Time stands still for the poor of paradisic Paternoster

It is easy to see why so many people have fallen in love with Paternoster. The West Coast town is amazingly fall-in-lovable with (if there is a word like this).

The architecture of the town is modelled on the original white fisherman’s cottages, of which there are still a few, and the beach is small and secluded enough for anyone with a low level of fitness to walk it end to end several times in a day. The best time to spend on the beach is just before and after sunset when the beach and the town show off their beauty painted in dusky hues.

Paternoster, which means “Our Father” in Latin, is named after a prayer which foreign sailors used to recite when they passed the rocky shores.

It is a town where time, were it not for the invasion of tourists and gentrifiers, could easily have stood still.

The sad reality is that for many of the town’s original residents, time has stood still. It is almost like they are trying to make themselves invisible when surrounded by the influx of tourists and out-of-towners who have bought up much of the property in the town and built more properties, effectively forcing out small fishermen who have traditionally made a living from catching crayfish and other marine resources.

The fishing boats go out early morning or late at night and come in just after sunrise, an occasion that sees many locals wanting to see what the catch was.

There is a routine: the boats come in as close to the shore as possible, a Jeep pulls them out of the water and then they get taken away, probably for their wares to be sold to one of the nearby factories exporting their catches.

When we watched early this week, the catches included “Bulle” (big crayfish) and Hotnotsvis (yes, it does not sound politically correct but that is what it is called).

Of course, there are downsides, even to a piece of paradise. One of them was the longest wait ever for a parcel of takeaway fish and chips - almost two hours - with the people who work at the small kiosk warning those who are impatient not to place orders.

There are also many restaurants that are completely overpriced, with their food not up to standard. How do you explain selling old fish to customers in a seaside town? Maybe because all the fish that gets caught in the town is exported?

The highlight of my week so far has not been the amazing sunsets or the tranquillity of the beaches. It was a discussion I had with three young boys on the beach who were trying to sell me handmade curios and fresh white mussels.

The boys, one of whom was Frederico, were between eight and 10, and are in Grades 2, 3 and 4. They told me that they lived in “die huisies” (the small houses), a reference to the small government-built houses that form part of most towns in South Africa. They told me a bit about their history, including about the recent death from a heart attack of one of their fathers, and the problems they have at school.

But it was when I asked them what they hoped to become one day that I realised how poor people in small towns like Paternoster do not have much hope and expectations.

They wanted to become a “kreefvanger” (crayfish catcher), a “karate man” (whatever that means) and a policeman, respectively.

The thought of one day going to university has not even crossed their minds.

This made me realise once again how messed up our realities are in South Africa.

Yes, free higher education is important, but we need to first create the environment where more people - including from small rural towns like Paternoster - will be encouraged to aim for higher education.

There are too many people in South Africa who have resigned themselves to a future where their full potential will never be realised.

Places like Paternoster will remain bastions of inequality - which, as we all know, is becoming worse in South Africa - unless meaningful interventions are made to uplift the life of poorer communities.

I hope I am wrong, but I did not see any visible engagement from Paternoster’s rich invaders to improve the lives of the town’s original inhabitants.

I am not against development but it must be done in a way that it takes along the people at the bottom. If this does not happen then resentment will always exist. This can never be good if we want to develop our country and fulfil its potential.

Federico and his friends deserve more than selling curios for R30 and a future where they can only hope to become crayfish catchers, karate men or policemen - even if they do live in a piece of paradise.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 6 January 2018)