What hope for Hout Bay?


Under normal circumstances businessman Timmy Jacobs would be basking in the unexpected sunshine pouring through his office window. But things have not been normal in Hout Bay harbour for quite some time.

The desk where he sits is unusually sunny because the building next door burnt down to the ground, destroyed by local residents during the latest violent protest. Jacobs now has more natural light to remind him of just how tenuous things have become in this once bustling fishing harbour on the Cape peninsula. A few weeks ago he had a view of the Department of Public Works harbour warehouse; today he looks onto a few leftover piles of charred debris – the bulk of it was taken for sale as scrap metal.

A bay and wooded valley that once offered so much is now a symbol of South African dysfunction.

It could all be so different according to Jacobs, director of Bayside Marine, who for years has been trying to break into the local ship repair market. No can do, says a frustrated Jacobs amidst an office cluttered with Bandex files and miscellaneous gear. “It is very difficult market to penetrate – people don’t know you and potential clients are very loyal to service providers used over the years.” Nine years after kick-starting his business with a local partner he is little further than where he started — give or take a few sub-contracts – despite backing from both the South African Boat Builders Export Council and the National Industrial Participation Programme. Bayside’s dream of setting up a Hout Bay ‘empowerment’ ship repair business was even shortlisted as a government investment project, only to encounter the same glass ceiling inhibiting so many would-be start-ups: funding.  “There was this challenge of having an asset that you can put up against a loan,” recalls Jacobs. “We thought that given the number of boats that come to Cape Town harbour for repairs, there would be some spin-offs coming to smaller fishing harbours.”

Not so easy, as it turns out.

Sadly it is a familiar tale in Hout Bay which must surely qualify as most desperately deserving of small business development. Innumerable promises of meaningful economic empowerment have barely touched sides, in a place where Apartheid spatial planning is still so embarrassingly visible: blacks on one mountainside, coloureds on the other, and white security estates in between. It was always going to explode, and it did. The real tragedy is that so little has been done to address the fundamental inequalities that, almost inevitably, have led to lawlessness and a breakdown in the social compact.

With so much at stake in a tourist haven so close to the heart of Cape Town, it seems inconceivable that so many community-led projects have failed to gain traction. Another case in point is a major aquaculture initiative that sought to employ unemployed poachers, thereby giving them a stake in the cash economy.  It has failed to materialise despite in-principle government support and backing from various stakeholders including Stellenbosch University.  Local businessman Gregg Louw points an accusing finger at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries which manages the harbour. “DAFF is not coming to the party,” says Louw, who helped put together the aquaculture project. “All of us have been sidelined – the whole community,” Louw says.

One hears the same from small-scale fishermen, who are currently up in arms over the presumed death of one of their number during an altercation with the police water wing. Delays in implementing the small-scale fishing policy are fueling existing tensions particularly within Hangberg, where poachers feel they have a right to survive off the sea. Other service delivery issues related to housing and amenities compound the problem, creating a perfect storm of discontent. All of which culminates in anarchic scenes in the harbour precinct where residents vent their frustrations in typically haphazard fashion: looting a weekend market; attacking a restaurant and a boat marina; threatening Chinese tourists getting onto a bus; blockading the main roads leading into town with burning tyres.

As if that wasn’t already a poisonous cocktail, community in-fighting also plays a part. Rival trustees of a promising community trust initiative are currently embroiled in a High Court dispute, further illustrating the complexities of social upliftment in 21st century South Africa.

As the smoke clears after the latest harbour fracas, one thing has become abundantly clear in Hout Bay: the dream of a humming local economic hub requires the kind of government stewardship that is almost entirely absent, to the point where nobody knows who to turn to.  Ferry operator Ken Evans bemoans the absence of harbour management: “One of the big problems in this harbour is that authority is shared between DAFF and the Department of Public Works. They have been steering for years but they have steered us nowhere.”  To illustrate his point Evans points to the fishing trawler currently stranded on an inoperable harbour slipway – for four weeks already and counting. “Nobody is doing anything about fixing it.”

One casualty of the harbour meltdown is the local tourism industry, with investors reluctant to commit funds into potential developments that could seemingly more easily go up in smoke than create jobs.  Says Evans: There have been various schemes over the years, until about two years ago. The last one was a crowd from Dubai who wanted to develop a Hout Bay waterfront. They were prepared to put in hundreds of millions. Next thing they see rocks flying and they hastily backed off. That doesn’t foster a mood for investment.”

Jacobs believes government is largely to blame for community frustrations. When hundreds of residents were left to fend for themselves when a local fish factory relocated to the West Coast, where was the alternative livelihood plan. When a new entrant ship repair company can’t tender for harbour projects because it lacks the necessary industry grading, where is state funding to provide the necessary training?  Where is the stated commitment to government’s Industrial Development Plan?

Will Jacobs still be staring anxiously out his office window in ten years time, waiting for the proverbial ship to come in?

“Currently we are where we were when we started, and we have decided to tender for other work outside Hout Bay as we don’t see ourselves getting anywhere here,” he says, dejected. “There are people who have skills in the type of work we want to do – fitters and turners and carpenters are there in the community.”
“What must they do with their skills?  I don’t know.”

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