A Walk on the Wild Side – Christmas 1970 on the Transkei Wild Coast

The Wild Coast

The Transkei Wild Coast is a scenic wonderland of unspoilt beaches, gently rolling hills covered with lush green grass interspersed with some rugged ravines, dramatic cliff faces topped with wild banana trees with ferns growing out of the cracks in the rocks.

In summer the Wild Coast is a hot, moist stub-tropical area with mists that roll over the hills and make one’s skin damp, the leaves of trees drip and animals almost disappear on the roads, creating real hazards for drivers.

This is the region my first wife Joan (we had been married a year then) set off for from Durban in our hired car in the middle of December 1970 for a holiday with my parents and my brother Chris and his wife Maxine and their three-year-old daughter Andromeda (known as Meda). We were then living in Durban.

Lovely beyond any singing of it

The drive down to the Wild Coast was uneventful and the scenery quite beautiful, as it is at that time of year. Natal and the former Transkei are very similar across either side of the border between them.

As we drove through the little town of Ixopo on the kwa-Zulu Natal side of the border we were reminded of the wonderful opening sentences of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country : “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hill are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”

We drove along many such roads, past many such grass-covered and rolling hills, with the huts of the people and their goats and sheep and large black pigs, their cattle and stands of maize. It was a beautiful journey with a beautiful destination.

At that time I did not have a great camera, but I took photos anyway and whenever I could to try to capture the loveliness of the scenery and its people. The accompanying photos were all taken on this magical holiday, which was the last time we were all together as a family until my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1985, so it is a special time in my memory.

The cottage at the sea

Maxine and mother doing a jigsaw puzzle while Andromeda does her own thing

We arrived at my parent’s little cottage at Qolora Mouth in the late afternoon and it was a time of first meetings – Joan and I had not met Maxine or Andromeda before, and Joan had not met Chris either. My parents had brought Joan’s mother from East London to join us. So it was a happy time, as I guess Christmas is supposed to be.

Our days at Qolora were peaceful, spent in long walks on the beach and the occasional dips in the warm Indian Ocean.

Due to the legislation governing the so-called “Bantu reserves” under the apartheid regime, white people were not allowed to own property but could get permission from the local chief to build and occupy beach cottages. So the cottage my parents had was not strictly theirs. They were allowed to take holidays there only. So there was no incentive to “improve” these cottages in any way.

As a consequence this cottage had no running water or electricity. Water was collected from a little spring that flowed, winter and summer, with the sweetest, freshest water imaginable, just behind the cottage. At night we played canasta or read by the light of candles and paraffin lamps.

The cottage itself had two bedrooms on either side of the little living room, and a small kitchen at the back. On either side of the front stoop (verandah) were two thatched huts, in one of which Joan and I slept and in the other Chris, Maxine and Andromeda. Joan’s mother had one room in the cottage and my parents the other.

On Christmas day the Anglican priest from Butterworth, whom we knew well, Fr Woods, came to celebrate a Christmas mass to which some of us went.

Christmas and New Year

Christmas lunch was a happy time with presents all round and of course wonderful food. My mother was especially good at making steamed Christmas pudding, something of an anomaly in the hot summer weather, but enjoyable nonetheless.

On New Year’s Day a group of local people came around looking for the traditional

In all his finery. The incredible beadwork of the amaXhosa is always dramatic and beautiful

“Christmas Box” and so we were entertained by their singing and dancing.

The “Wild Coast” did not get that name for nothing! Historically it was a wild place, where the seafarers of old feared the rocks and contrary currents and winds. Many a ship came to grief on the treacherous rocks that stick out into the ocean along its shoreline. There are many stories of the survivors of shipwrecks being taken care of by the local people.

But for us that December it was the setting for an idyllic time of relaxation and fun, of getting to know each other anew, of celebration.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

A book for all South Africans now

“We were on a coast of centuries of sea tragedies, and of millennia of prehistoric habitation. A great deal of the strange and incomprehensible surrounded one there, and one was credulous of many things that one would not believe elsewhere. Such belief is a form of affirmation of that sense of wholeness that is so distinctively African, and upon which I have several times remarked, a purity of bond with the unfathomable, the unknowable and the long reach back that reduces the human immediate to a great littleness. It was what I chose to remember throughout the writing of this book.”

These final sentences of Noël Mostert’s great, wonderful book Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (Pimlico, 1992) are really a summing up of the experience of reading this long and absorbing book. There is so much in this book of the unknowable, of the “long reach back”, and the final littleness of our human existence.

On one level the book is a chronicle of the incredible arrogance of white encroachment on black existence, the piecemeal and yet dogged conquest and appropriation of the land which the Xhosa-speaking peoples of the Eastern Cape regarded as their ancestral birthright.

At another level the book is an exploration of humanity, of what makes us human, what leads us to forget our common humanity, and so the book rises above mere history to become a philosophical meditation on the human condition, and especially on that condition in the South Africa in which we find ourselves in the early years of the 21st Century.

On this level the Frontiers of the title are not only the moving borders on the colonial map but also the interface between two civilisations – the white European and the black African. On this “frontier” the missionaries who came to “civilise” the black people in South Africa were key, and highly controversial, players.

The missionaries mostly brought a high Victorian sensibility to their work among the Xhosa-speaking peoples, which caused misunderstanding and conflict. The attempts at “civilising” the blacks meant that the missionaries became associated with the colonising forces in the eyes of the Xhosa-speaking people, and their message of salvation was treated respectfully but critically. This “frontier” remained largely intact even as the lines on the map shifted and changed.

In a sense, if we want to understand South Africa now, this book is essential reading. If we want to understand our fellow-citizens in this strange land, black and white, this book will deliver deep insights.

Mostert, Cape Town born and of a long line of ancestors stretching back to the early white settlement of the Cape in the mid-17th Century, is a masterful writer who manages to hold attention while delivering masses of information; drawing on a wide variety of sources his narrative has a weighty authority.

Chief Maqoma

From the background of the broad sweep of the historical events colourful characters abound who stand out and command attention. There is the frontier giant at almost seven feet tall Coenraad de Buys who married many women (none of them white) and fathered a people, the Buysvolk of the northern parts of South Africa; there is the very human and yet very interesting James Read (Snr) who came to South Africa fired with enthusiasm to uplift the “Hottentot” (Khoikhoi) people and lived as one of them, marrying a Khoikhoi woman and championing their cause against the white settlers; there is the brave and ultimately tragic chief Maqoma who in the end wanted nothing but to live like a white farmer; the little braggadocio governor Sir Harry Smith who, understanding almost nothing of Xhosa culture, claimed himself to be their “Paramount Chief”; there is the sad chief Sarili who had a deformed leg and was regarded by many as a weakling, but who was the “last great independent chief of the Xhosas” and whose final tragedy was to be the chief over the great cattle killing of 1856 which brought about the end of the Xhosa-speaking people’s independence.

Sir Harry Smith

As Mostert notes, in spite of the way the British had treated his father and his people, “…there had never been anything in Sarili’s demeanour that suggested a hatred or a longing for vengeance. He appeared in every respect to be a larger man than that.”

Sarili, as he comes through in this great book, epitomises the tragedy of the Xhosa-speaking peoples. The various groups of Xhosa-speaking people seem to have gone out of their ways to accommodate and appease the colonists in hopes of being left in peace to continue their lives in the way they most wished to, and at every turn, they were frustrated by the demands of Britain and the colonists. They saw their land and cattle taken from them and even when they were innocent were accused of cattle rustling.

The cruelties visited on the Xhosa-speaking people were unbelievable. And yet they tried to maintain their dignity, to maintain as much of their customs and beliefs as they could in the face of the colonial and missionary onslaught. Their land they lost. As they said, “ilizwe lifile (the land is dead)” – “You kill our country by taking away our customs.”

Paramount Chief of all the Xhosa-speaking peoples, Sarili

So, as Mostert says, South Africa was born in a great tragedy, symbolised by the death of Sarili, who died in hiding at the age of 83, in 1893.

With the defeat of the amaZulu in neighbouring Natal the British had “achieved the military conquest of the two great black groups which had offered the main resistance to the white domination of South Africa.

In a final ironic twist of history, though, as Mostert noted, “It was through the Xhosa-speaking peoples, however, that African political leadership in South Africa mainly continued to express itself.” The list of 20th Century leaders who came from among the Xhosa-speaking peoples and have shaped the new democratic South Africa is impressive, among them Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba, Wilton Mkwayi, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Steven Bantu Biko, Chris Hani, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, to name but a few.

Frontiers is an essential and absorbing read for anyone wishing to understand South Africa today, and an enjoyable trip through history, thanks to the skill of the author.

© Text copyright by Tony McGregor. All illustrations from the book Frontiers: the Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People by Noël Mostert (London, Pimlico, 1992).

Vernacular architecture in South Africa – some random examples

Sometime in the early 1960s I went with my friend James Southern to Cape Agulhas where his parents had a holiday cottage. One day while we were out exploring the area we came upon some dilapidated thatched huts, which James informed me were called “kapstylhuise”. [Read more…]