Being a fisherman might sound like a romantic lifestyle to some, but the reality is often quite different. In many towns along South Africa’s West Coast, days and nights are dominated by chronic poverty and other socio-economic challenges.
by Miriam Mannak, Cape Town
“In a good week a fish factory worker here might earn ninety-eight euros. That might be higher than minimum wage, but try to feed your family and educate your kids,” says Enrico Abdoel, a mathematics teacher at the St Helena Bay Primary School in Laingville.
This speck on the map forms part of the St Helena Bay region. Situated 150km north of Cape Town, the area is the heart of South Africa’s fish processing industry. It’s also a tourism destination, but most locals are too busy surviving to notice the area’s sublime natural splendours.
Not quite normal
“When you grow up here, everything seems normal. It’s only when you leave that you notice what is wrong. That is what happened when I moved to Cape Town to study,” says Abdoel, adding that he’s the first one in his family with a degree. “My parents never finished high school.”
Poverty and unemployment are some of the main challenges that dictate life in St Helena Bay. According to official statistics, fifty percent of the people here are unemployed. But technically, this rate is much higher according to Abdoel.
“Most people who have a job are seasonal workers,” he explains. “The season lasts from autumn to early spring in October. This means that half of the year; most people are sitting at home without an income.”
Alternative employment opportunities are scarce to non-existent “Over ninety-five percent of households in St Helena Bay depend on the fishing industry,” says Tim Afrika, the school’s deputy principal. “There is not much else to do. We feel the situation. Last year, we received only ten percent of the school fees owed to us – twenty euros per child per year. It is difficult, but what can we do?”
The 51-year-old Susan Bekeur came to St Helena Bay 24 years ago from Hondeklip, an impoverished fishing village some 500km from Cape Town. “My husband and I moved here to find work,” she explains. “We both ended up at one of the fishing companies, Oceana. I worked in the cannery and later as a cleaner, while my husband was at sea.”
Today, eleven years after her husband died from a lung condition, Bekeur runs a network of community soup kitchens.
“People struggle. For some of them, our meal is the only one they get,” she explains. “Sometimes we feed fifty people a day, sometimes we feed hundreds. It depends whether it’s fishing season. Out of season, we are much busier.”
While government has a responsibility in improving living conditions in impoverished communities like St Helena Bay, the private sector is acknowledging its own role in this regard. Bekeur’s former employer is one of them.
Between 2006 and 2011, Oceana put 1.7 million euros towards corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, of which nearly 25 percent was spent last year. To centralise its expenditures, the company that spits out 600.000 cans of fish a day, has launched its own Foundation.
“Because our contributions toward social projects were taking place in a rather fragmented manner, our expenditures within communities did not have an optimal impact,” explains CEO Francois Kuttel, adding that education is one of Oceana’s focuses.
“We have refurbished various schools, provided digital smart boards to five of them, donated air conditioners, gave furniture, and provided three schools with a minibus. Transport is a serious challenge for many schools.”
The Sentinel Primary School in Hout Bay, a fishing village just outside Cape Town, is one of Oceana’s beneficiaries. “They gave us a bus, which will make a massive difference as it enables us to take pupils to sports tournament and on field trips,” says principal Amanda Engelbrecht. “Companies like Oceana indeed have a role in empowering communities. Government on its own can only do so much.”