Large haul: Officials inspect perlemoen on a farm in Alexandria. Picture: Brian Witbooi
Large haul: Officials inspect perlemoen on a farm in Alexandria. Picture: Brian Witbooi

I was sitting in my garden on Saturday evening, ruminating about what to write for my FM column this week. Suddenly, my neighbour shouted: "Bugger off! Get away, you thieves!" Actually, he qualified "thieves" with a nasty adjective, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Naturally, as a model 21st-century citizen, I immediately turned on my cellphone video before wandering over to offer help. It turned out he wasn’t being mugged, but was standing on his balcony yelling at perlemoen poachers diving off an inflatable boat a few hundred metres offshore.

"God, I hate those bastards," he muttered, once he’d stopped shouting.

I, too, decry the wholesale plundering of our sea life, especially because in this case it’s a plunder driven by perlemoen’s unfortunate and absurd status as a delicacy in the apparently insatiable Chinese market, analogous to shark-fin soup and bird’s nest soup both in scarcity and mucous taste profile. And, unlike rhinos, perlemoen isn’t ever going to be on anyone’s list of cute things to save.

But I couldn’t help wincing at the vitriol directed at the poachers, and the automatic casting of them as the enemy.

In a recent article in Hakai magazine, journalist Kimon de Greef (who, with former poacher Shuhood Abader, wrote the excellent must-read Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld) talks about how "Chinese mafia groups, in alliance with SA drug cartels, have taken control of the market … Over the past few decades, these syndicates have paid poachers to collectively harvest some 45,000t of abalone — or nearly 6t per day.

"Money from abalone poaching has corrupted every government agency tasked with combating the problem. In 2018, the two top officials in SA’s fisheries department were embroiled in separate abalone scandals."

So far, so South African. As with almost every other area of our lives where government and opportunity collide, there’s corruption. Well, I say "almost" every area. It might actually be every area.

Lucrative catch: Quota holders harvest perlemoen in the kelp beds close to Kleinmond, also a hotspot for perlemoen poaching. Picture: Gallo Images/Rodger Bosch
Lucrative catch: Quota holders harvest perlemoen in the kelp beds close to Kleinmond, also a hotspot for perlemoen poaching. Picture: Gallo Images/Rodger Bosch

But perlemoen poaching is also an allegory for crime and corruption in general. Every report into the subject highlights how poverty, not absurd culinary affectation, is its main enabler.

Before you abandon this column in annoyance, let me reassure you that this isn’t one of those bleeding-heart pleas to go soft on criminals because of their sad circumstances, or to forgive those who trespass against us with violence because they’re victims of a pernicious history. I might write that one another time.

What this is, though, is a call for empathy in the way we see our world, as well as an awareness of how this allegory plays out everywhere, again and again.

According to a 2018 report by Marieke Norton, a researcher at the African Climate & Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town (UCT), the government has tried since 1994 to make the fishing industry more inclusive.

"However, it’s failed to give small-scale fishers the number and size of fishing rights they were expecting, or that they needed," she said. "The disappointment this caused led to an explosion of what was termed ‘protest fishing’, where large groups of disgruntled fishers would fish illegally, often out in the open and in front of the public and media to make their case for the recognition of their livelihoods."

As an aside, let’s not forget that dubious goings-on in the fishing industry and Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo, the holding company for his flailing propaganda arm Independent Newspapers, seem to be inextricably linked.

In 2013, Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois was fired after she had dared to run a front-page story about then public protector Thuli Madonsela’s finding that suggested agriculture, forestry & fisheries minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was, as the Mail & Guardian put it, "guilty of maladministration, as well as improper and unethical conduct in the irregular awarding of an R800m tender to a Sekunjalo subsidiary to manage the state’s fishery vessels".

(And, lest we forget, Joemat-Pettersson’s curious attempt to sell our strategic oil reserves at bargain-bin prices is probably going to cost taxpayers "hundreds of millions [of rands] as oil and financing companies that were hoping to benefit from the lucrative and secret deal are suing the state in a civil matter for losses", as Daily Maverick reported. But our current beloved public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, has apparently absolved her, so that’s OK.)

Keeping watch: Security services safeguard perlemoen stocks. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff
Keeping watch: Security services safeguard perlemoen stocks. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff

The UCT report goes on to trace a perhaps inevitable trajectory, and it’s one we can see operating in many other areas of our society. Because the catches are now illegal, the criminal infrastructure steps up to take control. In the case of perlemoen, the biggest market is China, so the criminal system is set up to cater to that.

Effectively, our government’s inability to redress economic and societal wrongs is tantamount to outsourcing people’s wellbeing to criminals. Or, if not criminals, near-criminals, such as our clamorous populist parties and organisations.

And, to state the obvious, Covid-19 has made this problem worse. Using the example of perlemoen poaching, "though demand has temporarily dropped, the root causes that drive people into poaching have intensified under the lockdown, which has disproportionately hurt poor communities", De Greef says. "As soon as the market returns, ‘there will be an overwhelm’ [sic] of poaching, predicts Angelo Joseph, a representative from the Cape Town community of Hangberg."

What it means:


Empathy is preferable to condemnation in thinking about some classes of criminals

When asked in an interview on News24 what is needed to address the problem, De Greef said: "We need a far more inclusive society and economy, one that redistributes wealth and opportunity to the millions of people still living with the painful and unjust inheritance of colonialism, apartheid and the shortcomings of politicians since 1994.

"We need a society where people feel invested in the rule of law, not alienated by it. And we need more effective law enforcement that shuts down supply lines instead of criminalising the working poor."

I would argue that empathy is the oil that we need to make this redemptive engine run.

My neighbour might have been surprised to learn that I don’t share his hatred of poachers. And in case anyone is foolish enough to believe that these issues are peculiar to our democratic government, my neighbour might also be surprised if I told him the personal tale of a 10-year-old boy forced to scrabble into pitch black secret hatches in boats, crawl spaces stinking of rotting perlemoen slime and crayfish blood, to reach the furthest of the illegal catch.

Poor people being driven to poach isn’t a new phenomenon, and the way criminal organisations take advantage of this is an unhappy norm. What we can’t risk, though, is the absolute definition of those driven to crime as the enemy, as this is precisely the fodder that populism feeds upon.

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