Poacher: 'I didn't know I was being taken for a fool'

Poacher: Confessions from the abalone underworld by Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader published by Kwela Books.
Poacher: Confessions from the abalone underworld by Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader published by Kwela Books.

When Shuhood began diving for abalone, in his early twenties, he had no idea what he was getting into. An Afrikaans man named Johan lived a few houses away from Shuhood's parents in Lansdowne, married to a Muslim woman – one of the tiny fraction of white South Africans who had slipped the apartheid frame and settled in a non-white area. 'He was one of those brandy and coke boere,' Shuhood told me, but in many respects Johan was a complete outlier.

He walked over one morning and asked Shuhood if he knew how to swim. He needed help on a job, he said. Shuhood was unemployed and said yes. A few days later they left at dawn, driving to Glencairn, just around the corner from Simon's Town. It was the unwitting start of Shuhood's poaching career.

Years later, he wrote:

Johan gave me a wetsuit, albeit tattered and torn, a pair of goggles and flippers. We took to the water and he showed me how to spot the perlemoen by looking closely for the fine hair-like tentacles that protrudes on the edge of the shells, the shells sometimes being camouflaged by other sea growth. I often mistook limpets for perlemoen. If you not fast enough with the metal lever to take it off the rocks or reef, then it would cling or suck even harder, forcing me to abandon it.

Nevertheless, I soon got the hang of it and our pouch bags were full. Johan's Chevy pickup was parked at Glencairn station in the parking bay and we just casually walked over the railway line and got dressed and left with the bags of perlemoen.

It was the early 1990s, right before poaching blew up in the Western Cape. The commercial fishery was landing more than 600 tonnes of abalone per year and recreational permits were still cheaply available – in 1992, the government issued nearly 35 000. Scientists considered the fishery well managed, with poaching at most a minor concern. There was no chance of trouble as Johan and Shuhood worked near the rocks, making off with more than 100 kg each time.

They dived whenever conditions were suitable, sometimes working an entire week without interruption. 'I started to enjoy the underwater world,' Shuhood wrote. 'It was a new world to me, a world of wonders.'

Fish of different shapes moved through the shallows. Kelp blades roiled in the swell – now amber, now in shadow – as they lifted and sunk with the tide. Below, on the reefs, abalone lay packed beside limpets and spiny urchins, easy to harvest once Shuhood learned to spot them. Holding his breath, he descended again and again, quickly filling his bags.

When Shuhood asked Johan what he was doing with all the perlemoen, he said that he was selling the shells for ornaments and ashtrays, giving away the meat to family and friends. For his help, he paid Shuhood R50 a day – worth more at the time, but still only a fraction of what their harvest was bringing in.

'I didn't know I was being taken for a fool,' Shuhood wrote. 'I only discovered a few years later that the meat was the only real value.'

Abalone poaching was about to reach into coloured fishing communities and spiral into a crisis, but still largely remained the domain of renegade white men. The poaching stereotype in the 1980s was a sunburned student, probably a surfer, who dived perlie now and then to subsidise his university fees, or more likely to buy booze for the next weekend jol.

When we met, Shuhood had read all the poaching stories on my website. 'You never mentioned something important,' he told me. 'It's the whites that started all of this.'

When I was 25 years old, I interviewed one of the old white poachers at his home on the Cape Peninsula. I rode the train down past Muizenberg and he met me at one of the False Bay stations in an old BMW. He was portly, wore glasses, had pockmarked skin and spoke with traces of a British accent. The cricket was on the radio. Within minutes, he launched into a tirade about the minibus taxi drivers: 'animals' running amok, causing mayhem on the streets.

His house dated to the 1970s, when the entire suburb was white, with a low wooden fence, threadbare lawn and rusting bakkie out front. There were three boats in the yard, one a ruined rubber duck with deflated pontoons. 'That boat probably harvested more abalone than any other in Cape Town,' he said. 'It made millions.' Inside was cool and dim, a respite from the summer heat. There were no ostentatious touches. It felt like a home that someone's grandparents might keep. Martin wore a faded shirt and had an easy demeanour. From an old fridge, he offered me a Woolworths ginger beer.

'You've got to be so careful here,' he said. 'I was in the garage the other day for a minute with the gate open, and when I came back inside, there were two guys in the kitchen. I said to them, 'What the fuck are you doing here?' They told me they were looking for a job. Hell they were. Fuck, it's gotten bad.'

* This extract was taken from Poacher: Confessions from the abalone underworld by Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader, published by Kwela Books.

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