On the night of Wednesday 16 September 2020, three fishers from the small scale fishing community co-operative in Nibela, near St. Lucia on the edge of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, went fishing in St Lucia lake. One of the fishers, Celimpilo Mdluli (30 years old), was shot dead, and a second fisher was shot above the knee. This killing of a young man, fishing to put food on the table for his family, is the latest in a deeply troubled history of conflict and violent harassment of small scale fishers by conservation officials working for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the iSimangaliso Heritage Authority. For years, the fishers of Nibela have fought for their rights to fish in their ancestral fishing grounds.
In the words of Mr. Thomas Nkuna, fisher leader and local chairperson of the fisher organisation Coastal Links: “everyone in Nibela depends on fishing. At Nibela there is not any kind of income that anyone can have there –the majority of people are living by fishing. We can call Nibela a fishing village. People from Nibela live through fishing. People who are now schooled, it’s because of the fishing”.
In 2016, the Nibela community applied to the then Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) for recognition as a small scale fishing community. In 2019 the small scale fisheries sector was launched in KZN. 106 fishers from Nibela were recognised and registered as a co-operative, and given rights to fish under South Africa’s Small-Scale Fisheries policy of 2012. Celimpilo Mdluli was one of the fishers included on the kwaNibela fisheries co-operative list. However, since the rights were allocated, there has been a lack of clarity regarding where fishers may fish, what fish may be harvested, and what gear may be used.
Despite the legal recognition by DEFF of their right to fish, the Nibela fishers (and many other small scale and subsistence fishers around the country) have faced ongoing violent harassment by conservation authorities and law enforcement officials. The Nibela fishers have complained and requested assistance repeatedly since 2017 to the Minister and the portfolio committee about being harassed by rangers inside the St Lucia heritage site.
Below is an extract of a letter from the Nibela community to the then Ministers of DAFF and DEA in 2017:
“Our ancestors settled this land around the lake and we have been fishing in the lake, feeding our families here and depending on the lake for food and for incema. We have been doing this for hundreds of years yet now we find ourselves harassed by iSimangaliso and Ezemvelo rangers who chase us away and who prevent us from feeding our families. Instead of respecting our customary system of governance and our customary law we find that they harass us“.
The lack of clear and co-ordinated communication between DEFF, iSimangaliso, Ezemvelo Wildlife and the small scale fishers regarding access of small scale fishers to protected areas has had deadly consequences in this instance. The weaponised policing of conservation areas, in the name of biodiversity protection, has led to the killing of a person who believed, and had been told by DEFF, that he had the right to fish where he was fishing.
The conservation authorities responsible will try to tell a story about dangerous illegal poachers. But Celimpilo Mdluli’s killing is a symptom of larger systemic injustices in the implementation of Marine Protected Areas, that violently exclude local people from the land and coast that is integral to their heritage and livelihoods.
The rangers and their actions are the direct result of a top-down, compliance centered approach to conservation. The responsibility for this lies at a high level within DEFF and the various conservation agencies, in terms of the lack of cooperative governance with regards to small scale fishers, a systematic failure to consider the social impacts of marine protected areas, and a very narrow interpretation of ‘sustainability’ that criminalizes customary coastal users.
As a coalition of civil society and researchers, we call for Justice for Celimpilo Mdluli, and for an immediate investigation into killing, as well as a broader process of restitution and healing around the conflict and exclusion perpetuated by Marine Protected Areas on coastal communities in South Africa.
Signed by: Coastal Justice Network South Africa; South African Small-Scale Fisheries Collective -The Collective; Chascavu Fishing Primary Co-operative; Koukamma Fishing Primary Co-operative; Sarah Baartman Fishing Primary Co-operative; KZN Subsistence Fishers Forum; Coastal Links Langebaan; Eastern Cape Black Fishers Co-operative; South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA); Masifundise Development Trust; Green Connection; Environmental Monitoring Group; Prof. Moenieba Isaacs; Tsele Nthane; Centre for Environmental Rights (CER); Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA); Natural Justice Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS); GroundWork; WoMin