As we mark the start of Heritage Month the De Freitas family’s third generation, who live in Grassy Park, spoke about their journey as fishmongers and how they had been stripped of their livelihood and heritage over the years.
Mark de Freitas reflected on the good and bad times of the 1970s and 1980s when “fishing was life”.
“Once we were people – a people without heritage are not people anymore. It is not only about losing the fishing trade but also the next generation has lost its roots. If you don’t pass on your ideology how will your next generation know where they came from?”
Mr De Freitas said while fisherfolk were still allowed to ply their trade, under apartheid they were dispossessed of their land and homes “opposite the sea”.
Mr De Freitas said there were three key figures in a small-scale fishing operation – the small scale fisherman, the langana, who bought fish and transported it with a big truck, and then distributed it to the hawker who sold the fish. “All of them were employed. However, there was a mutual respect between the fishermen. You got the men who caught fish with fishing rods and they were no threat because there were enough fish for everyone.”
Recalling his childhood, Mr De Freitas said values and entrepreneurship were taught by his father.
“I would go with my father (Edgar). The fishermen would take their children with on the boat to fish. They would then gain experience on how to fish.
“The tradition was to pass on the trade to the next generation to take over one day. Today people study to be an entrepreneur, and in those days entrepreneurship was taught to the children by their parents. There was no need to study because we were shown how to fish.”
Fishing created an opportunity to bond with family.
“During holidays we were going to fish and we would go to different harbours to catch fish and then sell fish.”
And he remembered distinctly that during the exchange of fish from the fishermen to the langana to the hawker, there was “constant prayer. “God was the essence of everything and I think that kept this whole equation intact.”
Mr De Freitas said there was an honour the fishermen would adhere to when they sold fish. “There was no way you would buy the fish for R5 and sell it for R100 on the other side, because my family (the fishermen) would be buying those fish.
“The money was the most insignificant part of the business. It was never about money as it was a way of life and serving the community.
“The ethics were in giving you receive. They believed when you give to the poor God will give back to you.”
Sometimes the fish would be in abundance. “The skipper would say, today we are giving away
“If there was a widow, we should make sure that we don’t charge her. This was about people serving people.
“They couldn’t read and write. Most important, no one’s name was written down. It was only done with trust between the seller and the buyer.”
One other significant symbol of hope was the “trompette” (trumpet), which alerted people that the fishmongers were in the area.
“For a distressed mother, who didn’t know where the food is going to come from to feed her family, that sound of the trumpet gave her hope and she knew that God has answered her prayers.”
And snoek was the staple food, said Mr De Freitas, because it was considered one of the cheapest sources of protein. “Everything revolved around snoek. There is a significant history around snoek, a cultural (history), but most of all it is an economic history. You could create work with snoek.
“However, today it is a delicacy and expensive.”
The history of the fishing industry slowly started to change and Mr De Freitas spoke of “two dark clouds (which) came over the trade in the 1990s”.
“When the M5 was to be built, well-dressed men approached the fishmongers and told them that they would accommodate them and relocated them to Princess Vlei.”
However, he said, they moved them but it was a short-term move. “With the whole idea of a mall to be built in. There was a structure but no more flow of traffic. What did we do with the waste – the City has a truck and afterwards took it off, but the removal became less. The sales started to drop because of the smell and mess.”
Mr De Freitas’ mother, Cecilia de Freitas said the memories of the fishermen’s wives were also forgotten. “Mothers drove the horse and carts which were later replaced with bakkies, while the men blew the trumpets,” she said.
After the fall of the market, people lost their livelihood and their families. “They have lost their cultural heritage where the fishing trade could not be passed on to the next generation,” said Mr De Freitas.