By Mila de Villiers
The audience and author at the recent launch Love Books launch of Writing the Ancestral River: A biography of the Kowie.
“Jackie was concerned about the turn-out, but it looks as if the whole of Black Sash is here,” a close friend of author Jacklyn Cock quipped at the launch of Cock’s Writing the Ancestral River.
He did have a point…
Love Books, a gem of an independent book store in Johannesburg, was teeming with acquaintances of the author and bibliophiles alike, eager to hear Cock – a feminist, Marxist, environmental activist and Professor Emeritus at Wits University – discuss her book with fellow activist, socialist and the director of Khanya College, Oupa Lehulere.
Cock emphasised the impact the past continues to have on the present throughout their conversation, drawing on the historical significance of the Kowie River (the subject of her book), in terms of both the colonial history behind the river and its peoples, as well as the current danger the river is facing at the hand of developers. (Whom Cock describes as “irresponsible destroyers of the natural world.” Hear hear!)
Cock informed the audience that she structured her book around three moments which shaped the environmental and social significance of the Kowie: the Battle of Grahamstown (22 April 1819); the development of the Port Alfred harbour; and the destructive impact caused by the construction of the Port Alfred Marina, stressing the ecological damage the river has endured during and after the development thereof.
In her chapter on the Battle of Grahamstown, Cock draws on the parasitic relationship between genocide and ecocide, citing the scorched earth policy employed by the colonial settlers to claim ownership over the riverbanks as detrimental to both the surrounding habitat of the river, and the livelihood of the Xhosa people.
Cock’s relationship with the Kowie stems from more than that of a concerned environmentalist, she told the riveted audience.
Her great-great grandfather, William Cock, was one of the British settlers who helped to consolidate colonial power over the river. Regarded as a visionary amongst her family, Cock vehemently declared that he was a “war monger”. (Followed by a quick “[m]y parents would turn in their graves if they heard me say this out loud!”)
She further described her ancestor as an “instigator of ecocide”.
“The initial title of the book was going to be From genocide to ecocide,” she confined, adding that “I’m not very good at titles…”
The history and legacy of the Kowie River acts as a continuation of deep sociological and environmental injustice, Cock stated. The river is currently under threat; a victim of privileged greed. (The decision to construct the Port Alfred Marina was made by eight white men, of which six were property developers, Cock disclosed.)
“We have to acknowledge our past,” Cock continued.
“Through a self-conscious engagement we can learn to live our lives in relation to nature without domination.”
Unfortunately humanity has, throughout the ages, regarded nature as a separate entity; a mere ‘thing’ which main purpose is to serve us, without giving any heed to the exploitation thereof, or its mortality.
“We have to rethink the ways we produce, in a just and caring way. The notion of a just transition encompasses the links between social and environmental issues,” Cock said, furthering this argument by referring to post-apartheid legislation which didn’t prioritise environmental reform.
The difficulty in shifting our mindsets about producing in an environmentally-conscious way lies with the labour movement, she continued, employing the example of coal factories shutting down in favour of renewable energy sources as a threat to jobs.
Cock criticised the exclusionary nature of discussing environmental (in)justices, attributing this tendency to the remote spaces in which such discussion predominately take place, namely that of universities.
“Academics talk to each other, yet everybody should get involved in the struggle.”
(This proclamation was met with a “Viva!” from an audience member, followed by unanimous applause.)
We have to understand that all sectors of society are under threat, Cock continued, adding that we should have respect for the natural world apart from monetary value, concluding with the following powerful statements:
“We have to move away from the materialistic notion that values are attached to power; this is a fundamentally flawed way of thinking.
All of us are part of one ecological unity.”