‘He wasn’t a poacher - he died trying to make a living’
Hout Bay residents say police killed young fisherman for making a living, as they threaten to torch more buildings
“We’re not poachers! We are taking what is rightfully ours.”
This was the thread of arguments thrown at journalists visiting the volatile Hout Bay harbour this week after protests erupted in the small fishing town, about 20km south of Cape Town.
Fishermen were angry. They have lost one of their own, and, they say, his only sin was to try to make a living. Swear words and threats were flying around, their anger bubbling to the surface. Protesters vowed to set more buildings alight, to burn down the police station.
This while the parents and eight-months pregnant girlfriend of Deurick van Blerk, 25, stood desperately waiting at the shoreline, watching as police divers on Jet Skis swept the bay looking for their loved one.
Dad Edward and mom Christien said they just wanted to get his body back, so he could be buried.
There are two versions of what happened to Van Blerk.
Fishermen say the police shot Deurick dead as he and two of his alleged accomplices tried to escape on a rubber duck from the anti-poaching unit after being caught red-handed with an illegal batch of crayfish.
But the police say Van Blerk merely fell off the boat into the water and drowned as he tried to escape.
“I am just a father who has lost a son ... I don’t have anything against anybody,” said Edward van Blerk.But community leaders claimed the police hoped his body would not be found, because then the gunshot wounds would have to be explained.
“Why is the police only sending four divers? Because they don’t want the body to be found,” a resident told Times Select.
Many who gathered at the harbour had just returned from the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court where two alleged poachers appeared for the illegal possession of crayfish and were released on bail.
Pastor Philip Frans shared a more sober take on the situation.
Frans, who is also a member of the community policing forum, said the fishing community was battling to make a living. Fishing quotas imposed by the government were smothering their town’s economy, where there are few other job and education opportunities.
“The Hangberg community is being neglected. We have only police visiting us, not politicians. This is the umpteenth time that there’s been a tragic situation where people are stuck in unemployment and then resort to illegal activities,” said Frans.
The situation is spiralling out of control, he added. Criminal activities and gangsterism go hand in hand and the poaching situation in Hout Bay has started attracting gang leaders, Frans warned.But the fishermen speaking to Times Select were adamant they were not doing anything wrong.
“Deurick was shot for doing what his forefathers did – fishing. That’s our livelihood,” said one of the protesters. The government leaves them no choice but to operate illegally, he added, because the local fishermen are excluded from the formal fishing rights allocation process.
Edward said his son‚ like many others‚ was just trying to make a living from the sea. But unlike when they grew up‚ fishing for crayfish and abalone is now a criminal offence – unless you are one of a handful of small-scale fishermen with a permit to catch an ever-decreasing number of fish.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries would only say that the Van Blerk incident was being investigated by the police. At the weekend it attributed violent protests on Sunday to “allegations that the community was unhappy with enforcement efforts that took place on Friday ... resulting in the arrest of two suspects and the suspected drowning of a third suspect”.The government is yet to implement a new small-scale fishing policy, which was drawn up after a group of poor fishermen obtained a court order forcing it to accommodate them in the formal fishing rights allocation. To date, the list of small-scale fishing beneficiaries in the Western Cape has not been finalised, more than 11 years after that court ruling.
A senior official in the fisheries department told Times Select his house and his girlfriend’s car had been torched by protesters. He had to flee to a place of safety.
“Shortly after they torched the cold-storage facility‚ I heard rocks falling on my roof‚ then flares. They had knives. I just jumped over my neighbour’s wall and escaped with the clothes on my back‚” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.