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  • Writing the Ancestral River: a biography of the Kowie by Jacklyn Cock
  • Donna Andrews (bio)
Jacklyn Cock (2018) Writing the Ancestral River: a biography of the Kowie. Johannesburg Wits University Press

Jacklyn Cock's book leaves one appreciating that rivers hold histories and tell multiple stories. Most importantly, they connect and shape us. Rivers love, hold and heal.

Writing the Ancestral River: a biography of the Kowie is a significant contribution and a powerful account of capital's expansion and its dependency on the domination of nature and its impact on people, land and particular ways of being. Cock traces this historical development in the Eastern Cape of South Africa over the colonial, apartheid and democratic dispensations, foregrounding the continuities of violence and racial injustice. In many ways it is a continuum of her work which examines and critiques the dominant development model espoused by the South African state and its effects on nature and people. Through the contours of the Kowie, this book exposes the historical changes and onslaught that occur over nearly three centuries. Moreover, it is a memoir to the Kowie, tracing her belonging and love for the river.

The book pivots around a river and a man, as protagonists in the sociopolitical-economic and ecological history of the Zuurveld.

It ebbs and flows through multiple histories, one of which is Cock's own settler family story coupled with settler capitalism, in what today is called Port Alfred. James Cock's narrative and his 'stewardship' over the Albany district is intimately tied to the 'taming' of the Kowie. Like other industrial magnets his determination to exert control over nature, both to prosper and extend British empire and imperial reign, is evident throughout. This critique of capitalist development and its consequences is scathing [End Page 151] and her illustration of how race and class continue to intersect over generations is illuminating. She shows how successive governments enforce the separation of the majority from nature – its fortunes, mysteries, wonders and pleasures – by law.

Various relationships with the Kowie are evident – that of romanticism and awe; deep cosmology, spirituality and identity; conquering and assertion; loss and dispossession; expanding horizons and conquests; new networks of capital and trade; consolidation of power and privilege. Each of these are contested. Simultaneously, each underscores distinct ways of belonging, of knowing and being with land and with the self. Cock reveals how we are embedded and part of nature, reminding and calling us to reunite in holistic and ancestral ways with ourselves, others and nature. She recognises that this way of being, thinking and feeling ecologically connected and interwoven is often obscured, but through the Kowie she offers a way to revisit our inherited assumptions about our 'separateness' from nature.

Private property, ownership, inheritance and citizenship rights is the dominant expression of belonging and way of knowing land. By extending conceptions of rights, access, private and shared ownership of land to that of water bodies, I foreground governance of nature and social relationships within this ecosystem and dynamic. The chapter '[t]he Battle', reveals how strongly this belonging is tied to the violent struggle between peoples over an area, identity and place. Such processes of annexation, later consolidated through apartheid policy, legislated who had rights to private ownership and citizenship, slowly augmenting notions of who belonged where.

Who belongs remains contested. The ability to trace place of birth and lineage through generations with photographs and by surname is not afforded to all. My maternal family – descendants of slaves transported from Mozambique by boat, shackled to a farm then later farm workers until my grandmother fled to become a domestic worker in Constantia – illustrates the difficulty of tracing histories, the scripts lost and not recovered. I am envious of Cock's easily accessible lineage, her sense of deep belonging to the Albany district and connection to the river she calls home. Her recollections of frolicking, dancing and communing are a stark contrast when I recall the complexity it took to uncover my own historical connections to water. There is a beauty to Cock's loving and love affair with the Kowie. Her connection is one of safety, fulfilment, bird watching [End Page 152] and...


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pp. 151-154
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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