Life and death of a little river

Writing the Ancestral River – a biography of the Kowie by Jacklyn Cock. (Wits University Press, 2018)

This is a quiet steady little book, but likely to have a wide and lasting impact. Cock, professor emeritus in Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, is a doyenne of disruptors. Two of her earlier books, Maids and Madams (1989), and Colonels and Cadres (1991), were texts that compelled people to rethink their assumptions and mindsets, unsettling comfortably held notions on the status quo at that time. In the former she examined the lives of domestic workers, stringently noting how they were treated, decades before the basic conditions of employment legislation. In Colonels and Cadres she examined the glamourisation of the military, in particular the SADF, the “border” war and troops in the townships – an eye-opener for many and moral support for the End Conscription Campaign. Many white South Africans found these books disturbing and outrageous, if indeed they could bring themselves to read them.

Here she ties her narrative to the beautiful iQohi/Kowie River, only 70 kilometres long, which flows from near Makhanda to Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape. This is far more than a personal memoir. The title includes the phrase “ancestral river” and she considers all the ancestors, Khoikhoi, Xhosa, colonial Dutch trekboers and English settlers.

She has a long chapter on “this little estuarine river”, extolling its physical characteristics, beautiful forests and pools, and the ancient vegetation type, Albany thicket, in its catchment. In a passage which begins with waiting to see an otter and her pups, she writes of her own encounter with Xhosa amagqirha initiates coming down to the river to make offerings to the River People. That the otters swam out, a mother with three pups, was highly auspicious for the initiates, as they are believed to be messengers from the ancestors. She elaborates on various understandings of who the River People are; some say these water divinities are the ancestors of the Xhosa, some say they are intermediaries between the ancestors and living Xhosas. They live in the sacred pools and are summoned by drumming. Offerings of pumpkin seeds, sorghum, tobacco and white beads are floated out on baskets.

The iQohi/Kowie runs through the centre of an area historically called the Zuurveld, between the Bushmans and Fish Rivers. The original inhabitants were Khoikhoi, the Gonaqua and the Hoeniqua. The former were absorbed into the Gqunukhwebe Xhosa, and the Hoeniqua are recorded as the people to whom the Ndlambe Xhosa paid many cattle for a piece of the eastern Zuurveld area. Cock says simply of the Khoikhoi that by 1800 there were no independent Khoikhoi left there, since almost all had gone into labour for white farmers, to the mission stations or into the Cape Regiment (later the Cape Mounted Rifles.). She cites many diaries and records of early travellers like Beutler in 1752 and Robert Gordon in 1777.


Cock notes three main events in the history of the iQohi/Kowie River: the Battle of Grahamstown, the development of the small boat harbour in 1841, and the development in 1989 of the Port Alfred Marina.

It is not a moment too soon that the recent renaming of the city of Makhanda has consigned the name of Lieutenant-Colonel Graham to the past. This change has met with some resistance but I’d urge everyone, of whatever ancestry, to read Cock’s account of the Battle of Grahamstown. She tells it mainly through the diaries and reports of those who were there. Not only did the river run with the blood of the 1000 plus Xhosa who were killed, but Graham, under the instruction of Governor Cathcart, drove the remnants of the Ndlambe across the Fish River, and even the Keiskamma which is further east. Thomas Pringle, respected 1820 Settler writer and poet, described this later: “The villages …were burnt, their cattle carried off, their fields of maize and millet trodden down, and the wretched inhabitants driven into the thickets and there bombarded with grapeshot…” This “scorched earth” military tactic was first pursued in the Frontier Wars, but the British used it later as well, against the Boers.

Interestingly, in an inversion of the usual historical time-line, Cock describes the battle before she describes what led up to this attack on Grahamstown, showing what led Makhanda the prophet to become Makhanda the warrior. His surrender and incarceration on Robben Island did not save his people, as he had hoped, from what today we would call a genocidal attack. It is not easy to read.

The following year the 1820 Settlers arrived, and there were many more battles in the three wars yet to come, but Cock does not tell that part. For those curious to read further, there are end notes every step of the way, as well as an extensive bibliography. And these apply to the following chapters as well, when she turns her attention to the activities of her own ancestor, William Cock who arrived in 1820. An enterprising man who soon abandoned his farm to become a trader, he must have had access to resources since he bought wagons and small ships and supplied meat to the colonial forces in the Frontier Wars: a profiteer, like many others. He eventually built the small boat harbour at the mouth of the Kowie River, at what was then called Port Frances, later Port Alfred. Cock courageously and honestly acknowledges his role in the destruction of the Xhosa, and in the beginning of the destruction of the Kowie/iQohi River. She has abandoned what she refers to as the “consoling narrative” we have been told in earlier histories, to look at what really happened. She quotes Aubrey Matshiqi in an article in 2016 in which he says the lack of acknowledgement is “a recipe for .. social, political and economic calamity”. Most settler descendants have been there. Cock tells of finding a letter, in the Albany Museum, in which her own mother was described as an “unreliable” source of information on settler history, with a tendency to “invent”.

She goes on to look at the effects of the Port Alfred Marina – a highly contentious development, which was supposed (by the developer, Justin de Wet) to be of great benefit to the whole Port Alfred community. In the long term it has caused huge ecological damage to the estuary; the rates revenue which was supposed to go into upgrading Nemato township, is these days spent on dredging the mouth which silts up, and renders the marina unusable for boats. This story is given in great detail, an important record, and useful to others who might be defending estuaries against questionable “development”.

Although the Kowie/iQohi River biodiversity is much reduced, and the poorer sections of the community are still suffering, Cock ends on a positive note. It is now that we realize why she has subtitled this book “a biography” a term usually applied to people, since she writes of recent events in which rivers have been given status as “living entities” in India and New Zealand. The river iQohi itself, the River People in the sacred pools, indeed all the people who love and need the river and its life, would be better off if we began to show a proper degree of respect. 

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Jane Rosenthal
Guest Author

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