top of page

Gatiep the Fisherman

While Betty’s District Six tends to be notorious rather than famous because people remember the wanton destruction of the cities historic suburb in the early 1960s, the unique architecture of the town and the incredible cultural atmosphere as well as the oral and sensual feast offered by its people, streets and commerce, remains in the psyche of the inhabitants of the region.
Destroying buildings and displacing people, rarely destroys the culture, language and tradition of the afflicted.  Rather like 70 years of Stalinist and Communist rule in Russia sought to remove all traces of religion from that society, within days and weeks of the regime's dissolution, the suppressed entity miraculously reappeared stronger and more resilient than ever. Thus it was for the Orthodox Church in Russia and for the Malay people of the Cape.

The Cape Malay people are descendants of the slaves introduced to the Cape from Malaysia in the 18th century. They represent the DNA line of their land of origin and the indigenous peoples of the Cape, especially the Khoi and the San. Their religions are Islam and Christianity and their language is Afrikaans as shared with the linguistic origins of the language of the Afrikaner whose origins are Dutch and to a lesser degree, French Huguenot.
Alongside a vivid literary and artistic tradition, there is to be found a remarkable tradition in music and theatre fuelled by the historically cosmopolitan nature of the Cape with its city that has serviced the needs of seafarers from the four corners of the globe since it's founding in the mid 17th century.  

Look no further than the theatrical, dance, puppetry and musical centres of London and New York and beyond to realise that at the centre of this creative urge is be found Capetonians themselves and those that have been influenced by the cultural mix that makes up the city’s population.

In the depths of this cultural hot pot lies the tradition of story telling. Generations of the wise have passed on the pathos and humour of one generation to another. The experiences are those of life lived through tough times and hard knocks but the sense of identity is confident and solid.
They are not a land locked community. They are inseparably linked to the sea. Up the West coast of the Cape Province, fishing communities such as that at Paternoster Bay, bare close resemblance to their fore bearer's Portuguese seafaring past with their whitewashed fisherman's cottages and rugged little wooden fishing boats and net laden beach frames.
But not all the heroes of the fishing world are to be found braving wild Atlantic seas in the wheel house of a Cape fishing trawler. These fishermen are also masters of the surf casting technique using the unique technology born of the skills, materials and conditions prevalent in this remote and isolated colony over many centuries.
The cane from the Cape Flats reed beds, the oak turned reels and gut fishing line contributed to a reputation long held by Cape fishermen, as being some of the longest surf casters in the world of beach casting. Not for them the modern counterbalanced multiplier reels with carbon breaks to prevent over spools and the dreaded "birds nest". The oak reel running on ball bearings is little more than a reel running on ball bearings. The spinning speed would be measured in rpm akin to the speed of a car's wheels running at 60 km and with so little drag on the line it is little wonder that the 12 ounce weight and accompanying hook and live bait would sail over three lines of rolling Atlantic breakers and drop delicately into the calm zone beyond the last breaker. This zone beyond the line where the rolling waves form as the oscillations are compressed into the shallower waters above the rising continental shelf, is where surfers congregate to catch the ideal wave and beneath them where the predatory fish seek out their pray.
It is here, intentionally or unintentionally where legends are born and where landmarks become symbolic of the unsung heros that permeate local history, song and poetry. At the heart of every myth there is a foundation of truth. A truth which over time is altered and twisted as it passes from one mouth to another, like Chinese whispers, until, like the eroding coastline, the origins become obscure but the essential truth remains in the pathos, humour and idiom of the story teller. 
The exact location of events becomes lost and muddled and features change with the sole purpose of embellishing the story. The beach facing Table bay, with its flat top mountain flanked by Devil's Peak to the left and lion's Head to the right is a far more impressive location for a tale of the sea than some remote, featureless stretch of sand facing a pounding sea. Alongside the main road to Blouberg Strand, one would not be surprised to see a fast food outlet sporting a sign with the letter M and close to it an unusual structure in the format of a spotted dog from whose hatchway is dispensed burgers, cool drinks and chocolate. Spotty the Dog may in reality once have faced False Bay, but now for the story teller, there is  no need for accuracy and he or she may use license to relocate and even reinvent whatever suits his or her purpose. And there between Spotty the Dog and the fast food restaurant, obscured by the flashing lights, the overflowing bins and the windswept mini-sand dunes stands the statue, upright and resolute as if in defiance of the winds of change that have blown down the avenue over the preceding decades.

















Sweep aside the wind blown debris from the burger bars and drink vendors, some dropped by seagulls from a height to break open bags and thus reveal a half eaten burger or bag of fries, and you will see revealed a small brass plaque with the simple inscription “Gatiep the Fisherman”. No other explanation is given and the visitor is left with nothing but questions about why this man is celebrated and why he holds this unlikely position on his plinth, his leg pointing out to sea. Ask the locals  and they will not be able to enlighten the visitor for they are not in the know of much else other than what informs them on their Ipads and Blackberries for they do not hear the drowned words of the story teller..........................................

There is a quality of light, sound and stillness that permeates the atmosphere of an early morning on the seashore at Blouberg Strand. The waves are there but they are no longer enraged by the wind and heavy seas. They roll into the bay and break gracefully and rhythmically, each in turn sending a well ordered wall of surf across a stretch of water with a surface like glass towards the shore. The sound of the wave breaking and the rushing of the surf seems muffled and the calmness of the hour extends across the expanse of sea and sand.
Across the bay, pink light illuminates a bank of mist out of which seems to emerge Table Mountain, flanked by Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak. This tranquil scene is common to the early hours of the day but is only witnessed by those who rise before the dawn breaks and whose purpose, if not to witness the serenity of the hour, is to ply their business of fishing when the creatures of the deep sea are at their most active.

The Reverend Paul Viljoen, Anglican Vicar from a nearby parish knows this scene well. The bay has held significance since his childhood when men and women were separated by their colour and the bay was segregated so that this stretch in the full beauty of Table Mountain, was reserved for white people only. It was thought fair, by some, that the beach adjacent to the Harbour of Cape Town, Woodstock Beach, where sewage and industrial waist pipes entered the sea, could be reserved for non-whites. He often recalled the children’s rhyme imported from Europe and hideously adjusted to suit the humour of a divided society that spelled out the significance of the “good beach” as opposed to the “bad beach”.

“ Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow
She took it down to Woodstock Beach,
En kyk hoe lyk dit nou!”

The last line in Afrikaans means “and look what it looks like now?” If as a child he had not fully understood what it had meant, now as an adult its meaning was all too clear as the Government of the day sought to deprive people of a different colour of the best bits of the land under the pretext of separating the different races to prevent violence, uphold morality, promote the development of less advanced peoples and allow people of a different hue to “catch up” with the white man and his superior civilisation.


The reverend Paul has spent a lifetime championing his neighbours and now that the new South Africa has arrived, he can survey the beach with a sigh of satisfaction that in the end, justice reigns supreme and the days of segregation are now consigned to history.

His business is not fishing although to see him strolling down the beach towards his small boat with outboard engine, and his fishing rod and net balanced on his shoulder, you might be mistaken in this. This is his hour of contemplation and calm. His venue for self reflexion before taking on the challenges of the day ahead.
Not that he had never caught a fish. Given the populace of swimming creatures below the waves, the Reverend was bound to strike it lucky at some point. His endeavours, however, we're never likely to dent the critical numbers of fish within any particular species. Besides which a fish was simply a bonus as indeed it had been a bonus for James  and John, Simon and Andrew, the disciples of Jesus, since their distraction from the task of fishing for fish and the introduction of  their new focus of fishing for men. 


For this man of the cloth the purpose of a small boat with outboard engine is to bring him at that early time of day, to the calm stretch of glassy water beyond the last breaker. Here he can drop anchor, feel the gentle rise and fall of the morning swell and in that almost silent moment, reflect on life's issues and commune with God. It is not clear if the fish are a part of that communion but the vicar's bait always attracts many of the smaller species amongst which are the plentiful horse mackerel. As night leads inexorably to day, so horse mackerel attract geelbeck and geelbeck attract barracuda and the food chain builds below the outline of the vicar's boat.

Apartheid never limited the scope of Gatiep. Although the law limited him in theory, because of the colour of his skin, to the polluted beach at Woodstock, he would get up so early in the morning that the police were never around to check if "he did got a licence" to be there.. Besides, passers by with dogs or fellow fishermen knew that a man who could cast a sinker, hook and bait as far as Gatiep could, was above the law, even stupid laws. The central question which no-one posed and therefore never answered was whether or not he was above the law of nature, itself?

Gatiep by now, with the age of separation behind all South Africans, is an institution, an expected presence on the beach as the sun rises and the early morning calm dulls the sea. Gatiep maintained this presence in the past, it has to be said, not just by reputation but also by virtue of some rather peculiar practices, not challenged by those in the know, but for an ignorant observer, likely to attract attention. 
For as long as people could remember Gatiep always arrived on the beach in the half light before the dawn. His towering rod would be balanced on his shoulder and in his right hand he would clutch his bucket of live bait. 


Choosing the exact same position on a section of the sand that inclined gradually but significantly towards the sea, he would bait up his hooks, pick up his rod ascend with his back to the sea, swing the rod with graceful power, spinning his entire body until, with line released and sailing over the breakers, he would find himself facing the sea. The heavy sinker paternoster rig would pass effortlessly over the first line of breakers, then the second, the third and finally the fourth where, with impeccable timing, Gatiep's thumb would slam into the spinning reel, thus breaking the cast's momentum and causing the weight to plop effortlessly into the water in the zone beyond the last waves where life waits for the feeding spree that is the food chain.

If the vicar is aware of the "plop" he would surely be thinking of it as the noise of a small fish breaking the surface tension of the water in pursuit of moth or large fly. Evidence that Gatiep had been doing this for much of his life could be seen in his right thumb. This digit was by no means "normal". Now a mass of callous tissue stained brown by the immense heat generated by the friction of the skin of his thumb slowing down the rapidly revolving rim of the oak reel. Stained too by the countless rolled cigarettes that he smoked and kept ready behind his ear. Such were the characteristics of a Cape Malay master craftsman. 
For the unaware, the action of the fisherman would surely turn heads while for others his actions were nothing more than the expected. As for thousands of previous occasions, Gatiep, having dumped his load beyond the furthest breaker, seeking the line of least effort and minimal expenditure of energy, would ram his rod into the wet, soft beach and lay himself down, facing the sea so that he could see the line of breaking waves between the rim of  his cap and the outline of his bare feet. 

Before taking up an absolute prone position on the sand, one last action would surely intrigue the uninitiated to this torporific form of fishing. 

Gatiep would take up the slack in his line trailing out to the distant rig of weight, hook and bait, and rapidly wrap the line round his big toe, before leaning back and pulling his cap down over his nose.

Quite how such a repose lends itself to the delicate business of sensing the bait being sucked gently into the mouth of the geelbeck, is difficult to comprehend. Geelbeck are not trusting and stupid creatures. They first draw the bait gently into their mouths so that the taste and smell sensors can verify if this is a safe food to eat. If rejected, the bait is spat out instantly and violently. Only if the geelbeck senses all is well does he let the meal go and then it instantly strikes at it. Many a frustrated fisherman has had to tell the tale of the one that got away because, sensing the geelbeck's exploratory first advance, they strike too early and between all the furious pulling back of the rod, energetic winding in of the reel and the fish's own rejection mechanism, the only thing that is being caught, is some passing seaweed.

Gatiep of course, knows this. The big toe and with the line carefully wrapped round it is as sensitive an organ in Gatiep's arsenal of fishing tactics as the geelbeck's mouth is for identifying what is good or bad to feed on. In fact the big toe is an exact match in sensitivity to the Geelbeck's mouth and Gatiep knows that when he feels the slight tightening of the line around his toe, together with the fine vibration that resonates through the tensioned line, he has 30 seconds to leap upright without altering the position  of his foot. For it is at that point that the bait is positioned halfway into the fish's mouth and the fish is deciding on the option of rejection or acceptance.
Both acceptance and rejection will lead to the expelling of the bait from the fish's mouth. However, the manor of ejection for acceptance and rejection is diametrically different. 

Rejection is a violent form of ejection. Instant and forceful ....a sort of "yuck" reaction on the part of the fish that minimizes the likelihood of being stung or poisoned by some of the nastier critters of the shallows and deeper waters of the Cape.
The ejection movement of "acceptance" is a smooth viscous action, ensuring that the eddies of current keep the succulent bates in a compact mass, ready for the second lunge of the geelbeck. By this stage, Gatiep is now upright, holding his rod firmly in his left hand and having released the line from his big toe, he holds it delicately between his index finger and thumb of his right hand.
The fish lunges, sucks in the bait for a second time until it has entered his gullet and then the fish turns. This is the time to strike. Not a massive strike, but a simple tightening of the line as the fish is turning away and it's impetus allows the hook to pull through the flesh of the bait and penetrate the tissue of the geelbeck's gullet and mouth. That is it, job done. Soon Gatiep has a fine fish in his sack and he is lying on his back on the sand, his cap over his face and his rod erect to his left with the line attached to his toe. All this is possible because of knowledge.
An in depth understanding of the feeding habits of the fish he is targeting.
All good things come to an end and very often, that end is the beginning of something new and intriguing. The end of a legend becomes the beginning of a myth and the “tall story” familiar to the fishing community, becomes even taller. The end of a legend in this case is more to do with circumstances coming together in a haphazard and ad hoc manner so that no matter how good “the knowledge” is, it cannot predict the events that are to come. For it is on this last day of the “legend”, that Gatiep arrives at the break of day with rod and bait bucket and approaches his usual 

spot and after baiting up his hooks and attaching his weight, he stands, poised with his back to the sea, his rod extended out infront of him and 4 foot of leader hanging to the ground weighted by the bait and lead weight.

He casts over his shoulder and his powerful arms and the graceful spin of his body channel the forces down the flexing rod, down the line and onto the weight so that the package sails effortlessly over the surf close to the shore, over the first line of breaking waves, over the second, over the third and finally over the fourth and last line of waves into the calm zone where, the line is slowed and the package of bait and sinker plunges into the sea to take up position on the sea bed to lure the prey. All is ready.

On the shore, Gatiep takes a length of the extended line and losely wraps it round the big toe of his right hand foot, plunges the stock of his rod into the damp sand and lies his body full length so that he can survey the sea and Table Bay from between his feet and observe the surf between the rim of his cap and the approaching surfline.

The reverend Paul is now at one with the elements beyond the fourth line of breakers. The gentle rise and fall of his boat with the swell of passing waves lulls him into a sense of tranquility and there he remains, pensive and meditative, oblivious of the actions of his rod and the line below it. In fact the activity around his hook and bait is frenetic. Shoals of tiny fish fry have congregated around the bundle of fish fillets and are stripping at flesh around an enormous hook that poses them no danger. The tip of the rod dips and flicks in response to tiny bites but to the fisherman who is alert it is soon apparent that this movement is either the work of fish fry or the vibrations of the sinker being dragged across the uneven sea bed. 

The reverend Paul is not alert, however, he is even unaware of the flicking of the tip of his rod as the fry below are joined by the bigger and voracious horse mackerel. The scene below is becoming more frenetic and tiny fish are pursued by bigger small fish and the swirling scene begins to extend from the vicar's bait towards the larger and more substantial bait on the end of Gatiep’s line. 
It is not long before the dark shape of a passing “geelbeck” looms into focus, attracted in part by the submarine fracas caused by swirling fish. The Geelbeck is not deflected by the whirlwind of silver bodies darting to and fro in seeming unison, it has sensed Gatiep’s bait and has now approached it with a view to sucking in the melange to verify if it is good or bad to eat.
Such is the geelbeck’s focus together with the distracting melee of swirling fish surrounding Gatiep’s bait, that it is totally cut off from the reality surrounding it. For there in the approaches to this galaxy of feeding fish life is another shape, sleek, powerful and deadly. The Barracuda, expressionless except in its frozen facial aspect designed to strike terror into any prospective victim, has its eye firmly focused on the self-absorbed “Geelbeck”. The barracuda has none of the finesse of the Geelbeck as it approaches its meal. It only knows acceleration and high impact and it is now poised for its lightening strike. The barracuda has a wide field of vision but alas, it has no rear view mirrors. 600 meters behind the barracuda, cruising slowly as if to evaluate the varied options for its meal that lie in the shallows of the bay’s continental slope, is the ultimate hunter of all, silent and stealthy, gargantuan hunter of the deep, the great white shark.

Destiny is on the verge of exploding onto the stage of life and the actors appear to be unaware of the respective roles they are about to play!

Each player only needs to carry out the function for which they were designed and the role will be completed with deadly efficacy. The fish fry create the mayhem The mackerel fan the flames, the geelbeck saunters in to begin to suck in his bait and the barracuda hits top speed and is on the verge of tearing into the geelbeck. All this with immaculate timing and in complete oblivion to the approaching gape of the white shark as it seeks to take the barracuda,,,,whole!

Gatiep senses the slight pull and vibration on the line wrapped round his big toe. He is by his own momentum, a quarter way towards being perpendicular. Passersby are aware that there is action afoot.

Evidence given later to the investigating officer of the South African Police Missing Person’s Bureau, talk of Gatiep executing a perfect erectile upward movement of the body, his right leg extended out in front of him and of huge excelleration as Gatiep barefoot skied down the wet smooth sand beach towards the water’s edge.

At the water’s edge, he appears to have executed a seemless and graceful transition from sand to water and the single track down the sand incline became a straight line of wake across the glassy stretch of water to the first breaking line of waves. At this point Gatiep appeared to be waving and a few of the beachcombers, not aware of the nature of the scene they were viewing, waved back as if in admiration of Gatiep’s apparent skill and agility.

The ski jump high over the first breaker is still talked about in bars and meeting places of the fishing folk of bay as is the wave of spray that erupted as Gatiep landed on his left foot cut an angle in the water and sent water spraying like a sailfish’s fin across the surface of the sea. Each successive line of breaking wave produced a more spectacular feat of gymnastic brilliance and left the now growing spectator corp in awe.

The good reverend in his boat would not have particularly noticed the passing spectacle were it not for the fact that he was thinking of the account of Our Lord’s walking on water in the Sea of Galilee. The passing of Gatiep at considerable speed not only surprised  the vicar but the confusion of not being able to see a motor boat as the source of his momentum caused him to question his reason as he perceived the unfolding of the scene in front of him.

Of course the story does not end well. Gatiep was never seen again and it remains a matter of speculation as how he ended his earthly existence. Parting this life is never just a matter for the dearly departed. Gatiep’s family were not simply his dearest and nearest but also those that shared his life even with the minimum of the sort of communication we associate with human co-existence. The shared experience of those who appeared in substantial numbers to his memorial service was that of a community that shared a way of life and shared a zest for life that transcends laws and protocol that society and civilisation bestows on its members. Here in front of the Muslim Sheik, the Reverend Paul and the elders of the community stood people of varied origins, creeds and race shoulder to shoulder with a commonality of shared empathy for the life we lead.

“And with him are the keys of the Unseen:
None knows them but Him.”
“And he knows whatever there is on the land and the sea.”
“No leaf falls without his knowledge”.  (The Qu ran 6:59)


spotty gatiep.jpg
bottom of page