At first glance, Cape Town is a hub of culture in the most beautiful setting with Table Mountain as a backdrop and the crashing shores. However, the city has, in its folds, some of the most drug-ridden, gangster-invested communities, bereaved and impoverished. The abalone or better-known locally as perlemoen poaching industry plays a massive role in this underworld.
“The Cape Town gangsters violently took over poaching towns and sold the abalone to Chinese gangs that established in South Africa with the avenues to export the abalone. In a few days, the Cape Town gangs would return to steel back the abalone,” says co-author and journalist Kimon de Greef at the launch of Poacher – a non-fiction novel about abalone poaching.
The Chinese gangs turned to Mandrax as a solution and exchanged it for abalone. “Cape Town gangs could mark up the Mandrax and resell at a massive profit,” De Greef adds. Today, containers full of abalone is smuggled out of the country by the tonnes with the resource depleting quickly. What started out as a way for impoverished communities to get by, turned into a hugely complex and profitable underground operation drenched in violence and drugs.
A peak inside
Poacher, however, sets out to explore a different narrative of abalone poaching. The novel is written from the memoirs of former abalone poacher Shuhood Abader (pseudonym). He wrote the novel while imprisoned for poaching, but was unable to get it published. After a decade, he approached De Greef.
Poacher now includes some of the research De Greef conducted as a nature conservationist student and later journalist as well as Abader’s personal experiences. It explores the complex history of the men involved in poaching, the dangerous and the politics of it all.
“People often think of abalone poaching as easy money. It’s not. It is quick money. A diver can easily make R10 000 in one night,” De Greef explains. In exchange for the quick money, the diver has to face the threat of police, imprisonment and the dangers of the sea.
Not an easy feat
Because of the fast decline in abalone, poachers have to face ever more dangerous waters. De Greef notes that Abader at one point used the metal lever needed to shuck the shellfish from the rock as a make-shift pick to move on the bed of the ocean. He moved from rock to rock, scanning for great white sharks, which he encountered several times.
Abader has lost seven friends to the ocean. In a short, one-on-one discussion, Abader notes that he had taken his nephew diving for abalone once, but as soon as the boy saw the sharks, he refused to dive again. Abader’s nephew now has a comfortable job in the air-conditioning industry.
Abader only identified himself at Love Books in Melville (where the book launch was held) towards the end when he felt save. He prefers to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.
Abader notes: “Abalone would never go extinct. Not like the dodo bird. There are reefs that are impossible to dive, where abalone is abundant. I know of a group of 20 boys who would try. One would be tied to a rope and enter the reef while seven others held onto the rope. The boy would be tossed around while he tried to poach. They would maybe get five kilograms.”
Poaching not an evironmental issue
Although De Greef does admit that it is difficult to study the affect abalone poaching has had on the ocean, he feels it is barely a footnote compared to some of the other environmental issues.
“I don’t think people would have been this upset by abalone poaching if it wasn’t for the rhino poaching crisis, which is very upsetting for obvious reasons. It is often difficult to get people to care about animals that aren’t cute and fluffy,” De Greef says.
“We have framed the abalone poaching crisis as an environmental issue when it is an environmental issue, it is an economic issue,” he adds explaining that South Africa has missed an instrumental developmental opportunity. Formalising the harvest of abalone might have empowered communities instead of pushing it further into the black market.
De Greef believes the donkey skin market is suffering a similar fate. While little can be done about the abalone poaching situation now, De Greef does hope the country and government will learn something from it. He suggests that poaching or other environmental challenges could be an indication of developmental opportunities and should be discussed as such.
A must read
While the topic of poaching remains a difficult one to discuss and even more difficult to resolve, Poacher offers a glimpse into the life of one poacher, while exploring the topics of displacement with the Apartheid forced removals, the still-present segregation of an entire city and the history of memory.
One striking comments in the novel that hit close to home, is De Greef who notes how he lived only ten kilometres from Abader, but that their lives, without the topic of abalone bringing them together, would never have intersected.
Growing up in Cape Town, I can attest to having spent most of my childhood in the bubble of middle class with very little interaction with people from particular areas, despite much of Cape Town’s poverty just across the rail tracks. Jumping on the parallel-running north-bound train to Goodwood rather than Monta Vista would have introduced me to a whole different set of people.
Whether you want to learn more about the personal experience of abalone poaching, want to explore the complex history of Cape Town or just looking for your next interesting read, I will definitely recommend Poacher and its complex narrative.