Coastal exclusive estates have social, economic and environmental impacts

Recently, South Africans witnessed protests against Shell’s proposed 3D seismic survey of the Wild Coast and the Amazon/River Club development in Cape Town. 

Opposition to Shell’s proposed survey displayed solidarity to defend ocean health. The protest against the Amazon/River Club development led to an interdict filed by the Observatory Civic Association (OCA) and the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoi Indigenous Traditional Council (GKKITC). 

As these cases suggest, coastal development can be a complex and contentious process that attracts public attention and action. Yet, few South Africans may be thinking about other forms of development at the coast. 

South Africa has many luxurious residential estates, some of which are situated along the coastline. These developments are often perceived as anti-democratic. But, as anthropological research is showing thus far, they can change the natural landscape, restore endemic fauna (such as the Knysna seahorse, Hippocampus capensis), re-shape community relations or affect narratives of cultural heritage. 

The developers of such estates must first have discussions with local residents to assess the potential social, economic and environmental impacts of their proposed development. But — and despite consultation — some developments may not lead to greater coastal access for poorer coastal citizens.

This is because residential estates may be located close to the waters’ edge and developers can use this natural feature to limit access for those who are not residents, restricting small-scale fishers and those who want to access the ocean and coast for leisure and cultural purposes. 

Poor access to the coast can result in being deprived of basic needs, such as food, and higher order development needs. It can lead to denial of one’s rich, intangible cultural heritage and constitutional right to cultural diversity. 

Some exclusive residential estates seek to deepen inclusion by paying homage to the heritage of the location. At Thesen Island (previously known as Paarden Eiland), in Knysna, some tangible cultural heritage is conserved. The sawmill, turbine house and boathouse are preserved and have been converted into new businesses. At the Turbine Hotel,  for example, the original parts of the powerhouse have been maintained, and themed rooms reflect an aspect of the region’s natural or cultural heritage. The island’s residents and businesses contribute to the rates of the local municipality, as well as local employment. 

The research findings suggest that exclusive residential estates are socially linked. Residents from one will visit and enjoy leisure activities at another, or they will invest in property or business at another estate. These connections promote inter-estate inclusivity and sociality facilitated by exclusive leisure activities such as yachting, hiking or mountain biking.

Various heritages are sustained. The Thesen Island estate, for example, architecturally acknowledges a “Scandinavian” aesthetic. There is food heritage in the café culture of Ile de Pain, a local restaurant and bakery, and the estate itself promotes a “heritage” of exclusivity and safety. Wealthier women interviewed indicated that they could run or walk wherever they wished and no longer felt “prisoner” to the crime and violence apparent in other parts of South Africa. 

Less wealthy women, who did not live on the estate, spoke of the history of sociality on the island and of family life there prior to the development of the estate. Missing, however, was the story and heritage of the First Peoples who lived in this part of South Africa. Even so, one person told of how they invited a healer-diviner to appease the unsettled First People ancestors on their property. Upon advice received, they now conduct an annual ritual to honour these ancestors. 

Like many South African towns however, Knysna remains shaped by apartheid law and urban planning. Economic inequality sustains residential patterns and a dominant heritage narrative. 

Since 1994, the government has focused on basic development: housing, food security and access to primary health. It has also passed national heritage legislation (the National Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999) to conserve mostly tangible heritage. 

My research thus far (2021-2022) suggests that the government should intensify efforts to surface indigenous and autochthonous heritage to restore dignity, respect, community solidarity and inclusion because, for many South Africans, including the First Peoples, access to the coast provides food and medicine, as well as opportunities for positive socialisation, mental well-being and community building. 

The sea is integral to cultural heritage. It provides for ritual, religious and health practises and is therefore key to personal, spiritual and cultural development.  The research is also showing that heritage is complex and that it is continuously “created” by diversely empowered stakeholders. 

Exclusive estates are multibillion rand businesses in South Africa. With the exception to The River Club, these estates hardly appear in the media. But, as I found, some of them are spaces that have shaped and affected coastal development for decades.

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Rosabelle Boswell
Rosabelle Boswell is DSI-NRF Chair in Ocean Cultures and Heritage at Nelson Mandela University

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