Take me to this river


DON’T BE MISLED into thinking that the relative size of sociologist Jacklyn Cock’s latest book is indicative of its value. Clocking in at less than 200 pages, this supremely lucid text is immense and it will take you the length and depth and width of the Kowie River in the Eastern Cape, as a geographical entity, but also as an historical and political presence. It will also immerse you in environmental realities and above all, it’s the kind of book with which you have to strictly ration yourself, as a reader: Cock’s writing is so rich and beautiful and well constructed and cogently argued that you don’t want to finish it too quickly.

And you might think that a biography of a river presents a similar madness to the idea of a portrait of an inanimate thing, but oh, you would be mistaken. Cock’s relationship to the Kowie is textured and opinionated, rich with history, fact and personal nuggets that have as much to do with her as a young child exploring the treasures on its banks, as it has to do with unpacking the reality of a great great grandfather who was central to the colonialist values of the time and place.

Like her previous publications, including the hauntingly articulated The War Against Ourselves of 2007, Cock explains very complex realities with great skill. This text is academic but it is not so immersed in academese that it becomes inaccessible to a lay reader. It veers cleanly between the type of magnificence that you may know from Gerald Durrell’s forays into nature, the type of history narrative that you might have experience at the foot of historian David Rattray, and the type of environmental narrative you may have read in the Mail & Guardian newspaper.  But above, all, it never gets muddy in its focus or approach, which is as readable as a primer for younger readers.

A glorious and troubling read, which is elegantly designed and eloquent to the eye and brain, Writing the Ancestral River offers a portrait of a river, loved and used, filled with blood and exploited as a boundary for political ends. Reading it will leave you awash with South African realities, and richer in your knowledge and awareness of the multiple complexities that still swirl unabated in its midst.

  • Writing the Ancestral River: A biography of the Kowie by Jacklyn Cock is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg (2018).

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