Lance van Sittert
The South African fisheries are environmentally bifurcated by the different current regimes on the west (Benguela) and east (Agulhas) coasts. Limited precolonial subsistence use of the littoral zone was supplemented from the mid-17th century by commercial harvesting of marine mammals for international trade and fish to ration imported slave labor. The liberalization of trade after 1814 led to the commercialization of Benguela fisheries by Cape Town merchants drying barrracouta (snoek) for export to ration indentured Indian labor on the sugar plantations of the southwest Indian Ocean and canning rock lobster to feed the urban bourgeoisies of Europe. The mineral revolution in the final quarter of the 19th century created an expanded southern African demand for fish in the new mining centers of the subcontinent, prompting the colonial state to pioneer the demersal fisheries of the Agulhas current, which were monopolized for the first half of the 20th century by British-owned steam trawlers. The motorization of rock lobster fishing in the same period created widespread poverty in the inshore subsistence fisheries. This became an increasingly politicized issue as Afrikaner nationalists laid blame on the British monopoly over the national fish market. Proposed state nationalization of the demersal fishery and reorganization of the inshore fisheries into cooperatives was defeated in 1944 in favor of state financing of private capital through the provision of research, infrastructure, and finance. Afrikaner nationalists after 1948 utilized the latter to engineer the rapid industrialization of the pelagic inshore fisheries and concomitant rise of Afrikaner capital. Falling inshore catches and increasing foreign competition in the demersal fishery led to a crisis in the 1960s that was resolved through the creation and strict conservation of an exclusive economic zone south of the Orange River coupled with the looting of the Namibian colony’s fish resources. The postcolonial states in Namibia (1990) and South Africa (1994) thus inherited severely depleted fisheries resources dominated by white capital and superintended by neoliberal states, severely constraining black capital formation. Both consequently satisfied themselves with blackening the white monopolies and defending their exclusive resource access against escalating insurgencies from the excluded black underclass.
A pervasive system of migrant labor played a fundamental part in shaping the past and present of South Africa’s economy and society and has left indelible marks on the wider region. South Africa was long infamous for its entrenched system of racial discrimination. But it is also unique in the extent to which urbanization, industrialization, and rural transformation have been molded by migrant labor. Migrancy and racism fed off each other for over a century, shaping the lives and deaths of millions of people.