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Biography of an ancestral river: a call to arms against exploitation in South Africa

The Kowie River follows a ‘horseshoe bend’ between Port Alfred and. Bathurst. AAI

Respected South African academic and author Jacklyn Cock’s deep love for the Kowie river is the key thread that runs throughout her new book, “Writing the Ancestral River”. The 94 kilometre long river snakes through South Africa’s Eastern Cape province and flows into the Indian Ocean at the small town of Port Alfred.

Part of Cock’s love for the river derives from deep connections that have lasted a lifetime and stretch to her ancestry in the area. This love has always involved the physical sharing of the river with her friends, giving them glimpses into nature and history that can be both exhilarating and disquieting.

In essence her book involves a braver and more comprehensive sharing of her thoughts on the river with a wider public. Cock’s luminous literary style, her historical sensitivity, and her ecological expertise all serve to delight the reader.

A history retold

Her analysis ranges over two centuries marked by colonial dispossession and despoliation of the environment, with disparate events linked to the river providing a prism through which they can be understood and connected. Part of the story involves colonial military repression of the Xhosa in the Zuurveld, through which the Kowie is the main watercourse.

Part of it looks at the story of William Cock, the author’s great-great-grandfather. He was leading member of the 1820 settler community, sent by the British authorities to become a buffer between themselves and the Xhosa on the contested eastern colonial frontier.

A third focus is the building in 1989 of a private holiday marina on the fragile Kowie estuary. This construction has been ecologically destructive and has only served the interests of the venal rich in one of the country’s poorest localities.

The book’s timely publication may draw attention to how South Africans choose to commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of Grahamstown (1819) and the arrival of the main body of settlers the following year. Cock calls the battle “a turning point in South African history”.

The book raises important questions about the destructive impact of colonialism in relation to pre-existing culture and nature. It makes a new contribution to debates about how capitalism developed on the colonial frontier. It also focuses on how the ecology of the river has been disturbed, disrespected and sacrificed across time.

The conflict on the eastern Cape frontier was a classic land grab of the Zuurveld by British forces. It was an area known for its palatable grazing. Today we would call it ethnic cleansing.

Xhosa groups had been farmers there for over a century. A series of colonial military actions resulted in their expulsion, the destruction of their livelihoods – including crops and cattle – and their exclusion from the district.

The 1819 Battle was an attempt by the Xhosa under the leadership of Makhanda to recuperate previous losses. Cock movingly describes Makhanda’s bravery and subsequent incarceration on Robben Island, from which he died trying to escape.

Taming the river

Another strong character in the history of the Kowie was Cock’s Cornish forbear, William. He was a complex colonial politician and entrepreneur. William Cock was involved in coastal and inter-colonial trade. He saw opportunities in taming the Kowie for these ends, in order to create from its estuary a safe haven for his fleet of cargo boats.

Port Alfred reached its apogee in the 1870s, but sedimentation of the river mouth required constant dredging. Harbour development saw increasing use of convict labour, and ultimately failed because of political infighting and the introduction of steamships, too large to enter the narrow estuary. William Cock turned to other pursuits, like banking, and embodied what Jacklyn has bravely termed “settler capitalism”.

The book brings us up to date by considering the impacts of the construction of a marina in the estuary, largely a holiday playground of the owners of second homes. The author’s appraisal of this project shows how it came to fruition during the democratic transition, at a time of fragile and biddable local regulatory institutions, prior to any strengthening of the apparatus for environmental protection.

Her words have had to be chosen with caution, owing to the potentially litigious bent of the marina developers. Despite this, the project is fully and eloquently critiqued. She has exposed it as a massive assault on riverine ecology and an utter failure to deliver on the promises of prosperity in the region.

Warning signals

Jacklyn Cock has proved brave in marshalling the history of the Kowie to illustrate not just her deep personal connections to the terroir, but also to rehearse the warnings provided by destructive colonial and post-colonial attitudes to the natural environment.

Her fluid biography urges readers not remain silent. Instead we should be inspired by the shapes and sounds of the river so that we can better speak out for its, and, in the end, our common survival.

“Writing the Ancestral River” is published by Wits University Press.

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