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Hilda Adams, a fighter for people and the planet in Steenberg’s Cove

Hilda Adams, a fighter for people and the planet in Steenberg’s Cove

Cold and bracing, whipped by the wind, the waves of the Atlantic Ocean are an affirmation of life.

"She is at her happiest in the shallow tidal waters, wading among the rocks, gathering limpets and sea lettuce and periwinkle for the pot."

The ocean provides, heals, and sustains, but only if we protect it in turn

Cold and bracing, whipped by the wind, the waves of the Atlantic Ocean are an affirmation of life.

But they also carry, in their salty sting, the weight of memories that are not easily washed away by the tide.

For Hilda Adams – Aunty Hilda, as everyone calls her – the hurt of her family’s forced removal, from Green Point on the shoreline to Mannenberg on the Cape Flats, still lingers after all these years. She was 12 years old at the time.

“I think that’s when I first became an activist,” she says.

Half a century later, she still is, fighting now for the right of her community to claim a fair share of the bounty of the sea.

Like her father and grandfather before her, like her eldest son, Christian, after her, Hilda seeks to make a living through fishing.

An ancient craft, anchored by the strength of her faith, cast upon the waters by the long line of those who go out in their small boats at dawn, and return late in the day with their glistening catch.

“Fishing means everything to me, because I grew up with it,” says Hilda. “It’s not just the eating of the fish, and the activities that go with it. The spiritual connection runs deep. We believe that the ocean sustains and heals us.”

But fishing is an industry as well as a craft, and today it is dominated by the big conglomerates that trawl by the ton.

The small fishers, hampered by the strict quotas and zoning conditions that Hilda and other marine-rights activists are fighting to overturn, must be content for now to hold their harvest in a ‘mandjie’.

The little woven basket that lends its name to Weskusmandjie, the women’s cooperative started by Hilda in the fishing village of Steenberg’s Cove, between Velddrif and St Helena Bay on the West Coast.

In the old fishing tradition, the men would go out to sea, and the women would clean and prepare the fish for selling back home.

“My mother,” says Hilda, “could ‘vlek’ a snoek like nobody’s business.”

To ‘vlek’ is to cut a freshly caught snoek along the back, opening it like a book for ease of filleting.

Then you can make Aunty Hilda’s ‘Viskop Sop’, in which two snoek-heads, cut in half lengthways, are simmered in a pot with salt and pepper and a thinly sliced onion, and served with mops of ‘tuisgebakte’ bread and butter.

It is skills like these, handed down through the generations, that form the backbone of Weskusmandjie, whose crew of six – “We are a tiny, tiny business,” says Hilda – are guided in their work by a home-grown slogan: “Reviving Our Indigenous Heritage”.

That means celebrating and promoting small-scale fishing as a labour of love and livelihood.

It means procuring the ingredients, following the old recipes, and bringing to the table the culinary delicacies of the West Coast, to be sold online at a marketplace called Abalobi, which is isiXhosa for ‘fishers’.

Pickled bokkom, made from whole salted southern mullet, hung out to dry in the sun like biltong.

Bokkom rollmops, wrapped around a pickle or onion, and skewered with a toothpick.

‘Suurvygie konfyt’ – sour fig jam – best served with Camembert on a cracker.

The ‘mandjie’ may be small, but it is filled to the brim with flavour, variety, and nutrition. The ocean provides.

And that is why, says Hilda, an activist for people and the planet, we need to respect and protect it in turn.

“We are custodians of the oceans and the species,” she says. “We are not spilling oil into the ocean, we are not dredging for gas, we are not putting profit before people. We are the people. We want to continue living a decent life, to sustain the harvest and protect the resources for our next generation, because we are borrowing it from them.”

She is at her happiest in the shallow tidal waters of Steenberg’s Cove, wading among the rocks, gathering limpets and sea lettuce and periwinkle for the pot, feeling the breeze on her skin, the saltwater running through her veins.

She never thought, at her age, so many years into democracy, that she would still have a cause to fight for, a reason to sign petitions and march to parliament.

But the sea belongs to all of us, and the small fishers, too, deserve to work their share of it, as the winds blow and the waves of change roll on.

For more fascinating stories about the remarkable people and places of the West Coast, watch Weskubewoners, brought to you by BrightRock, on kykNET every Thursday at 21:00.


Change expert, BrightRock, believes that the big change equals big opportunity.

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