Little fish battle the Sharks Board

Bathing has been banned until the shark nets return. (AFP/Rajesh Jantilal)

Bathing has been banned until the shark nets return. (AFP/Rajesh Jantilal)

Tuesday morning.

Durban’s South Beach is quiet, even for a school day. There’s a jogger making painful progress southwards, towards uShaka Marine World. A couple of middle-aged women are taking advantage of the mid-morning sun bathing the promenade in warmth as it makes its way upwards.
They’ve spread towels on the sand. A few lifeguards are on the beach, fully clothed, looking bored.

On the seaward wall flanking the promenade, rebuilt literally days before the 2010 football World Cup, there’s a homeless man digging in the rubbish bin. The diners on the deck at California Dreaming appear not to notice him. The man hauls out an empty plastic Coke bottle and what appears to be the remnants of somebody’s burger. He shuffles off, heading northwards, eating his breakfast as he goes.

The ocean’s empty. It’s flat, blown out, courtesy of the wind the night before.

It’s not the lack of waves that is keeping people out of the water. The beaches are closed to swimmers, not just in Durban but all the way up and down the coast.

There are no shark nets. The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board removed them. Not because of the annual sardine run, which brings millions of the tiny fish, a whole lot of sharks and millions of tourist rands to the coast, but because the cats who maintain the shark nets every day are on strike.

The board pulled up the nets a week ago ahead of the action by its workers, members of the South African Liberated Public Sector Workers Union. That’s quite a mouthful, even by breakaway trade union standards.

As a result of the legal strike, there’s no protection at the 37 beaches that usually have shark nets.

Municipalities up and down the coast have banned bathing, with those that haven’t done so outright suggesting that the public stay out of the water unless the lifeguards say otherwise, until the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, something of a mouthful in itself, gives a ruling on the wage dispute.

The board wants to grant an increase of 8% to its staff. The workers are after 13%, which they may or may not be lucky enough to get.

They also want any worker who has been employed for more than six months to be made permanent, with the benefits that go with it. The board opposes this.

The union wants the board to pay its workers a minimum wage of R13 000 a month, along with a danger allowance of R1 000. Currently they get R240 a month danger pay. That’s R12 a day.

R12 a day.

R12 doesn’t seem to be a lot for risking one’s life every day while trying to untangle huge killing machines tangled up in the nets, especially in the light of the amount of money that’s being generated by the beaches they are protecting.  Neither does the salary the union is demanding.

Assuming a five-day week and no deductions, R13 000 a month translates into R650 a day. Assuming a 40-hour week, that’s the princely sum of R16.25 an hour for waking up at 4am, no matter what the weather or the conditions, heading out to sea in a rubber boat to wrangle monsters capable of eating one alive or removing one’s arm, leg or head in a single bite.

That’s far from easy money.

From what we hear the strike has turned ugly. The workers live in Sharks Board compounds up and down the coast. This allows them to be at the water’s edge ahead of sunup.

Since the strike began, so have evictions of striking staff, who have been kicked out of their lodgings. It’s a dirty move, probably cloaked in some semblance of legality, aimed at breaking the strike.

The Sharks Board has pleaded poverty, arguing that it can’t afford the increases in salary or allowances because of budget constraints. The board is due to be merged with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife by the end of the year to create a single entity and outsource some of its functions to the private sector.

The shortage of finances doesn’t seem to apply to the larneys at the Sharks Board though.

In 2015, the chief executive of the board, a public entity that falls under the KwaZulu-Natal department of economic development, earned more than R2-million a year.

Assuming again a 40-hour, five-day week, that works out at R5 555 a day before deductions. Not bad, especially considering there’s no threat of drowning or being eaten by a shark every day.

I’m not sure what the current chief executive, Mthokozisi Radebe, earns, but it won’t be less than what the job paid in 2015.

It’s certainly a lot more than R650 a day. 

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