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Writing the Ancestral River is an illuminating biography of the Kowie River in the Eastern Cape. This tidal river runs through a formative meeting ground of peoples who have shaped South Africa's history: Khoikhoi herders, Xhosa pastoralists, Dutch trekboers and British settlers. Their direct descendants in the area still interact in ways that have been decisively shaped by their shared history.
This is also a natural history of the river and its catchment area, where dinosaurs once roamed and cycads still grow. The natural world of the Kowie has felt the effects of human settlement, most strikingly through the development of a harbour at the mouth of the river in the 19th century and a marina in the late 20th century, which have had a decisive and deleterious impact on the Kowie.
People are increasingly reconnecting with nature and justice through rivers. Acknowledging the past, and the inter-generational, racialised privileges, damages and denials it established and perpetuates, is necessary for any shared future. By focusing on this 'little' river, Writing the Ancestral River raises larger questions about colonialism, capitalism, 'development' and ecology, and asks us to consider the connections between social and environmental injustice.
Chapter 1: Motivations
Chapter 2: The River
Chapter 3: The Battle
Chapter 4: The Harbour
Chapter 5: The Marina
Chapter 6: Connecting nature and justice through rivers
Glossary of isiXhosa terms
Jacklyn Cock is a professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology at Wits University and an Honorary Research Professor in the Society, Work andDevelopment Research Unit (SWOP). She has written extensively on environment, gender and militarisation issues. Her most recent book is The War Against Ourselves: Nature, Power and Justice (2007) but she is best known for Maids and Madams: A Study in the Politics of Exploitation (1980).
"Jacklyn Cock has penned a love letter that is as hopeful as it is elegiac. Drawing on family connections to the Kowie that go back to the 1820 settlers, Cock asks big questions about the relationship between nature and culture, between humans and other forms of life, and about the place of rivers in human history. It is only by rethinking our relationship to nature that we can save ourselves."
– Jacob Dlamini, assistant professor of history, Princeton University
"Jacklyn Cock has made the story of a small and fairly insignificant river into a metonym of the biological glories of South Africa and the ecological devastation they have endured, and continue to endure. The result is at once lyrical and trenchant. As a history rooted in the landscape of South Africa, it has few peers, and no superiors."
– Robert Ross, professor emeritus of African Studies, Leiden University
"Jacklyn Cock has written an extraordinary work of engaged and imaginative scholarship. Writing the ancestral river will become a South African classic, accessible to the public but at the cutting edge of international scholarship."
– Edward Webster, professor emeritus, University of the Witwatersrand