Behind Hout Bay's quest for answers from a smelly factory

Kiara Worth is a sustainable development consultant, writer and photographer. She also the Fresh Air for Hout Bay facilitator.
Kiara Worth is a sustainable development consultant, writer and photographer. She also the Fresh Air for Hout Bay facilitator.

THE FIRST time I went to Hout Bay I instantly knew I wanted to live there. There was something about the rich diversity of colourful characters, the fishing village heritage and the spectacular natural environment that captured it all.

I moved to a house in the Heights, across the road from the community of Hangberg, known for being a bit rough. I was told there was a fishmeal factory nearby that sometimes produced a smell, but it wasn’t bad. It was the place for me – integrated, diverse, filled with potential and a wonderful sense of community.

Then came the smell.

It’s hard to articulate just how bad the smell can be and how it seeps into every facet of life. It doesn’t smell like fish. It smells like rotten, rancid, cooking fish – sometimes wet, sometimes dry – that induces a sickening gag-reflex and eye watering experience that pretty much ruins your day.

A lot of people were concerned. The factory is in the middle of a vibrant social landscape with schools and tourist attractions and businesses. The smell negatively influenced all of that and compromised the well-being of people. So we formed a group called Fresh Air for Hout Bay (FAHB), committed to getting rid of the smell.

There were a lot of rumours; Oceana was operating illegally, there was better equipment available, they were cooking rotten fish… The list went on. It was clear we had to verify the facts.

We met with the managing directors of Oceana, confirming numbers and information and offered to work together to find a solution. Oceana consistently said no technology existed to reduce the smell so we established a community-based engineering group to verify this, after reviewing air quality and atmospheric emissions reports. We corresponded with the City of Cape Town, getting official records and documents, understanding legislation and the application of laws, and tabling our concerns.

FAHB gathered this information in an effort to make an informed decision on how to resolve the situation, and shared it on their social media sites. FAHB also encouraged people affected by the smell to use Oceana’s official complaints mechanism, to understand how many people were affected and in what way. FAHB never advocated for the closure of the factory.

Then Oceana announced its proposed closure. Their statement cited community complaints as the driving factor – the 240% increase of complaints led to reduced production, influencing the factory’s viability. Unless they tripled production, the factory would have to close and 98 people would lose their jobs.

They didn’t mention that they had recently purchased a US-based fishing company through a R4.6 billion deal and were looking to consolidate local operations to more effectively pursue international interests. They also didn’t mention their 18% increase of operating profit in 2013 to the tune of almost R900 million. No, it was all about the complaints.

Understandably, the community reacted with anger – how could a smell come before the bread and butter on someone’s plate? Their livelihoods were at risk because of a bunch of complainers.

FAHB published a public statement saying they had never advocated for the factory’s closure and tried to provide information and perspective, offering a collaborative way forward. But this was an emotional issue and Oceana’s statement fostered division and tension during an already difficult time. It was irresponsible and things have been heating up since.

A meeting was held in Hangberg with representatives from the Food and Agricultural Workers Union (FAWU), calling for working class people to unite against the closure of the factory and to insist on a tripling of production.

Their information about the closure was completely inaccurate, claiming new legislation and issues with the lease. While they rallied the crowd with the prospect of ‘sustainable jobs’, they provided no indication that a tripling of production would mean an increase of jobs or wages, a topic that Oceana remains quiet about as well.

The meeting did raise very valid concerns about existing inequalities and how the community had been side-lined for years. There are a host of legacy issues relating to land, housing, employment, and people are unhappy. The leadership and unions have now used this to craft a very clear narrative: this is a class-war driven by a white minority and we have taken the first step of battle.

Cosatu’s press release supports exactly that – the “champagne and caviar crowd of Hout Bay” are systematically pushing out the working class and the City of Cape Town is “conspiring with the white community to attack the interest of the black community.” It is simply ludicrous.

The workers and local community have every right to demonstrate their dissatisfaction about the closure – it is their democratic right and responsibility and we should expect nothing less. But what are they demonstrating for?

They have almost no legitimate information and have been manipulated into thinking a random group of complainers shut down a multi-million Rand enterprise. Their very real fears about loss of income and stability have been directed into a racially driven offensive for which they are now prepared to take action against. It is a dangerous combination.

And while people are being rallied, what’s happening in the background? Has the decision to close the factory already been made? What are the actual relocation and retrenchment packages for the workers and who is ensuring this? What plans does Public Works have for the land and what are the implications of this for the community?

While people are being distracted by racial provocations, they are not paying attention to the real issues and instead are caught up in a political game for control and power.

One thing has become abundantly clear: Hout Bay is in desperate need of a long-term sustainable development plan.

Despite the challenges, this situation offers an opportunity that could transform the entire community. The harbour is a wealth of resources. If comprehensive socio-economic and environmental studies were conducted, they could inform the best way of maximising those resources in a sustainable way. Simultaneously, an authentic community engagement process could both develop a social vision and provide a holistic livelihoods analyses of local communities. The combination of these could lead to a long-term development plan, one that maintains cultural heritage, protects the environment, improves socio-economic conditions and, most importantly, is locally driven.

The creation of sustainable communities is a vibrant global discussion and the possibilities are endless. Engaging in such a process would not only serve local communities, but also put Cape Town in the forefront of this global conversation. It is both important and exciting.

The challenge now is to help people see this opportunity, to realise that only through knowledge, consultation, integrity and unity can these issues truly be resolved. Now is not the time for politics and division, now is the time to come together, to think and discuss and debate, to put our community on a new course that brings equitable and sustainable benefits, while ensuring a healthy and positive environment for all people.

* Kiara Worth is a sustainable development consultant, writer and photographer. She also the Fresh Air for Hout Bay facilitator.

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