This article regarding black market economy in South Africa has been written by Kimon De Greef for the Cape Town Globalist, a South African student magazine and PB partner.
“Those guys never think of the consequences. It’s about easy money and living a party lifestyle: dive, get paid, and blow it on drugs, women, expensive clothes … then go work again when the cash runs out.” The policeman stubbed his cigarette in an overflowing ashtray and walked back to the adjoining room. “People in Hangberg are not poaching perlemoen (abalone) for survival. You’ll see them buying flat screen TV’s and putting soundsystems in their cars, but living in a shack … they’re after getting rich and flaunting it, and that’s that.”
Two weeks later I was sitting in the front yard of an apartment in Hangberg, South Africa. My host—a self-confessed poacher— handed me a mug of tea. Three pairs of expensive shoes sauntered into view. I greeted the boys and they mumbled perfunctory replies before returning to their own conversations. One wore a woman’s silver wristwatch halfway up his arm, an incongruous accessory beside his tight dreadlocks and tattooed hands. I thought of the policeman’s words.
But Jonathan* gave me a different perspective. Seated on a battered couch in his small lounge, the perlemoen diver listed some of the home renovations his illicit revenue stream had paid for.
“We had no running water up here on the slopes before… then I built a bathroom. My family has a proper toilet now. We don’t need to dig holes in the ground.” He pointed to the rain-streaked window and continued. “This room doesn’t leak anymore. And since I put this pane in I’ve got the best sea view.” I stood and looked past lopsided shacks to the mist-shrouded bay and the ridges of Chapman’s Peak Drive beyond.
“I wanted to buy a car,” Jonathan explained, “but decided to spend the money on my home instead, make it better for the wife and kids, you know? I’m saving for a car again … but living from day to day is expensive, my broe!”
Jonathan earns between R200 and R250 per kilogram of abalone he harvests, potentially netting over R10 000 profit in a single night. He works aboard a high-powered rubber duck along with a second diver, a skipper, and a deck assistant. His team targets reefs right around the Cape Peninsula, focusing on Robben Island in particular for its abundant stocks. He pays a small team of carriers to deliver his catch to Hangberg from a remote drop-off point outside the bay. This single diving operation directly employs between ten and twelve men.
At least five poaching groups currently operate in Hangberg, representing more than 250 individuals and accounting, they say, for illegal harvests on the order of 50 tons of abalone a year. (To put this figure in perspective, the legal commercial abalone quota for the whole country was 150 tons in 2012.)
From a conservation or fisheries management perspective this is awful news: South Africa’s abalone stocks are on the brink of commercial extinction following more than two decades of rampant poaching, and cannot sustain further depletion. The poaching is fuelled by high demand in the Far East, where abalone is considered both a delicacy and status symbol, accounting for its street value of over R1000 / kg.
Essentially a giant sea snail—adults reach a maximum shell length of 18 cm—abalone grows far too slowly to sustainably satiate this market. A highly organized criminal network, unconstrained by the quota restrictions and minimum size limits that apply in the legal market, has evolved to meet the demand.
Syndicated abalone poaching began on the Overberg coast, gaining a foothold in impoverished fishing communities like Hawston and Gansbaai by offering residents an opportunity to prosper from the sea. Now, it has become firmly established in Hangberg, with focus shifting towards the Cape Peninsula after stock collapse—and improved policing—in former poaching hotspots.
Local law enforcement officials are concerned: besides its detrimental impacts on resources, illegal abalone harvesting is frequently accompanied by turf wars, drug peddling, and other undesirable by-products of the black market.
But in Hangberg, like fishing communities elsewhere, poaching has also started performing a range of important social and economic functions, filling a void left by the restructuring of the formal fisheries sector and posing challenges to those hoping to bring the plunder to an end.
“The government calls us criminals but offers no alternatives. We are men of the sea; we poach abalone because we have no legal access,” Jonathan tells me. Fisheries managers argue that resources are too depleted to sustain additional harvesting effort—but there are shoes to buy and bathrooms to build in Hangberg, and poaching continues.
Meanwhile, large commercial companies still receive quotas for abalone and other lucrative species like rock lobster, a fact poachers are quick to point out. Despite concerted attempts to reform South Africa’s fisheries sector since apartheid, impoverished fishing communities continue to feel overlooked. This sense of injustice, coupled with endemic poverty, makes them fertile breeding grounds for illegal activity.
The government’s latest attempt to remedy the situation is a new small-scale fisheries policy that aims to bring improved social justice and economic development to disadvantaged fishing communities. Authorities hope this will diminish the appeal of illegal harvesting. But the criminal economy has powerful, entrenched interests, and the new policy will not be successful unless it addresses the root socio-economic problems that make abalone poaching an attractive—and lucrative—livelihood strategy.
I handed the empty mug back to my host in the yard. We sat in silence for a time, watching passers-by on the street, and then he turned towards me.
“I don’t consider myself a poacher, you know,” he said. “I’m a pirate.”
– Kimon De Greef
Featured photo: Kleinz1, Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 1: Salem Elizabeth, Creative Commons, Flickr