The other side of the Waterfront

I love the V&A Waterfront. I like walking around there and watching the funny tourists. I like the groups of singers, dancers and contortionists, I like the many restaurants and shopping with my eyes as I walk past those fancy fashion stores.

Oh, and of course, I like the harbour with it’s pretty boats, lolling seals and glow-in-the-dark jelly fish.

But, last night I got to see another side of it. The industrial side. The ugly side. The side with stray cats and sad sailors. The side where some vessels go to upload and offload goods, refuel or rest… and others just go to die. The side hidden from the public eye. The side the public eye can’t access to without permits and protection.

The view from the other side

So, how did I get in there?

With Mission to Seafarers of course!

Okay, it’s not so obvious, but the short and the long of it is that Johan Smith, one of the mission’s three pastors, preaches at our church every now and then and, on the last occasion, invited the members of the congregation to come and have a sneak peak at the dark and difficult world that is his day job.

(It was a rather appropriate invitation, as the series of sermons we were busy with at the time was all about allowing the pain of the world to resonate within us.)

Well, Imar, Tamara and I, were of the few who actually took him up on his offer… and what an AMAZING experience we had!



Our little group of 6 (4 girls, 2 guys) met at the Mission’s headquarters in the harbour’s Berth B (what a MISSION to find it… umm, no pun intended) just after 6pm. Although it is only located a few 100 meters from the Waterfront’s famous and luxurious Clock Tower complex, it feels like a different world altogether.

Gritty, colourless and smelling of fish.

What’s quite amusing about the Mission building itself is, that as Johan puts it, “hier is die kerk en die bar letterlik langs mekaar.” You see, by day it is the place the pastors do their work, by night the tavern where the seafarers like to hang… 🙂

Here Johan kitted us out in hard-hats and reflective vests, bundled us into the Mission’s van and started giving us a quick safety briefing.

  • Make sure your toes don’t get caught in rusty panels.
  • Look out for moving things (not animals as some of us originally thought, rather swinging poles and stuff).
  • Oh, and girls, you might not initially be welcome on some of the ships, because of strict prostitute control… Uhm, okay, thanks for that Johan! (EEK!)
I look kind of blind, just looking to the side though

First destination: Dead Man’s Alley! (Double EEEK!!)

Despite the foreboding name that, no doubt, brings to mind images of cigar-smoking mafiosa getting rid of weighted bodies, this dock is actually more like a lock-up for ships. The ones that fail to pay their harbour fees on entry.

Here they wait until:

a) the ship company pays the fees

b) the ship gets sold

c)  they rust and eventually sink

So, what about the sailors?

To most ship companies they are worth less than the furniture. Because when ship companies don’t have the money to pay harbour fees, they most certainly don’t have money to pay the sailors, so they wait… and wait… and wait.

Sometimes a week. Sometimes a month. Sometimes 10 months. Sometimes 10 years!

I kid you not!

The kitchen of George's decrepit ship

We got to explore a boat that arrived no less than 8 years ago. Three of the crew who arrived with the ship, had actually waited it out all that time. Two had started their lives over, had wives, kids and shacks in Khayalitsha, while one of them finally got a new job.

This is the one we met – a cheerful Ghanaian ‘oiler’ called George. He first showed us around the decrepit corpse of the diamond ship that was his former abode, and then invited us aboard the neat and tidy boat he would be his new place of work.

Second destination: The Pakistani ship

Well, it’s not really a Pakistani ship, but, apart from George, it had a Pakistani crew and captain.

To Johan’s discreet inquiry about how welcome the ladies would be, George merely chuckled and waved us aboard…

And boy, were we welcome?! The reasonably young Pakistani crew were almost falling over themselves to make our acquaintance! Understandably so, as they probably hadn’t seen a woman in months, but once the cameras came out we were slightly freaked out!

Fortunately the Captain was an older gentleman who showed us around without batting an eyelid. They offered us Cokes and we gladly accepted, taking sips while el-Capitan explained what exactly it is that he does.

Switch board of sorts

He also told us about his stints as a patrol-boat captain in Somalia… and how 7 of his friends had been taken hostage 8 months ago, and haven’t been returned…

Something so far away to us, is obviously uncomfortably close to home to them.

After one last enthusiastic group shot, we set off once more…

Destination 3: another sad ship

To a ship with a crew of desolate Philippinos and Ukranians who had arrived 10 months ago, and have not been paid since! We went aboard with kindly donated toiletry packs, scarves and beanies as gifts and were greeted heartily by the Phillipinos, but not so heartily by the gloomy Ukranians.


Imar, however, seemed to break past this barrier when he ended up watching a few scenes of some Ukranian documentary in the cabin of an elderly gentleman. Apparently the man was quite keen of inviting us all to join him in his tiny abode to watch an action movie. Bless.

Due to the growing gap in communication, we were on our way again quite soon after delivering the gifts. Our leaving wasn’t easy. It entailed making a rather nerve-wracking U-turn on a tiny, tiny pier with a larger than average vehicle.

“Have any cars driven off here, Johan?” someone asked. “Yes, many!” he replied. *GULP*

Final destination: Japanese fishing trawlers

Here we didn’t leave the car.

I think Johan had been surprised by the reaction the Pakistani crew had on seeing us, girls and wasn’t sure how these men would react… he also wasn’t prepared to find out.

Basically, the sights we had seen up until this point had not been too terrible. The crews and ships were neat, tidy and not too hostile, but according to Johan this is not quite the case with these fishing trawlers.


With very few rules governing what happens on these ships, captains would often hire over capacity, resulting in 10 or more men having to squeeze into miniture cabins. The hierarchy was also so, that when they got to eat fish, the captains and those in command would get the meat, while the ordinary sailors would often have to make themselves soups consisting of the guts.

It was also on these ships that, Johan told us, they would often keep a dog and a bitch who would, in short, reproduce and provide the crew with extra food.


As you can imagine, the harbour is full of characters and kinks. One of these is Gertie, a prostitute who has been servicing the harbour for as long as anyone can remember.

According to Johan she would turn her tricks by spending each night on a different ship, letting the entire crew have their way with her.

However, due to her infamy and the harbour’s strict policies on prostitution, she wasn’t as active as before, but still managed to slip in every now and then!


Among all this broken-ness and grit, Johan’s main task is to bring a bit of hope. “I am way past the idea of Jesus’ message being one of fire and brimstone. I find that utterly untrue and distasteful. To me, Jesus came to bring hope and spread love. That is the theology I cling to and the one I try to employ. I’m not here to convert people with threats, but rather to encourage them with hope.”

Amen to that!

(Photos all taken by Imar


  • tanee

    nadia! this piece was brilliant! you have this amazing way to write what you see and expierence: it feels like i was there with you! some bits break my heart and really want to make me cry, and a few had me giggling! i also love the waterfront!, but thank you for sharing the other side of it!

    • Nadia

      Aaah, thank you tahn! And thank you for reading my blog so faithfully 🙂 I REALLY appreciate it more than you can imagine 🙂 Love!

  • Lisel

    Heartbreaking experience no doubt… but so important: to remind us of the darker, deeper, more desperate and very, very real side of life and of the Waterfront. We’d be in denial if we turned a blind eye! And – it’s written with so much insight and empathy.

    • Nadia

      Hello mamma! Thank you for reading it and thank you for the comment… Yes, it really was amazing to experience something so utterly different to what I am used to!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.