Cape Town - 140105 - Fishermen and women gathered at a church in Hangberg to pray for God's intervention and provision in the ongoing fishing fiasco. Reporter: Daneel Knoetze Picture: David Ritchie

The government is fighting to change the legislation that lined the pockets of privileged whites, writes Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

 On January 8, 1912, in Bloemfontein, a group of visionary leaders met and formed a party that would fight to liberate the people of this land from oppression and free them from the strife of enforced poverty.

Part of the vision that informed the formation of the Freedom Charter has always been that the land, the sea and its resources should belong to all who live in the land, and that the resources should be shared evenly.

Thousands of our people who live in the country’s coastal towns depend on the sea for their survival. Statistics have shown us, however, that a fifth of South Africans still go to bed hungry.

For generations, the harvest of the sea has served to line the pockets of the already privileged white minority, something the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is fighting to change.

Industry research has shown that communities in the coastal regions of the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Northern Cape make up the bulk of the country’s rural subsistence fishers.

On April 27, 1994 – almost 20 years ago – what had only been a dream to the founding fathers of the ANC became a reality and we, the black majority of this country, were able to legitimately walk into Parliament and change things around.

And for the ANC government, which has vowed to eradicate poverty completely by 2030, the vision has always been to put the economic resources in the hands of the majority who had previously been denied access through cruel policies devised by the oppressor.

In a country plagued by the three demons of poverty, unemployment and inequality, like South Africa is today, we as the government are faced with mammoth tasks not only of levelling the playing fields, but of empowering our people to fully participate in the economy.

Since its launch in 2009, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has been pegged by the government as one of the key departments to redress the situation.

The simple truth is that the Fishing Rights Allocation Process 2013 (“FRAP 2013”), which is under heavy scrutiny today, is just another example of legislation put in place so that it is not individuals or a minority that benefit from the fishing rights allocations but subsistence communities that fish to put food on their tables and sell the surplus stock to their local communities.

On December 30, a day before expiration of the fishing rights to the KZN prawn trawl, demersal sharks, squid, tuna pole line, hake handline, white mussels, oysters and traditional linefish species, the outcomes of the current allocations were announced, something that effectively set the cat among the pigeons.

The ANC and its government has always spoken out about its vision to right the wrongs of the past, and in this instance – contrary to the accusations that have been levelled against the department in regard to the FRAP – this has meant giving people who were previously denied by apartheid policies access to harvest the sea, a chance to put food on the table for their families.

What we need to see is a community of fishermen being able to go out to sea, fish for their families and sell the surplus fish to their own community to put clothes on their children’s backs.

This policy was crafted to be a pro-poor piece of legislation that favours the subsistence fisherman above the well-established commercial operator and it is legislation that has always been aimed at restoring the dignity of the poor traditional fishermen and women in our coastal towns.

In the case of the traditional linefish sector, this has meant that while 455 allocations had been previously made, only 225 allocations were awarded last month, paving the way for more subsistence fishers to participate in the sector.

As a department we took the implementation of this policy seriously and preparatory measures to safeguard against possible bungling of the process, including the setting up of a Fishing Rights Verification Team (FRVT), were therefore put in place.

Another important precautionary measure has been the appointment of an independent auditing firm to provide technical support for the FRAP 2013 process as well as conduct consultations to ensure that this has not only been a legal and fair, but also a democratic process.

Unsuccessful applicants who feel that the DAFF has made a mistake by not awarding them fishing rights have also been invited to appeal against the rights denial.

The fishing industry, which contributes billions of rands to the country’s GDP, is undoubtedly a lucrative industry. But it is also a fact that while fish stocks are a renewable resource, they are dwindling fast.

A study conducted in 2008 revealed that 80 percent of global fish stocks were under threat because they were harvested at rates that were not sustainable. The allocation of these rights has also looked into this, a challenge which all affected governments across the world are battling with – while this is nature’s gift to our people we need to preserve it for the coming generations of fishermen.

In this regard DAFF’s policies, including FRAP, are tackling this challenge head-on and seeing to it that we do not run out of fish stocks.

A healthy debate about government’s policies is a natural occurrence in any democratic state, and our department welcomes an investigation into FRAP 2013.

But, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, while it is the constitutionally protected right and duty of the media to shine the light into injustices that may be occurring in our communities, it is also its collective job and responsibility to supply their readership with factual and balanced information.

The questions we should be asking ourselves are: who stands to benefit from the misinformation and the rumour-mongering, and what does the poor fisherman gain at the end of it all?

Playing political football with the lives of the downtrodden is a disgrace to and dishonours the memories of people like the late Nelson Mandela, who laid down their lives or sacrificed precious time with their families so we can call our land our own.

* Tina Joemat-Pettersson is the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Indepent Newspapers.

Cape Argus