The workers at The Shed at Hout Bay Harbour are at their wits' end. Their workspace has burnt down and they don't know when the next shipment of fish will come in for them to earn a living. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

Cape Town - The ladies responsible for cleaning and processing fresh fish at Hout Bay Harbour at a facility known as The Shed sit idle outside the charred shell of the building they worked in.

The structure remains sound, but the interior walls are blackened with smoke, the paint bubbled from the heat, the ceiling lies completely gutted on the floor of their workspace. Everything inside, the cupboards, counters, desks, chairs, filing cabinets, tools, cleaning equipment - everything - went up in smoke during the violent protest on Sunday.

A once thriving work space now stands vacant and dormant. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

The women, some of whom have been doing this work for almost three decades, now sit with nothing to do, concerned about how they will provide their families with their next meal.

The fishing boats have stopped coming into harbour, choosing instead to re-route to Cape Town Harbour, where it's perceived to be safer.

The larger fishing companies can afford the detour. The small-scale and subsistence fishers from Hangberg and the greater Hout Bay area cannot.

The residents themselves are cleaning up after the violent protests on Sunday. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

"If the boats go to Cape Town, we don't know what will happen," Wardah Samuels says.

She has been working in the industry for 23 years, eight of them at The Shed.

"Mainly there's just one local fisherman who drops off his fish here. The other fishers and the big companies, you can forget it. By them, you must beg and plead for scraps. But there's one boat owner here who always provides for us," Samuels says.

Winter is particularly tough - the boats normally only arrive every second week to deliver fish.

The ladies buy the fish from the fishers, clean, process and package them, and then sell them on to consumers to make a living.

Year-round there are some 50 employees, but during peak season that number swells to about 100.

The workers at The Shed at Hout Bay Harbour are at their wits' end. Their workspace has burnt down and they don't know when the next shipment of fish will come in for them to earn a living. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

"We hire the locals here," Samuels says. "We create jobs. We put food in the mouths of the children of this community.

"Now we don't know when we will get more work again." 

The burning down of their workspace has knocked them, but they are by no means broken.

"If we must work outside, we must work outside. We do it anyway (during peak season)," says Nadeema Jacobs, 54, who has been cleaning fish since she was 12 years old.

"Those days, we had to help our parents. There was nothing of finishing up school or going to study. Life was tough, so if you can work, you must work. You must help provide."

A once thriving work space now stands vacant and dormant. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

The ladies could get fish from Cape Town Harbour, where the boats are now delivering, but the cost is prohibitively high. 

"It costs about R5000 to rent a truck to go fetch the fish from Cape Town and bring it here," says Christina Mitchell, at 55 years old, the eldest among The Shed's team leaders, and their de facto boss and spokesperson. She's been in the industry for 27 years.

The residents themselves are cleaning up after the violent protests on Sunday. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

"Our people are cleaning up the mess here. There's no help from government to come and clean up the debris," Mitchell says. 

"And no-one is going to come and help us, so we keep on, and do it ourselves. We're used to doing it ourselves, but we need help." 

The owner of Pesca Luna close by has offered assistance, but the women need more still.

Windows, doors, security gates, office furniture, fish cleaning tools, and building materials all come at a cost the women can ill afford.

A once thriving work space now stands vacant and dormant. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

"Our children are tired of eating fish bones," says Iynm Kroukamp. "We boil the bones to make it soft so we can make fish cakes, or serve it with potatoes and rice. Years ago, our children wouldn't dream of eating hake heads and bones, and now they do. Dinge gaan maar swaar (things are tough)."

A few workmen volunteered to repair a burst water main after the stopcock melted in the fire. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

Each woman makes around R150 a day, but that money has to last until the next shipment of fish comes in and they can work again. 

"We will survive because that's what we do," says Mitchell.

"Maybe, if we had quotas, if the proper fisher folk had quotas, it wouldn't be so hard," says Kroukamp.

The residents themselves are cleaning up after the violent protests on Sunday. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

"But it costs money to apply and to appeal. R350 for an application, every time you fail, you get nothing out of them (the government). Where must you get money to apply again and get money to appeal the ruling?" Mitchell throws her hands into the air.

"We live from hand to mouth here. We must make the money stretch," says Samuels. 

"Often, there is no food in the house."

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