Learning from history to protect a river

Wits professor Jacklyn Cock wasn’t afraid to step on some toes in writing her new book, Writing the Ancestral River – a biography of the Kowie.

PASSIONATE ABOUT THE KOWIE: Wits professor Jacklyn Cock gave a talk about her new book, ‘Writing the Ancestral River – a biography of the Kowie’, at The Ploughman in Bathurst recently Picture: JON HOUZET

Cock’s talk on her book attracted a big audience at The Ploughman in Bathurst recently. The meeting was organised by Historic Bathurst in association with Friends of Waters Meeting.

A great grand-daughter of 1820 Settler William Cock, Jacklyn inherited property in Port Alfred from her parents, and said she loves the area.

“We are at a time of environmental and social crisis and the only way forward is through local-based organisations like Friends of Waters Meeting,” she said.

She said she wrote the book to raise questions about environmental and social issues.

“Carbon emissions may seem remote from us, but they also affect us in the whole issue of climate change,” she said. “In international agreements, South Africa has made all sorts of claims, but we have built two big power stations and another one to be built will be the worst emitter of carbon in the world.”

On the social side, Cock referred to the vast inequality in South Africa between the extremely wealthy and those living in poverty.

“Our president [Cyril Ramaphosa], according to Forbes, is worth $450-million,” she said.

In contrast, “over half of South Africans experience hunger either regularly or intermittently – the official figure is 53%. They are part of the 65% in poverty,” she said.

“I hope the Kowie River will show how these social and environmental issues are connected and what you can do.”

She said after decades of industrial and human pollution, the move internationally was to protect rivers, even giving rivers constitutional rights.

In South Africa, 80% of rivers were threatened and 30% were polluted by developments, she said.

Her book focuses on three “moments” in the history of the Kowie River.

The first is the Battle of Grahamstown, the 200th anniversary of which will be marked next year. “It was about land,” Cock said. “The Xhosa were fighting to maintain access to land they had inhabited since at least the 1600s. Racialised dispossession continues to this day.”

The second moment is about the establishment of a harbour in the Kowie River in 1821, the building of which continued to the 1870s. “This benefitted the settler elite. Most settlers were struggling, but the elite acquired wealth through supplying the British army as my ancestor William Cock did, and through land speculation.”

The third moment is the building of the Royal Alfred Marina and the controversy associated with it. She said the land was considered among the most valuable in the Eastern Cape. “No money changed hands,” Cock said. “It’s described as a development project between the developer and the municipality [at the time]. Who benefitted?”

She said the area were the marina now stands once had a lagoon where children learned to swim and a thriving ecosystem. “The marina has required radical dredging of the river and some say it has affected fishing.”

She estimated 75% of marina homes were holiday homes, and sell for around R12-million.

“Inequality and environmental degradation has grown.”

Further upriver, Cock mentioned a more recent development, Riverview Estate. “My book includes photographs of what it used to look like when the hill was covered with indigenous vegetation and home to fauna, and how it has been denuded of indigenous vegetation and has a few houses on the scale of those on the marina.”

During question time, a member of the audience told Cock, “It’s a very brave book because you’ve tread on toes.”

Another member of the audience said, “We all know this. The marina is there. What can we do now, in our own small way?”

Cock replied that it was important to know what had happened in the past. “There were plans to build another marina further up the river at Centenary Park by Grahamstown developer Dave Davies, and he had the support of the mayor at the time. It would have resulted in even more silting of the river. We need to join environmental action groups to be aware and fight these things.”

Another William Cock descendant, farmer Malcolm Cock described another river in crisis – Riet River. He said the 200m deep boreholes sunk by the municipality to extract 1.5-million litres a day had resulted in farmers’ boreholes and wetlands drying up.

“I’m desperate – I’ve been fighting this for five years,” he said.

He was invited to give a talk at a future meeting of Friends of Waters Meeting.

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