South Africa is home to tens of thousands of small-scale fishers and fishing households. Some fish purely for consumption and subsistence, while others make up a small commercial sector.

Small-scale fishers have long suffered discrimination in South Africa. Under the apartheid government’s segregation policies, many were forcibly removed from their homes and traditional fishing grounds. They were also unable to sell their catch.

Despite high hopes for reform under the post-apartheid government, policies did not favour the majority of small-scale fisheries. Instead they emphasised privatisation and economic growth.

As a result, small-scale fishers in the Western Cape province joined forces with prominent NGOs and academics. They fought for rights for the sector and a recognition of their way of life. This led to the creation of a regulatory framework that acknowledges their constitutional rights to equity, food security, livelihood and culture.

This Small-Scale Framework consists of a Small-Scale Policy (2012), amended Marine Living Resources Act (MLRA) (2014), and Small-Scale Regulations (2016). It provides fishing access rights to small-scale fishing communities, and specifically recognises vulnerable groups within the fishing sector (such as women, youth, the elderly and the disabled).

However, in a recent research paper, we argue that while the framework is progressive in some ways, it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t take sufficient account of the vulnerability and marginalisation of small-scale fishers and fishing communities. Poor implementation of the framework has added to these concerns. So has the COVID pandemic.

The framework’s contribution to poverty reduction and development is thus undermined.