durban, south africa

A Fishers’ movement in the Durban Port

By Kira Erwin
April 2022

The Port in the city of Durban, on the East Coast of South Africa, is both the city’s economic hub and a deeply contested space. As the article by Patrick Bond on the Contested Ports site shows, the port’s activities and plans for expansion are fundamentally shaped by global capital logics and logistics, as well as desires for national GDP growth and development. These driving objectives are frequently abstracted from the environmental and climate harms of busy ports, as well as the health and livelihoods of local people living next to (and sometimes inside) the port area.

Photography Nompilo Mtethwa, 2021.

While environmental activists like the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance have engaged local and national government on these environmental issues, they have also stood in solidarity with small-scale and subsistence fishers. These fishers are immediately impacted by planning and regulations pertaining to the port area. For example, from 2003 onwards Durban fishers were excluded from accessing the areas of the port, including piers that fishers have historically used for generations. The tragedy of 9/11 in the USA brought in security restrictions around public entry to ports. In 2006 the National Ports Act in South Africa legislated further access regulations for the public. Subsequent plans for developing the back of port and expanding the port itself solidified fishers’ views that their fishing grounds were being closed off to them, without any recognition of the dire consequences on their daily attempts to put food on their tables and make a meager livelihood from selling limited catch.

Artwork by Rohini Amratlal, Privilege in the Distance, 2021 (Watercolours on Fabriano ).

But the port area is more than just a location in which to catch fish for many fishers. The Durban port area is an integral part of Durban’s history, experienced differently for people depending on how you were classified under colonial administration and later apartheid rule. Many urban fishers in Durban trace their historic roots to the indentured labours brought from India around 1860 to serve as slave labour in the then colonial province of Natal. These indentured labourers brought with them cultural traditions and skills of fishing, rod and reel as well as line and seine nets, that helped them subsist and build a community despite the harsh oppressions of colonial administration. These fishing skills not only provided food for indentured labourers but over time grew into a robust craft industry that provided seafood to Durban markets. Many of these fishing families lived around Salisbury Island within the Durban harbour. Already in the colonial area restrictions were placed on ‘Indian’ fishers as the growing populations of ‘white’ Europeans demanded more leisure access and fishing rights to the harbour area. But the real blow to this rich cultural heritage of fishing came with the first forced removals of fishing families away from the sea. In1963 family homes in Salisbury Island were torn down and people forced to relocate first to Bayhead further from the harbour mouth, and then to Chatsworths a designated ‘Indian’ township under the notorious Group Areas Act that forced racial segregation in South Africa. Chatsworth is over 20kms away from the seaside, which meant fishers had to make a daily train commute to earn their livelihood and feed their families (see the Cast Out report for a full coverage of this history).

Painting: Kenneth Shandu, Durban Harbour 2021 (Oil on canvas).

Over the years one of the prize fishing spots was the famous South Pier, a deep-water pier in the mouth of the port that made rod and reel fishing feel like you were fishing off a boat out at sea. The stories of bonding and brotherhood between fishers as they braved the rough Indian ocean waves that break over this pier are legendary. At the gateway to the Durban Port, the South Pier has heard countless iterations of culture and heritage related to fishing, including the best spices to flavour a fish curry, passed down from generation to generation.

It is no wonder then that subsistence fishers and fishers with cultural roots to these piers mobilized against their exclusions from the Port. After writing letters and petitions, as well as peaceful protests to demand access to cultural fishing areas within the port, they finally started collectively legal action in 2009. In 2013 the South African courts recognized the rights of these fishers and the port authority at Transnet opened the South Pier to fishers with permits. If you are interested in reading some of these stories you can explore the Fishers Tales websites to hear in the words of the fishers themselves the meaning this, and other spaces, hold for them.

Photography by Kira Erwin, View from the South Pier, 2021.

But why is this contestation around the port important for contemporary understandings of Port cities? Primarily it shows how poor participation in port planning, especially planning that does not pay attention to historic injustices, can catalyze strong opposition to top-down developments. This opposition mobilized many fishers who had not previously organised for their rights or taken on political fights to realize these rights. The struggles for subsistence fishing access in the Durban Port saw the growth of a robust and more organized fishers’ movement. More recently this movement has been mobilized to engage the national Department of Forestry, Fishing and the Environment on the onerous regulations that apply to small-scale fishers in the country. It has also joined a national mobilization of small-scale and subsistence fishers across the South African coast against Oil & Gas prospecting and mining in the oceans. Increasingly politically savvy and drawing on learnings from their contestation on accessing the Durban port, fishers in this city are starting to see themselves as fishers and as environmental defenders. Fishers who dream of their grandchildren fishing in an ocean full of fish and not oil.

Dr Kira Erwin is a sociologist and Senior Researcher, at the Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology, South Africa. Her research and publications focus largely on race, racialisation, racism and anti-racism work within the urban context. She is involved in The Fishers’ Tales project – an arts-based storytelling project that collect fishers’ tales, recognizing their knowledge and care for the ocean as inspirations for ocean governance in South Africa.

South Durban Community Environmental Alliance

The Fishers’ Tales project


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