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The infamously dangerous 300km coastline between East London and Port Edward known as the Wild Coast has been described by experienced seafarers as South Africa's own Bermuda Triangle; where ships disappear without a trace.

Freak waves which frequent this notorious coast have plunged untold ships to the bottom of the Indian Ocean, or sent them crashing onto the shore. The most famous victim was the SS Waratah, which vanished a hundred years ago, on the 29th July 1909, with all 211 passengers and crew aboard. (See for more info.)

The last ship to tragically sink with all her crew was the Indian-registered Cordigilera, which disappeared without a trace on November 13 1996 in the vicinity of Port St Johns. Seven months later, on the 9th of July 1997, the Romanian cargo vessel, the Calarasi, perished in similar weather conditions about five nautical miles from the site where the Cordigilera went down. In her case, however, twenty of the 21 crewmen were airlifted to safety from this treacherous Transkei coast.

The eastern seaboard of southern Africa is notorious for its ferocious coast, and modern day maps still warn of possible 20m freak wave phenomena. Factors in (the disappearance of vessels certainly) the formation of freak waves may be that in some parts (near Port St Johns, particularly) the continental shelf is extremely close to the shore. Scientists have theorized that the deep (3000m) and swiftly flowing Agulhas current, which moves in a south-westerly direction, is accelerated further by strong winds from the north-east which can increase the surface speed of the water to over 7 knots. Subsequently, counter winds then form enormous waves which are extremely dangerous. 

So there is little or no dispute as to how the Wild Coast originally got its name; yet it is appropriate, too, for its untamed splendor and sheer spectacular cliffs which, in two places, feed waterfalls directly into the ocean. Amongst the small handful of waterfalls on Earth which exhibit this rare elemental combination, two are located within the Pondoland Centre of Endemism (PCE: an internationally acclaimed Biodiversity Hotspot) between Port St Johns and Port Edward. The northern perimeter of the PCE, the Xolobeni region, is threatened by strip-mining for its heavy titanium bearing minerals; apparently the 10th largest deposit on Earth. (

Perhaps there is some connection between the mineral wealth and the savagely beautiful landscapes and unique flora along the mystical, legendary wild coast.

Historically the name “Wild Coast”  is an exceedingly accurate appelation as well; in that the area where it is geo-politically located; the Transkei (which literally means across the Kei River) never really succumbed to colonial rule. Even until today the Transkei Wild Coast remains one of the last unspoiled frontiers of South Africa, and a cultural crucible for the amaXhosa people:

Archaeological evidence dates the presence of hunter-gatherers in the region from 150 000 - 500, 000 years ago, whilst agro-pastoralist settlement in the fertile coastal valleys dates back to the late 7th century AD. 

They withstood one of the most prolonged struggles by African peoples against European intrusion during the 9 intermittent, and extremely bloody Cape Frontier Wars (also knowns as the Xhosa - or Kaffir Wars) over a 100 year period from 1781-1878. The entire area was annexed and its people officially incorporated into the Cape Colony after the last, and “final”  9th Frontier war, from 1879 onwards ( But some might argue that the Frontier Wars never ended, really, as each war resulted in resettlements, new boundaries (encroachments into amaXhosa territory), and always the seeds of bitterness that led to the next war.  

So the region became known as the Transkei Territories, and a Western style of governance emerged. Umtata, founded in 1882, became the seat of the chief magistrate of the Transkeian Territories, under whose chairmanship the Transkeian Territories General Council (known as the Bunga) functioned. An imposing town hall was completed in 1908, and a building was erected for the Bunga which was later used as the parliament of “independent” Transkei.  The isolated and free-living tribes of the Mpondomise and Gcaleka, who had inhabited the hinterland of the wild shoreline for centuries before the 1820 British settlers, or even the Dutch landed in the Cape with Jan van Riebeeck in 1652, were so remote and isolated that it can truly be said that they never succumbed to colonial rule. Indeed, apart from encountering a few remote outposts and traders bartering for  produce, life for them carried on pretty much as it had for centuries.

The land where time stands still: Developmentally, the Transkei and Wild Coast were held in stasis throughout the 1900's, while the disparate lands and tribes of Xhosa speaking people were forged into a “homeland”. The policies of apartheid, or separate development, were inflicted on these unwilling sons of the soil, and the seeds of bitterness and resentment sprouted forth as defiant revolutionaries who rose and led the struggle for human rights in South Africa: Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki (father of ex-president Thabo Mbeki), Chris Hani, and many others come from this place in history. 

Briefly, Transkei was among the first of the black African homelands that were experimented with  as “reserves” and administered as separate territories from as early as 1913; well before the nationalist government implemented apartheid officially in 1948. 

The full story is better relegated to the dank and dirty, sooner forgotten, annals of imperial colonialism; but the result was the stasis which gripped the Wild Coast and served to protect the environment from unfettered urbanization and industrial development as seen, for example, along the coastline of Kwa-Zulu Natal. 

Interestingly the only law not repealed, and which was carried over from the former Transkei Republic, was the Environmental Decree 9, of 1993 which prohibits development within 1km from the high water mark along the entire coastline. This has served mainly to prevent illegal cottages from springing up, and  has mostly succeeded in that regard; but is also intended to stop the increase of local homesteads; and in that it fails completely, as unplanned, informal dwellings spring up everywhere.

So after the demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa the Bantustans were dismantled and their territory reincorporated into the Republic of South Africa in 1994. But today, still, the land is held under Tribal Trust, and Constitutional Rights are held in sway by customary law: the residents of the Wild Coast do not own their own land. It is sadly ironic that these poorest people in South Africa are not given title to their own land and cannot sell, cede or bond the Permission To Occupy (P.T.O.) certificates which they are issued. It's a double-edged sword, because it can be seen that on the one hand it stops rampant development in what is widely believed to be one of the most pristine and beautiful coastlines on the planet, but on the other it holds the residents in poverty and unfairly applies different laws to them than those that govern the rest of South Africa. Specifically the coastal areas.

South Africa is a land of paradoxes: The Communal Land Rights Act (CLaRA) of 2004 seeks to redress land ownership issues by implementing a policy framework for the formation and registration of Communal Property Associations (CPAs), which then act as the lease-holder of community land. In reality it is an expensive and top-heavy bureaucratic process, fraught with red tape, and still somewhat discriminatory against individual rights: according to the Act, individuals may apply to the CPA for “freehold” which can be issued under whatever clauses (e.g. rental) the CPA considers fit.

Local empowerment or development can never happen without a sense of personal ownership. It is a travesty and discrimination that holds us all in its sway. The free world was developed on the back of individual property rights and entrepreneurial opportunism; yet here on the Wild Coast development is strangled by bureacracy and the tangible need to maintain the region's environmental integrity. This has led to some experimentation with “sustainable development” or ecotourism models based on Community Private Partnerships (CPP).

“However, since the democratic elections of 1994, communities living along the Wild Coast have borne major political upheaval and have had scores of development promises made to them, but in reality, seen little delivery on the ground (CIETafrica, 2001; Kepe, 2001; Ntshona & Lahiff,  2003). Product development has lagged as a result of a multitude of factors which include: difficulties around securing rights to land by communities; unclear and overlapping jurisdictional mandates pertaining to natural resource protection and development; insecure and protracted tenure reform; poor access to the coast; political power struggles; and an unclear and lengthy development approval process. Indeed, the northern Pondoland stretch of the Wild Coast (the focus of this research) is characterised by a relatively low-density population, high ecological and scenic value, but is a virtual ‘blank slate’ with respect to tourism development.” (Haynes, 2003. All quotes above cited by Sarah Colvin in her Masters Thesis, 2004)

The truth is that despite many stalwarts of the struggle coming from the region, the ANC, citing rampant corruption, dismantled the Transkei very thoroughly when they came to power. The seat of government for the Eastern Cape became Bhisho, and the government departments in Umtata were either moved or scaled way back. Radio stations (Capital, and Radio TKI), the airline, agricultural and development parastatals were closed or moved, industrial incentives were revoked, the defence force was integrated and scaled way back, etc.. The budget, which in 1993 had been R12.2 billion for the Transkei, was reduced to R8.8 billion for the whole Eastern Cape: 4 times the geographical area with twice the population. Transkei was brought onto tax parity with SA while the local Receiver was also closed down. Thousands of people lost their livelihoods, and once thriving businesses toppled like dominoes, closing their doors one after another. Only now, 15 years later, and after the opposition party (United Democratic Movement of which Bantu Holomisa, the ex military leader of the Transkei, is chairman) has been almost entirely vanquished, is development capital starting to flow back to the capital city of the region, now known as Mthatha.

The people of the Transkei Wild Coast also face an inimical dichotomy: in that the reversion to tribalism in the Transkei pertains only to land rights, while the Tri-partite Alliance of the ANC, COSATU and Communist Party simultaneously undermine the traditional structures and attempt to create a proletariat without individual land or personal ownership rights.

To put that in clear perspective: the then Premier of the Eastern Cape, Mr. M. Stofile, gave a speech to the House of Traditional Leaders in 1998 wherein he said "it is incumbent upon Traditional Leadership to seek to purge the institution of all illegitimacy by being prepared to commit class suicide when the audit of Traditional Leadership takes place."

So land rights are to be issued to communities in the name of their leaders, but the chiefs are rapidly losing ground to politically aligned ward councilors with personal agendas. 

“Amalgamating traditional leadership structures with new democratic forms of local government, within the ex-homelands, has not been an easy task. As was confirmed through a broad spectrum of field interviews: incapacity, jealousies, and power struggles frequently jeopardise many (potential) development projects, where consensus and compromise simply cannot be found. This is in addition to the contested division of responsibilities between national and provincial government departments.” (Ashley & Ntshona, 2002, cited by Sarah Colvin, 2004)

So infighting amongst self-important officials, power struggles and exclusion of opposition party members are the order of the day; and development never materializes.

It may seem naive, but perhaps a fairer solution will be to issue individual title-deed to existing PTO holders;  and then CLaRA can simply govern the disputed areas.

Still, development in pristine areas like the Wild Coast is a contentious issue. It would appear sinfully negligent to allow unmanaged tourism development (local entrepreneurship), but perhaps the alternatives are far worse:

In 2002 the then Minister of Environmental Affairs, Vali Moosa, when announcing the proposed Pondoland Park, publicly stated that the Wild Coast would never be industrially exploited; and would remain as a natural heritage for South Africa's children. However, a year or so later, he modified this promise to the effect that, if within 5 years tourism failed to live up to its potential, then other avenues of economic development would, regretfully, be pursued. And so we have the constantly looming threat of heavy mineral mining in part of one of the most important botanical hotspots in Southern Africa, albeit the smallest: the Pondoland Center of Endemism. And the almost inevitable 80m wide, fenced, and double-lane N2 toll road through the pristine green-fields of the PCE, as well. Purportedly in their interests, how a fenced-off, high speed “freeway” with limited underpasses and access is meant to empower the local residents is a mystery.
Creating work opportunities in the communities around eco-tourism, permaculture, restoration ecology, and natural resource utilization should be prioritized (E.g. hiking trails, community owned backpackers, indigenous and medicinal plant nurseries and gardens, wildflower harvesting for export, fisheries and aqua-culture, etc.) 

However, “The term ‘community’ is a rather nebulous concept, as communities are seldom homogenous entities. Collective interest is often fragmented by the wider economic and political structures in which they operate, and community power structures are rarely representative or accountable. (IIED, 1994; Renard, 1997; Roe et al., 2000, cited by Sarah Colvin, 2004). 

Environmental journalist Erika Schutze notes: “The local residents are completely disempowered in all the developmental processes in the region as they are seldom consulted and are often manipulated along existing lines of division. Their only point of contact is conflict once, in principle, decisions are being made.” 

Val Payn of concurs:
“Without legal rights to the land, communal land occupants are denied a key pre-requisite to participation. They cannot use the land as collateral in order to finance improvements to the land, and are at the mercy of state officials and corporate agendas when it comes to decisions about land use. Ironically, private corporations, recognized as legal entities in law, are able to access the capital to utilise the land that communal land occupants are denied.

“Unable to raise any sort of capital for land development, the system forces communities to collaborate with state or private partnerships for any development proposals, making these communities vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation by the powerful who would use the land and the natural resources that the poor are dependent upon, for private capital gain.”

Ultimately, development is stifled through conflicting agendas and massive bureaucratic requirements; so perhaps, rather than fostering macro scale projects as the Wild Coast SDI (Spatial Development Initiative) has been attempting, it will be safer to forego development until land tenure is fairly finalized. 

After all, the people of the Wild Coast have nothing if not time: they know that food, and not money, grows from their fertile and beautiful land.


Jeff Brown
Hole in the Wall
22 October 2009


"It will be safer to forego development until land tenure is fairly finalized" Very true!!!

Xolobeni was a big eye-opener even for many of us who live far away from there. Seems another Nongqawuse-like event is not impossible - just might happen differently.

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