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The fishing village of Paternoster, on South Africa’s west coast, is known for its quaint cottages, unspoiled beaches, and entrenched culture of marine poaching. A jarring scene greets visitors arriving for the first time. At the entrance to the settlement, a dusty intersection with signs to dozens of guest houses and restaurants, groups of men hawk live crayfish, pinching their fingers to mimic invertebrate mouthparts and yelling, “Kreef! Kreef!”—the local Afrikaans term for the delicacy—whenever cars approach. If drivers show interest, the vendors crowd nearer to negotiate, knocking crayfish against the windows. Large specimens sell for 60 rand (US $3.50); a comparable dish at the old hotel, one of the village’s cheaper seafood outlets, costs double. This street trade has become a defining feature of Paternoster in the past two decades, and consists exclusively of illegally harvested product. But transactions take place in the open, and holidaymakers drive off daily with their share of the catch.
Early in November, near the start of the summer tourist season, a man known as Snake crouches beside the road with a plastic shopping bag, his face obscured by a cap and mirrored shades. Inside the bag, 15 undersized crayfish clamber over one another, emerging from torpor after being caught and refrigerated at dawn. It has been a slow morning, with sparse traffic. The sun beats down from a cloudless sky. Snake is thirsty, and has sold nothing. He flips open his cellphone to make a call.
“It’s Snake. When can you come? I’ll supply 80 tails.”
Returning the device to his track suit pocket, Snake lights a cigarette and heads back toward the old hotel. The art galleries and real estate offices, commercial buildings disguised as fisher cottages, are empty. A few guests sit outside Paternoster’s newest restaurant—kitsch Portuguese-Mozambican, overpriced—impassively watching the street. Snake catches up with two younger hawkers outside the liquor store, where daytime drinkers have already started gathering. “I sold four this morning,” says one of the sellers. “Shit prices.” Another man hurries over with a tub of steamed crayfish, his customer waiting in a nearby rental car. Without hesitating, Snake reaches inside the tub and snaps off a leg. “Some people get tired of it,” he tells me, sucking out the meat and tossing the shell. “But I could eat kreef every day.”
Snake, 42, was born in Paternoster and has lived there most of his life, witnessing firsthand its evolution into a tourism hot spot. Located 160 kilometers north of Cape Town, Paternoster existed as a fishing settlement for more than a century, attracting few visitors until the late 1980s. The village now has two boutique hotels, 13 restaurants, and more than 100 guest houses. Accommodations are full over the December summer holidays and on long weekends. Beachside homes, popular with retirees, sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each (in a country where half the population lives below the national poverty line of $780 per year). Business has prospered from the surge in activity, and each year new investors arrive. But Paternoster’s fishing community, whose traditions and small-town aesthetic have been co-opted as selling points for tourists, remains excluded from the benefits of this development—losing, as so often happens in South Africa and around the world, in the value exchange brought on by gentrification, and watching from the margins as wealthy outsiders transform the town.
“The Paternoster fishing community is being replaced by a holiday community,” says Naseegh Jaffer, director of the Masifundise Development Trust, an advocacy group for South African fishing communities. “The traditional fishing lifestyle has been commodified for marketing purposes, but cannot be sustained. Gentrification in Paternoster has come at the expense of local livelihoods and culture.”
Back at his parents’ home, Snake deposits his crayfish in the fridge and leaves his cellphone to charge. His father, a fisherman succumbing to Alzheimer’s, lies silently on the couch. Snake shared a hut in the yard with his girlfriend and two sons until recently, but moved back into the main house after his girlfriend left him. A younger cousin inherited the hut. We find him toiling in the heat with his shirt off when we step outside. Snake, who keeps a parrot, two dogs, four geese, and five tortoises, ducks into a low shed and emerges with a mole snake the length of his arm.
“I started bringing snakes home as a boy. That’s where I got my name. This is my newest pet,” he says, the brown coils knotting around his arms.
Snake grew up two kilometers away, in an area of Paternoster now occupied by holiday houses and vacant plots. For most of the year, the streets are empty. The houses have alarms to deter thieves, and at night their windows are dark. During tourist season, the houses fill up and vehicles from the city crowd the curbs. Snake remembers a different neighborhood, where children ran around naked and fishermen played drunken rugby games at sunset. His grandmother lived in a housing row at the end of his road. Today, like most buildings from that period, her home is gone.
“My parents’ cottage was one of two that survived,” says Snake. “Developers cleared the rest of the land. They pulled my grandmother’s place down. There isn’t a piece of it left.”
He takes me to see his old house. Its original rectangular structure, the traditional architectural style on the west coast—now maintained in Paternoster by an official town building code—is visible within the frame of a larger, more modern building. The old home is engulfed by a two-story extension, raised veranda, and outdoor fireplace, all matching the whitewashed look. Other additions include satellite television, off-street parking, and running water. (One of Snake’s chores as a child was filling giant plastic drums at a nearby public tap.) Suitably furnished for visitors, the downstairs unit, which sleeps four, can now be rented out for about $90 a night during holiday season. The property was valued at more than $239,000 in 2012—an increase of 73 percent, in local currency, from 2008.
Like most Paternoster residents, Snake’s parents were once labor tenants, working for the local crayfish factory in exchange for free accommodation. The land they lived on was declared a whites-only area in 1966 under the Group Areas Act, a piece of apartheid legislation that forbade racially mixed neighborhoods. They were allowed to stay only with permission from their white employer, who owned the land. (Paternoster’s fishers were classified “colored,” an apartheid category, still in use today, for people of mixed racial heritage or native Khoi-San descent.) When the economics that sustained this agreement changed, and fishing became less profitable, the tenants were evicted to make space for new real estate. This took place more than five years after the end of apartheid; essentially, market forces performed the work of old race-based legislation. Many evictees moved to Kliprug, a former coloreds-only area behind the old hotel, where affordable property was still available. Snake’s parents have lived there ever since, out of sight from the main tourist thoroughfare and away from the beachfront, in a bright turquoise house with peeling walls.
Together with Hopland, a poorer, more crowded pocket of government houses and backyard shacks at the edge of the settlement, Kliprug remains visibly separate from the rest of Paternoster. This segregation is no longer a direct consequence of law. Rather, the spatial patterning of apartheid has reproduced itself, historic asymmetries in wealth and opportunity carrying over to the present—a gulf that persists across South Africa, where the apartheid status quo remains largely intact. Unlike the postcard holiday town they now border, Kliprug and Hopland are genuinely tough places to live, beset by unemployment, chronic alcohol abuse, and, in recent years, a sharp rise in crystal methamphetamine addiction. This economic disparity, yoked to the introduction and uptake of a drug that even moderate users crave multiple times daily, has manifested in a wave of crime that Paternoster’s businesses are fighting to control.
“This area is for rich people now,” Snake says, turning to leave his childhood home. A private security van slows as we walk up the street, its headlights piercing the dusk. “It’s like Paternoster doesn’t belong to us anymore.”
The same market forces that flattened cottages in Paternoster are reshaping coastal settlements in South Africa and around the world. Marine resources that sustained South Africa’s major export fisheries in the 20th century are in broad decline, with overfishing of key species like crayfish and sardines compounded by the effects of climate change. (Both species have moved southward from the west coast, historically South Africa’s most productive fishing grounds, in response to shifting ocean currents.) New legislation, intended to reform the fishing sector after apartheid, has been poorly implemented, making small-scale fishing more complicated. Rural fishing towns have suffered as a consequence—particularly along the west coast, which is hot, dry, and home to little other industry.
Similar trajectories have played out globally, with so-called amenity migration (people relocating or traveling to rural areas for lifestyle reasons) becoming a common trend in coastal settlements. “Fishery management regulations, fish stock health, and increasing population pressure in coastal communities challenge the commercial fishing industry’s viability in traditional waterfront locations,” anthropologists Lisa Colburn and Michael Jepson from the US National Marine Fisheries Service write of coastal gentrification. “[This] transforms many natural resource communities to dependence upon an entirely different economic base … [and] displaces commercial fishermen.”
As South Africa’s west coast fishing industry contracted, the local leisure market boomed, with Cape Town becoming a major tourist hub—a long-term process accelerated by South Africa hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This caused a different set of resources, such as cultural heritage and scenic beauty, to gain value, stimulating fresh economic activity. But operating in the tourism sector requires financial and social capital, assets the rural poor have been systematically denied, and inclusive growth has been rare. In Paternoster, locals have found employment in the service industry as cleaners, construction workers, and kitchen staff. They earn low wages, with little chance for upward mobility. Increasingly, they compete for these positions with economic migrants from across South Africa and other African countries, further diminishing their job prospects. These barriers remain ingrained in South Africa, a country with one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world.
“West coast property prices began increasing in the late 1980s,” says Lance van Sittert, an environmental historian at the University of Cape Town. “Fishing towns, many of which had become wastelands due to the collapse of industry, were recast as sites for recreation. This provided business opportunities for people with means—but the fishers, whose livelihoods were already under threat, were unable to access that market.”
Drawing on archival material, van Sittert has documented Paternoster’s history. Used by nomadic hunter-gatherer groups for thousands of years, the bay was first developed to load grain onto ships bound for Cape Town in the late 19th century. A profitable export fishery followed shortly afterward, supplying dried snoek (barracouta), a cheap staple for indentured laborers, to colonial sugar plantations in Mauritius and the French island of Réunion.
Crayfish—also called west coast rock lobster—was exceptionally abundant, but considered “poor man’s food” until the emergence of lucrative markets in Europe and the United States at the turn of the century. (In effect the gentrification of a food source, this trend had begun a few decades earlier in eastern Canada, Maine, and other major lobster-producing areas.) In 1913, a crayfish-canning factory opened in Paternoster, ushering in an era of insatiable demand for the spiny, red, scavenging crustacean.
“The land was privately owned in Paternoster. Fishers accessed the coast in return for their labor,” says van Sittert. “It was in many ways a feudal system. Fishers relied on their bosses for credit, goods, and accommodation. They had few rights. Fishing has been romanticized in Paternoster, and visitors love photographing the cottages and colorful boats, but the historical reality is that people’s lives here were, and still are, extremely difficult.”
Snake once made a living driving poached crayfish to Cape Town, selling to an illicit network of middlemen, caterers, and restaurant suppliers. He stopped a few years ago after crashing his car, which he hasn’t yet managed to replace. In the meantime, he sells crayfish on the street, an occupation that generates considerably less income. On an average day, he earns around $15—enough to pay for food, cellphone credit, and cigarettes. Some days he sells nothing at all. Along with the other sellers, many of whom are younger than him, Snake buys his crayfish at the beach most mornings, when the small fishing boats come in. Tourists line up with their cameras and smartphones to capture the spectacle of a traditional fishing operation. For most of the year, excluding the short official crayfish season, the entire catch is destined for the black market. (During the season, poaching is rife, too.) Many tourists buy crayfish in the parking lot afterward, despite notices posted in all local businesses urging them not to support the trade.
Snake’s cellphone rings. We’re sitting in his parents’ lounge, a modest, tidy room decorated with shipping photographs. “Somebody else wants kreef tails,” he says. “The tail has the most meat. Most people aren’t interested in the rest.” Despite losing his car, Snake still arranges deliveries for some Cape Town buyers. (He also works as a self-taught signwriter and artist, and has hand-lettered the facades of a few Paternoster restaurants.) His profits are lower than when he had a vehicle: these days, buyers send their own drivers to collect, and subtract the cost of the trip from the selling price.
It is illegal to sell or be in possession of crayfish tails in South Africa, but hundreds of thousands of crayfish are harvested each year, their tailless bodies dumped at sea. In 2006, the national west coast rock lobster population was estimated at 2.6 percent of its pristine level. Small-scale fishers are not solely responsible for this decline, with large commercial companies frequently exceeding their legal quotas. Fisheries officials have treated crayfish poaching as an urgent priority for more than 15 years, investing in enforcement and drafting reams of new legislation, but have had little success stemming the trade, which sustains livelihoods in marginalized fishing communities. If police or fisheries patrols intervene, the Paternoster community rises in protest, pelting vehicles with stones, firing flares at vessels, and protecting the fishers whose labor has become essential to the local economy.
“Fishers in Paternoster are taking almost 10 times the legal catch,” says consultant and former head of fisheries monitoring for the national government Shaheen Moolla. “They are aided and abetted by big industry and corruption in the fisheries department. Unless we come up with real economic alternatives, there is no incentive to change.”
Night has fallen and a frigid wind sweeps off the sea. The lighthouse at Cape Columbine, three kilometers from Paternoster, slices through a thin mist. Lifelong Paternoster resident Jan Losper, head of the local neighborhood watch, nudges his ancient Mercedes around a street corner, shining a torch across the block. Aged 58, Losper manages a system of street patrols that launched in 2014. Volunteers work shifts through the night in return for a small stipend, funded by local businesses. The patrols’ unspoken primary objective is protecting the tourist trade from petty theft; poorer parts of town are generally not monitored.
“Crime started getting worse 15 years ago,” Losper says. Newcomers, homeowners, and tourists “weren’t cautious enough. They would leave their doors and windows open, assuming it was safe.”
The rise in crime was exacerbated by the spread of crystal methamphetamine, an addictive stimulant known locally as tik. Introduced to Cape Town in the early 2000s, the drug quickly became popular across the Western Cape province. Users develop physiological tolerance, requiring larger doses to stave off withdrawal symptoms including exhaustion, headaches, fever, and nausea. Tik addiction absorbs disposable income and erodes employment opportunities to the point where alternative means of paying for the drug, which costs less than $2 a hit, must be found.
“The place changed when tik arrived,” says Losper. “A few addicts are responsible for most of the crime here. Most of the crayfish sellers are users. They scout houses to break into while they walk the streets.”
Without warning, he slams his foot down and roars around a bend. “I saw someone duck out of sight!” he yells. Leaving his keys in the ignition, he leaps out and crashes through the shrubs toward a dark construction site, a new holiday home at the southern edge of the settlement.
Inside the home, Losper’s torchlight casts shadows on the brickwork, bending through grids of rusted scaffolding. Losper hurries from room to room, squinting into the darkness. He finds three young men huddled next to a box of building materials. One of the men has a plastic bag of crayfish at his feet.
“We came here to smoke,” one man complains. “We’ve just stopped fishing.”
“They were here to steal things,” Losper says after sending them home and calling two patrol members, instructing them to stand guard for the rest of the night. “I know those boys; I know their parents. A few minutes later and they would have taken that gear for drug money.”
Early the next morning, Snake returns to work. The sun is already burning. His deal to supply tails has fallen through. He sits with his bag of crayfish in the shade opposite the old hotel, talking to one of the sellers Losper confronted the night before. A sports car brakes and both men rise, lifting their bags, but the driver accelerates again, leaving them behind. Snake stands still for a second and then starts jogging after the vehicle, holding a crayfish in one hand. He stops at the base of the hill, at the turnoff to the beach, and watches the driver pull out of sight.
Read the rest of the Battle for the Coastline.