Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The Kowie River that runs from Grahamstown to Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape may be a relatively "little river" but Jacklyn Cock, professor emeritus in the department of sociology at Wits University, gives it a loud voice.

It is the confluence of the people whose competing interests moulded SA’s history, including Khoikhoi herders, Xhosa pastoralists, Dutch farmers and British settlers.

Cock digs into the cultures and histories as they relate to the Kowie. She describes one of her "most magical river moments" on the banks of the Kowie, hidden and waiting for a sighting of otters in a pool.

The silence was broken by a group of five who arrived for a healing ceremony at their sacred pool, which they believe harbours divinities — Abantu Bomlambo in isiXhosa, or the "People of the River".

This moment provided Cock with a glimpse of what a river can mean to those living around it, through eons and in the here and now.

The Kowie was the scene for many of the raids, skirmishes and clashes between the Xhosa, Khoikhoi and Dutch in the Hundred Years War (1779-1878).

Because of the high acidic content of the grass in the area, it can be fatal to cows, particularly in autumn and winter (though it has high food value for the rest of the year). Thus all the early inhabitants of the area — the Khoikhoi, Dutch and Xhosa — moved their cattle herds seasonally.

This imperative became increasingly difficult for the socially and geographically fluid Khoikhoi to achieve after the arrival of the "white barbarians", as an English missionary referred to the trekboers. Not only did the Dutch farmers show utter contempt for colonial regulations on land boundaries as they took possession of the choicest spots, but they also raided the Khoikhoi’s livestock, burned their dwellings and drove them off the land.

What inflamed tensions between the Dutch and the Xhosa was their fundamentally incompatible view of land occupation, with the Dutch insisting it conferred them "exclusive rights" while the Xhosa viewed the land through more egalitarian and inclusive eyes. With Dutch farmers threatening access to pasture and water for the Xhosa’s all-important horned cattle, conflict could be the only outcome.

Into this explosive mix came the British settlers in the early 1800s, with their assumptions and intentions and ruthlessness.

Cock’s account of the Battle of Grahamstown in 1819 is compelling, capturing the cruel irony that saw the vulnerable Khoikhoi playing a decisive part alongside the British forces that numbered 450 against the great Xhosa chief Makhanda’s army of 10,000. The outcome was the vanquishing of the original inhabitants from the area.

Cock’s efforts to shed light on the true value of these 'developments' are met with dead ends fuelled by 'the murky current of social silencing' that operates to obscure truth and protect powerful interests in Port Alfred.

Cock steps personally into the Kowie River’s story courtesy of her great-great-grandfather William Cock, one of the 4,000 British settlers dumped in the Zuurveld after it was cleared of Xhosa people.

William epitomises the settler capitalists who arrived in the Eastern Cape to transform the land into yielding a profit. He is best known for the development of the harbour at the Kowie River mouth — eventually named Port Alfred — but also had a finger in money-spinning pies such as supplying the military, shipping, banking and commercial farming. The port’s commercial success collapsed after 40 years, but the human intervention that created it, championed by William, known as "the lord of the Kowie River", had drastically altered its course. An estuary of channels and sandbanks were transformed into canals and piers. It must have been poignant for Cock to slowly dismantle the legend of the "honourable" William from hero to expedient settler capitalist whose actions destroyed so much — from the Xhosa and Khoikhoi social order to the river’s ancient ecology.

Cock moves on to what she regards as the next "assault" on the river in her account of the construction of the marina at Port Alfred. An upmarket residential development on 45ha of prime estate near the Kowie River mouth, it was initiated in 1985 by local businessman Justin de Wet Steyn. Much like William, De Wet Steyn walks a line between being panned for his development of an invaluable public space into an exclusive playground of the rich at the cost of environmental health and social benefit; and being lauded for vision and boldness.

Cock’s efforts to shed light on the true value of these "developments" are met with dead ends fuelled by "the murky current of social silencing" that operates to obscure truth and protect powerful interests in Port Alfred. The fear of speaking out, she says, has been compounded by the use of lawsuits known as "SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation)", a strategy successful in intimidating dissenting voices into silence.

But despite this, Cock digs away. The examples she gives of the failure of the development to represent meaningful economic opportunities to impoverished black communities surrounding it, and its massive contribution to the impoverishment of the ecological diversity of the area, are eye opening.

It is not only the Abantu Bomlambo at risk of having to depart as the Kowie River continues to be moulded by the gaze of "developers". The myriad of its living creatures are equally imperilled.

This book is not just an intellectual engagement, though it does have that tranquil thrill of great academic writing — dramatic truths are stated soberly and are backed by vigorous research.

Cock’s devastating and engrossing story of a river that has run through all of her life is just one of her efforts as an activist for social and environmental justice. Her efforts to mobilise resistance to profit-driven and irresponsible "development" in the Kowie River area have yielded little so far, but the book is an invaluable contribution to that campaign.