Between stall sellers at the Hout Bay shipyard, Berny (57) feeds a seal with a strip of fish. Day trippers who have just set off on a tour bus find it unique. Pictures are taken and Berny is thrown some money. This is his income. However, yields have been meager for weeks. It’s raining and the high season hasn’t started yet.
Berny – born Bernard Norsworthy – comes as often as he can, with a plastic bag full of fish waste and two inhalers. He is asthmatic. The toxic clouds spewed out by the fishmeal factory for years have had their effect on the health of dock workers in Hout Bay, Cape Town Municipality.
Berny once worked here as a structural engineer, he says. Now he is unemployed. He does not receive a pension, not from his former boss and not from the state. It owes its existence to Sticky Ding, one of the harbor seals that swim around here in the harbor.
No safety net
The money Berny receives from tourists goes first to food for Sticky Ding, which he buys from a fish processor, and to his medicine. From what is left, he buys food for himself, as far as it is still affordable. The high inflation in South Africa (more than 6 percent in May) makes life impossible for many. A solid social safety net does not exist in South Africa.
On a busy day, five or six of them are in the harbor feeding seals, says Berny. “On a day like that you could possibly make 500 rand”, which is about 30 euros converted. It is no longer like that for him. He is old and often has to give way to younger men in the harbour, such as Fannie Davids (52), feeding the big crowd pleaser: the huge, let’s say fat seal Pappie. Dad gets one fish after another. He also likes to be kissed and cuddled. If not Sticky Thing. “Sticky Ding won’t be touched.”
This morning Berny was bitten. Luckily he had his coat on. The risk of the profession.
Blitz has a port ban hanging on his pants
An estimated two million harbor seals live off the west coast of southern Africa, most of them in the 25 to 50 colonies. The colony off the coast of Hout Bay is one of them. In South Africa, the animals are protected by law. It is forbidden to feed them due to deprivation of liberty (maximum five years) and a fine of, converted and maximum, 300,000 euros.
The Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment also advises against photographing feeding methods because the seals that are fed become dependent on humans, which discourages them from self-hunting. The animals become lazy, fat (like Daddy) and can show aggressive behavior (like Sticky Ding). The police are busy with more serious crime and the port’s security officers tolerate this circus – although someone was arrested in the port at the beginning of this year. Blitz, who ran Happy, got into a fight with the port officer and now has a three-year port ban hanging in his pants.
For Berny, Fannie and Blitz, however, there is little to do. It’s either this or the real crime.
Only tourists make the harbor passable
The Hout Bay fishing port, which flourished thirty years ago and guaranteed 200 jobs, is in disrepair. Falling fishing quotas and disappointing catches have seriously exhausted the fishing community. When the fishmeal factory also closed in 2019 after 56 years, around fifty jobs in the bay disappeared. The empty factory halls fell victim to criminals, who strip them from floor to ceiling (copper and scrap iron are worth their weight in gold in Cape Town), and with the crime came the drugs. Press oncounterfeit methamphetamine, is a huge problem in communities like this.
And so the yard is now a twilight zone, where the unemployed and criminals try to scrape together a little income. The government appointed Harbor Master (fun fact: South Africa’s First Lady) has meanwhile been accused of maladministration. Only when another building was set on fire on the site in May did she tighten up security, but it seems to be mainly the presence of tourists that makes this square a passable place.
The shipyard in Hout Bay is now a strange crossroads between the formal and informal economies of this country, where the need is great, the naivete is great, and an unhealthy interdependence has developed between man and animal. But most people come here to see something else – something nicer, something prettier.
The tour bus has left, the first stalls will soon be demolished. That seems to be done with the business for today. Berny is also going home soon. Sticky Ding will follow him for some distance before he turns around and – satisfied and satisfied – plunges back into the sea. He probably won’t be able to put a big meal on the table tonight with the money Berny has made. Who’s feeding who here, you wonder.
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