The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries faced a mutiny this week after it dramatically reduced the number of traditional line-fishing licences it issues and controversially awarded almost half to unknown applicants.
The fishermen say there has been foul play, but the man responsible for the permit allocations, the department's acting deputy director for fisheries, Desmond Stevens, insists there were no irregularities in the process.
Stevens said after an interim solution was thrashed out on Tuesday that commercial line fishermen who have lost their licences may apply for an exemption to return to sea until their appeals have been heard.
He said he had not bowed to pressure during the tense meeting with the Traditional Line Fishing Association of South Africa at his office in Cape Town's Foreshore, which was gate-crashed by rowdy fish hawkers standing in solidarity with the fishermen. Stevens said he had not even worked up a sweat because he considered the permit allocations to be fair and open to public scrutiny.
"You must not always be a good public servant, because then you get everybody else's work also. That is how I interpret all of this," he joked.
Stevens has faced a barrage of protests since the start of the year, when many boat owners found out they had lost their line-fishing licences and thousands of crew members claimed they faced a bleak future without jobs. Of the 455 traditional line-fishing licences the fisheries branch issued in 2005, only 205 were confirmed in the new allocation handed down on December 31. A hundred of those licences were given to new, unknown entrants.
Last week locals showed how upset they were after some of the newcomers who had been granted line-fishing licences ventured out to sea at Miller's Point near Simon's Town, although fishermen and hawkers had decided that none of the boats would go to sea until the issue was resolved. There was a clash when the newcomers returned to shore and the fish – mainly snoek and yellowtail – they had caught were forcibly taken from their boats.
In his city office, Stevens admitted he was now aware that former gangster Ernie "Lastig" Solomons might have been one of those awarded a line-fishing licence. There had been no way of telling that the person on the application form was the same man who in the 1990s was listed among the "big five gang leaders" police vowed to convict for criminal activity, he said.
"See, the name is not there as Ernie Lastig," he said. "Every person who applies we give to the South African Receiver of Revenue and the Hawks. Please contextualise this; the verification process is ongoing. If anyone has lied in the process, we can exclude them."
Solomons now lives in the Hawston fishing village near Hermanus and last year went to Cannes to promote a movie about his life, A Lucky Man. He was not available for comment.
Another licence was apparently awarded to the skipper of one of the fisheries department's patrol boats.
Stevens said both cases will be investigated.
In previous years, according to Shaheen Moolla, who was a legal adviser to former fisheries minister Valli Moosa, a provisional rights allocation list was put up in all the fishing towns so that feedback on applicants could be given to the department before final decisions were taken.
Moolla said he does not trust Stevens and his processes. "My information is that this last weekend there was contriving and drawing up of scoresheets by the department. At the end of the day, a simple question must be asked: Why were the scoresheets not available immediately when the decision was taken?"
Moolla said Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson had appointed Stevens, whom he described as "incompetent".
"Stevens is not qualified for this job. If he, in an open and transparent process, revealed his CV for this job, he wouldn't even make the initial cut-off. He doesn't even have the minimum criteria for the job, which are an honours degree or a postgraduate qualification in law, experience of at least 10 years in domestic fisheries, and extensive knowledge of international fisheries management. His only qualification is that he is a member of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans' Association."
Stevens is the treasurer general of the association and hotly dismissed the accusations.
"I might not have a masters or anything, but I have 25 years of experience of being a commander of Umkhonto weSizwe," he said, visibly riled. "I joined MK in 1987 when I was 19 years old. So someone who I fought for to have these opportunities, and who joined the department at 27, now speaks about me like this."
Asked whether any of the licences had been given to his comrades, Stevens laughed out loud and said: "No, no! If I say now [that] I want to put my friend in there, the system will lock it and it will record those changes made. Of course, I know people are looking for the bribes they think I got. But I am so confident about this system."
Stevens said he was advised by the same law experts who allocated the line-fishing licences in 2005, and the entire process had been independently managed by auditors.
"The misconception around the whole process is that it is not understood we have the same quota as allocated in the 2005 process. Every year this effort is determined by research, and for the 2014-2015 season there is again availability for 455 vessels and 455 licence holders. The difference between 2005 and 2014 is that we have a new small-scale fishing policy. A portion of these 455 licences is kept in abeyance, a 50% portion, which will be kept for small-scale fishermen."
But Stevens said Joemat-Pettersson could still decide to give this allocation to the commercial line fishermen.
What it means to one man
Roland Wichman of the impoverished Hangberg community in Hout Bay is devastated by the news that he has not been awarded a line-fishing licence.
"I am the fourth generation in my family to go fishing," the rugged fisherman said as he sat with others similarly affected at the Oceana Power Boat Club in Granger Bay on Tuesday.
"We have been fishing snoek, yellowtail and hottentot for generations. Now I won't be able to pay my children's school fees."
He will apply for a temporary licence so he can go out to sea until his appeal has been heard. But he is still waiting for his scoresheet to arrive in the post to explain why he was denied a licence.