas," complains opposition politician Patricia de Lille of the Pan Africanist Congress.

Meter's husband Dickie is a ward councillor for the ruling African National Congress (ANC); he is, in effect, mayor of Hout Bay. And Banjwa is vice chairman of the ANC in Hout Bay, where his fishing boats are also tethered.

A draft fisheries-department paper notes that "decisions on actual allocations are seen by the general public as ad hoc with a high degree of subjective decisionmaking, and clouded with consequent allegations of nepotism and corruption."

Meter says, indignantly, that she got quotas "because I am an individual in my own right, not because I have a husband in politics. I don't piggyback on him." Had her husband been able to influence the fisheries department, she says, it should not have taken six attempts in as many years to get a quota.

Banjwa, wearing a bright yellow ANC T-shirt, says it was his and his partners' lifelong experience in fish processing that led to Sibanye's fish allocations.

"My father worked 29 years in the industry and never had an opportunity to buy in," says Banjwa. "When he retired they gave him 8,000 rand cash [about $1,100] and that was his pension." He's proud that Sibanye employs up to 70 people, depending on the season, and that through him African women have found jobs in fish processing, an aspect of the industry dominated by "coloured" - mixed - women.

Although she now puts in one day a week on her lobster boat in order to qualify for her skipper's license, when Meter got her first quota she had no direct experience in the fish business. What she had were superb organizational, promotional, and business skills from her days working for nongovernmental organizations and industry. Her ability to get Cabinet ministers and journalists to Bluefin's corporate events has helped her make the connections the company needs to further leverage its quotas.

Bluefin has negotiated a 20 percent interest in the white-owned Saldanha Canning Co. That 20 percent is worth about $1.7 million, but Meter indicates cryptically that Bluefin doesn't really owe that amount. "I negotiated with Saldanha to cushion the investment," she says. Part of the deal is that Bluefin must deliver its pilchard catch to Saldanha for processing. She says the company agreed to help finance Bluefin's stake because "they're looking at the longer term. Black quotas are going to get bigger, and theirs will get smaller. They need black empowerment partners."

"This is a very superficial type of empowerment because the really poor fishermen are not benefiting," says Ms. de Lille, a firebrand highly regarded for her work with the poor. She recently brought 100 subsistence fishermen from the George-Mossel Bay area to Cape Town to argue their case with authorities. "The criteria for issuing quotas has always baffled me," she says.

Kevin Daniels, a subsistence lobsterman from the village of Witsands, said in a television interview he can't understand why he can't get a decent quota. He can legally catch just four lobsters a day, earning under $1.50 a lobster that will be sold for $30 in restaurants. Daniels says if he can't get permission to catch more lobster legally, "I can go out and steal, and then they will put me in jail."

Noting that it is impossible for all 11,000 applicants to get quotas, Mayakiso says a program to address the problems faced by subsistence fishers would be introduced shortly.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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