Cape Town - In the first South African link to the mystery of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane that vanished almost five weeks ago, the South African fishing community is mourning the disappearance of small-fishing rights pioneer Dr Chandrika Sharma, who was aboard the ill-fated flight.
Sharma, described as a world leader in the fight for the rights of fishermen, was among the 239 passengers aboard flight MH 370, and fishing communities from Lamberts Bay and Doringbaai to Hout Bay and Arniston have spent the past few weeks paying tribute to Sharma and her work in South Africa over the past 12 years.
Sharma first arrived in South Africa in 2002 as an Indian representative at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. Though new to the country, she quickly identified with grassroots fishermen, making business contacts and friends.
She was instrumental in the development of a network of local small-scale fisheries, first encouraging the idea, then developing it.
Her more recent efforts to set up small-scale fisheries guidelines with the UN have been described as “invaluable”.
Some of Sharma’s friends and colleagues here have taken the news of her disappearance hard, and refuse to acknowledge the possibility of her death.
Naseegh Jaffer, director of the Masifundise Development Trust and co-ordinator of the World Forum of Fisher People, has worked with Sharma for the past 12 years.
“We are both friends and colleagues, and she’s someone I can rely on. She is warm and embraced everyone’s different views, feelings and opinions. She is really special. I refer to her in the present tense and that we are still working together because I cannot accept her death.
“I would like to believe so until there is hard evidence, and will not be able to find closure until then,” Jaffer said.
The pair worked on many projects over the past decade, but focused on the development of international guidelines for small-scale fisheries over the past four years.
“We spent the last four years developing and co-ordinating the guidelines with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation. I hope the guidelines will be finalised in June and endorsed in her name,” he said.
Solene Smith, chairwoman of the Langebaan small-scale fisheries organisation, described Sharma as a friend and mentor.
“There is nothing but good things to say about Chandrika. I first met her in 2002 and continued to see her at workshops and developed a wonderful friendship with her. She taught me to be a leader, how to organise people and work together as a community. When we heard about the plane we were shocked and thought ‘what will we do without her’.
“But the lessons she taught me and so many others will stay with us forever, just like our memories of her.”
Lamberts Bay fisherman Nico Valdeck said he would always remember Sharma’s passion for working with people. “She had a real passion and connected with everyone instantly. She always wanted to learn more; you could really feel her drive and the care she had for people. It’s very hard to accept that she’s dead, and many of us won’t until there is hard evidence.
“She was such an incredible person, and meant so much to so many (that) it’s very difficult to believe that we won’t see her again,” he said.