News & Events


Small-scale fisherman Celimpilo Mdluli

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

News & Events


This World Ocean Day, fishing communities from around the country are calling on government to commit to legitimising the sector, as a matter of urgency, to protect the livelihoods of coastal communities who have been dependent on the ocean for generations. While the recent lift in lockdown restrictions on fishers from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fishing (DEFF) is a welcome change, the issues experienced by South Africa’s small-scale fishers during this period, exposed a number of serious threats to their way of life.

According to Liziwe McDaid from the Green Connection – a NGO working with coastal communities to further empower them to protect our oceans, as part of its new Ocean Protection Campaign Who Stole Our Oceans? – fisher communities in Langebaan in the Western Cape and in Port St. Johns and Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape all experienced a host of challenges during the lockdown. This included being harassed by the military and police services, even with government permission to fish.

McDaid says, “While our initial focus is on protecting the oceans and raising awareness amongst coastal communities, including rights of small-scale subsistence fishers, from abuses by the Oil and Gas industries, the situation under lockdown was too dire to ignore. In all our conversations with fisher communities around the country, one of the key issues that came up over and over again, was that government took away their independence – that is, their ability to fish, for food or for sale – to make them dependent on insufficient and inconsistent hand-outs.”

Ntsindiso Nongcavu of Coastal Links in Port St Johns says, “To me the ocean means to be free and independent. It feels good that I am able to fish to feed myself and my family. This way I have dignity. I do not have to beg from anyone to put food on the table. And, when we work together as a community, sharing our catches or harvests, then we have a variety of seafood to choose from and everyone eats well. And, if everyone takes responsibility, through fishing we can also improve our local economy.”

“I come from a fishing family,” says Nongcavu. “Our family has been able to thrive, through fishing. While the methods of fishing may have changed over the years, our ability to be independent and live and make a living from the ocean, has not changed. Growing up, I remember, we did not have to buy too many things except what we could not produce those ourselves. That is our way of life, we live by doing things for ourselves, we don’t want to be dependent on others, and we want to live the way we have been and protect this place. We have been reliant on the ocean for many years.”

Phindile Phikani, also from Coastal Links in Port St. Johns says, “The first challenge was being locked-up at home, prohibited from fishing – our livelihood – and being told to wait for government assistance, which never arrives. In the rural areas especially, we are out of reach from government. This lack of support from government has led to other challenges, such as not being able to register our cooperatives. This meant that we could not fish, and many families in our community had to suffer with hunger, because of this.”

In other places like game reserves, fishers are caught no matter the documentation they carry. They are told that they are not permitted to enter due to lockdown. In Port Alfred, the South African Police Services (SAPS) even confiscated some fishers fishing equipment. Even though we asked for support from DEFF, no assistance was received. This only increased our troubles, because people were apprehended while trying to (legally) provide for their families,” adds Phikani. 

Solene Smit, a fisherwoman from Langebaan, Chair of the regional branch of Coastal Links says that since small-scale fishers do not belong to a sector, there are no policies in place to govern the sector, and was a key reason that the Covid-19 lockdown was unnecessarily difficult for many local fishermen around the country.

“Imagine the stress for our communities when, with government permission to fish, members of the military abused our people and refused to let them fish. While we did have a session with Minister Barbara Creecy, during this period, far too many of our issues remained unresolved. Not only did they not give us sufficient information, DEFF offered no support to assist with the imminent issues we face,” says Smit.   

Smit adds, “Our community did receive a once-off delivery of food parcels handed out during lockdown, while neighbouring towns continued to receive food parcels. What I do not understand is why the government took away our ability to fish, and therefore at least feed our families. Why did they want to make us dependent on handouts?”

Hilda Adams (based in Langebaan) from the umbrella movement, the SA Small Scale Fishers Collective says that local fishing communities were terribly unprepared for the lockdown, and that bureaucratic red tape – which affects much of the lives of our communities – have created even more issues.

“We could fish during lockdown, if you had a permit. But, to get this, fishers needed to travel far and needed to arrange for accommodation, and these places were all closed and people ended up with no permits during this period.”

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