Cape Times

“Most sacred heart of Jesus have mercy on us,” reads a poster of Christ taped to Bra Aaron’s fridge. A chipped enamel stove stands beside it. On the wall, above mismatched mugs hanging from hooks, a framed Kitchen Prayer in cursive script catches the light. Bra Aaron is stooped over a newspaper in the lounge, framed by an open doorway.

My knock at the entrance startles him. Confused, he looks up and sees a figure silhouetted in white. His jaw opens noiselessly. I unlatch the bottom half of the door and step inside, where it is cool and dim.

“It’s you,” he sighs, folding the paper. “Come in.”

The lounge smells of old cigarettes and has faded mustard walls. A vase of plastic roses takes up most of a low table in the centre. I place my things next to a disposable lighter and two asthma pumps. Bra Aaron perches on the edge of the couch with his hands in his lap. He’s dressed in a beanie, a worn tracksuit and New Balance trainers with bright yellow socks. His cheeks are deeply furrowed and his lips are segmented by radial grooves.

Bra Aaron lives in Hout Bay and has been a fisherman for 57 years. He has never owned a fishing permit. Like thousands of others he dreams of earning a living from the sea, but the officials responsible for quota allocations have not been able to accommodate him. A new national fisheries policy that makes vague provisions for the elderly was adopted in 2012, giving him hope. But the policy is yet to be implemented.

“I went back to the moneylender,” he says, reaching for the lighter. Bra Aaron is 71 years old and receives R1260 a month from the state. A teenaged boy, who is not a relative, lives with him. The money is too little to cover their expenses — food, rent, electricity, a funeral plan, smokes and debt — so Bra Aaron borrows from loan sharks in the community, many of whom are also involved in poaching or the drug trade. They charge R50 interest per R100, which he can’t afford, he says. But he feels he has no choice.

“If I could get a crayfish quota it would be different. Honest. But the Department says I’ve already got an income.”

Bra Aaron has applied repeatedly for Interim Relief, a type of temporary fishing license issued annually since 2007. He has never been successful. Interim Relief holders are allowed to harvest moderate quantities of kreef (crayfish), linefish (mainly snoek and hottentot) and white mussel. Those that heed their quota restrictions — and not everybody does — cannot possibly become wealthy. But in marginal communities like Hangberg it’s having an income at all that usually matters.

The Interim Relief system was set up when a group of fisher representatives sued the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in 2005, arguing that quota allocations were systematically biased against traditional fishermen and the poor. Fisheries legislation at the time recognised just three categories of rights holders: commercial, subsistence and recreational. Small-scale fishers like Bra Aaron — who work close to shore using inexpensive boats and equipment, but sell their catch — fell awkwardly between the first two categories, and many deserving applicants lost out as a result.

Settling out of court, the Department agreed to draft a new policy for managing the small-scale sector, and to offer fishers relief quotas until the document was complete. The policy was formally adopted in June last year, but at least one further round of Interim Relief — the ninth — is on the horizon as officials grapple with translating their new mandate into a coherent implementation plan.

Bra Aaron will probably apply again, and will probably be rejected, because the Interim Relief system is geared towards providing for fishers who have no alternative form of income.

“I know what they’ll say at Sea Fisheries,” he says plainly. “That man gets a pension. He has an income. He doesn’t need a permit.”

Bra Aaron last went to sea last February, baiting kreef traps aboard another man’s boat. Occasionally he repairs hoop nets, earning perhaps R200 for a morning’s work. The job takes some expertise, and he does it because he needs the money, but it makes him angry that there are quota holders who don’t know how to do the basics themselves.

“Some of these youngsters with Interim Relief can’t even prepare a kreef net. They are inexperienced,” he complains.

To make matters worse, in his eyes, many quota holders don’t use their permits to catch linefish, a cornerstone of traditional Cape fishing culture.

“When kreef season is over, you catch snoek and hottentot,” Bra Aaron explains. “That’s how it works. But these lighties don’t want to learn. They just wait for kreef season to come again. Honest.”

When Bra Aaron says “honest” his voice shifts to a higher register. He punctuates his sentences with the word like a shrug. He coughs and lights a fourth cigarette, then coughs again. The asthma pump pressed to his lips makes a sound like an inflating balloon.

“We used to smoke dagga at sea,” he confides. “It gives you good energy for working. I enjoyed drinking wine too. But I stopped all that 20 years ago — I only smoke cigarettes now.”

“Can I buy Bra Aaron a pack?” I ask. He looks across the table.

“If you give me money I’d rather buy bread.”

It hurts watching an old man cry. His lips shake and tears spill from the rims of his eyes.

“There are many other pensioners like me in Hout Bay, people who’ve worked their whole lives at sea. Now none of us can get permits. What am I supposed to do?”

The small-scale fisheries policy recognises the need to include “vulnerable groups” in quota allocations but is thin on details. “The Department may (include) special provisions for women, the disabled and elderly persons,” it states. In the meantime Bra Aaron waits. There is nothing he can do but hope.

The gulls are loud outside. A car with a thumping soundsystem passes by on the street. Bra Aaron crosses the room to a back door that opens onto a small yard. He pulls off his beanie and stands, white-haired and silent, watching the boats in the harbour below.

“Maybe one day god will bless me with something,” he says. “They say miracles do happen.” 

Postscript: Bra Aaron was allocated an Interim Relief permit for the first time in December 2012, when the interviews that led to this article had already been completed. 

(All photographs © Gareth Smit.)