In an area of South Africa internationally acclaimed for its extraordinary biodiversity and remarkable beauty, there lies a region of enduring fascination and a humble people fiercely protective of their land and heritage.
Along the beautiful eastern coast of southern Africa below the great escarpment, which separates the elevated interior plateau from the coastal lowlands, is a dynamic area of plant and cultural endemism. Home to a unique combination of biological species, the region has a scenic, topographical and cultural diversity unsurpassed in South Africa.
The shore of this astonishing region is a coastline popularly known as the Wild Coast, a vigorous seaboard of wild, unspoiled beaches, dune and coastal forests, open estuaries, sheer coastal cliffs with deeply incised river gorges and swiftly flowing rivers.
Rich in archaeological interest, the Pondoland region is a depository of rare Sangoan and other Stone Age artefacts, as well as many San cave rock-art sites in the Mkambathi Nature Reserve, which belong to the same tradition as the much celebrated Drakensberg paintings. Numerous Iron Age and Stone Age sites, including shell middens from early beachcomber origin, can be seen along the coast.
The region’s exciting annual ‘sardine run’, is a unique marine event that takes place every year between late May and early August when millions of Cape pilchards migrate to Wild Coast waters in large shoals. These shoals are hotly pursued by large flocks of marine birds, dolphins and varieties of whale, shark and fish in the world’s largest marine migration.
Inextricably entwined with the antiquity and richness of the region, and possessing and using it as their inalienable cultural right, are the extraordinary Pondo people, whose simplicity and wisdom have become indistinguishable from the sacred land they now traverse.
Historical evidence suggests the area was originally settled by Bushmen and Hottentots, but towards the end of the 17th century these were displaced by successive waves of pastoral people wandering down from the north-east. These people split into various groups and the northern group became the Pondo.
Professor Russell Kaschula of the School of Languages at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, says of the Pondos:
‘There is a powerful spirituality and innocence about these people, and Pondoland is an interesting place for those who have not reconciled with the negative issues in their lives. There seems to be an energy and power that draws people there for spiritual healing. The traditional healing methods can almost be likened to Western psychology, a process of questions and answers enabling one to undergo a self-transforming experience that leads to a more fruitful life.’
The Pondos were grateful to their ancestors for the land they were entrusted to protect. Its rich, fertile soil and abundant sea food gave them the means to survive in an environment of astonishing natural beauty.
They now live in a region that is internationally recognised as a botanical ‘hotspot’ of plant biodiversity and which has the greatest variety of tree species (over 600) in the world. It is only one of 235 recognised hotspots that contain about 50% of the planet’s species in only 2% of the land. Little wonder that it was the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s bestseller, The Hobbit.
The land provides food and medicine, and the Pondos are well known for their traditional plant therapy. Professor Kaschula adds:
‘There are also healers specialising in plant medicine who spend months in the forests learning the various plant qualities under expert tutelage. It would appear a lot of people from various cultures round the world come to Pondoland to be trained in traditional healing. Although they never compromise their principles, the Pondos will always share their knowledge.’
It is well documented that early Dutch and Portuguese seafarers bear testimony to the docility, kindness, and graciousness of these people. A young French Huguenot, Guillaume de Chalezac, spent a year living as foster-son to a Pondo chief until he was rescued by the English vessel Centaurus. His diary, published in 1748, provides readers with a warm account of his hosts, whom he describes as ‘well-mannered, respectful, friendly and hospitable towards each other and strangers’. He describes the women as ‘appealingly modest’.
The well known travel journalist, Don Pinnock, after a visit to the region, said:
‘We overnighted in a comfortable hut with a new floor in Rhole village. There we were spoiled rotten with tea, home-baked bread and a country meal of beef, potato-like ndombes, stir-fried cabbage and the staple samp and beans. Sponge mattresses, with clean bedding, were laid out on grass mats and a bath of hot water appeared on cue.’
Living in circular huts made from mud and clay and a conical-shaped roof of dry grass (rondavels), the Pondos breed cattle, grow grain, pumpkin and fish and hunt with weapons made from materials at hand. Remarkable basket weavers, they also make the most intricate and exquisite beadwork. They are farming people who ride the valleys, hills and grasslands on their sturdy ponies confronting the challenges of the 21st century with their integrity and culture intact, as it has been for centuries.
They have not been left alone, however.
During the 19th century, they felt the force of British colonial rule. Left alone for a while, their land was eventually annexed by the British in 1894 and through various political, economic and religious pressures the people were forced to accept it.
When the apartheid government came to power in 1948 and a socio-economic and political shift in South African history ensued, indigenous people became aliens in the land of their birth. Land became the property of the new government and taxes were levied to force indigenous peoples to seek work on the mines to survive.
On 6 June 1960, on Ngquza Hill, the Pondo nation had to face the might of their new enemy. Although lives were lost in a peaceful, unarmed demonstration, they look back with pride that they played a prominent role in liberating South Africans, and their martyrs of that day remain an enduring memorial for the land entrusted to them.
Today they face another threat to their land and culture. An open cast mining project is being mulled for heavy metals such as rutile and titanium. It will extend 1.5 km inland from the shore for 23km, from the Mtentu River northwards to the Umtumvuna River along one of the most idyllic settings and ecologically sensitive environments on South Africa’s coastline. Some Pondo elders consider it an invasion and fear it will desecrate the graves of their forefathers and negatively affect them socially and culturally. Many local and international conservation organisations agree with them.
Core to the Pondo philosophy is the African concept of ubuntu. It means to share and care through principles of harmlessness and unselfishness. The region, so rare and extraordinary, its pristine Wild Coast, and its people, need ubuntu now more than ever. In the words of the late and former South African president, Nelson Mandela:
‘When a traveller through the country stops at a village, he doesn’t have to ask for food or water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him … the question therefore is: are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve? These are the important things in life, and if one can do these one will have done something that will be very appreciated.’
That is ubuntu. Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: a person is a person through other persons.
First written for international in-flight magazine, Sawubona, in 2008