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, the book raises larger questions about colonialism, capitalism, ‘development’ and ecology, and asks us to consider the connections between social and environmental injustice.