South Africa

Restitution and redemption:
Covie claws back its autonomy from the shackles of
apartheid

The long, painful and frustrating road to land restitution in South Africa has been starkly illustrated by way of 7,743 outstanding claims, according to recent figures. The small community of Covie, a settlement in the Western Cape near the Eastern Cape border, is one that may finally be rebuilt following the completion of a successful land claim. But a process to kickstart the redevelopment of the area has only just begun, in the hope of restoring Covie to a sustainable economic community.

A gravel road off the R102 is the only access in and out of Covie.

By Suné Payne. Photographs by Victoria O’Regan

“It was a long and a hard process — ja, but after lots of fights, lots of struggles… we’re at a point where we can start to rebuild Covie and restore Covie’s dignity to where it was,” said Cyril Constable, chairperson of the Covie Communal Property Association (CPA) which serves as custodian of the restitution project.

The association is spearheading the rebuilding of the Covie settlement after a successful land claim which was handed over by a high-level government delegation earlier this year. At the heart of the claim is a community whose land was taken away for plantations by the National Party government in 1978. The declaration of the settlement as ‘coloureds only’ under the Group Areas Act meant that the town was left without service provision.

The Tsitsikamma mountains from the Groot River Pass, near Nature's Valley. Covie is situated within the Tsitsikamma National Park, between Plettenberg Bay and Gqeberha near the border of Western Cape, and is roughly three kilometres after the Groot River Pass.

The settlement of Covie sits 35km outside central Plettenberg Bay, hidden from public view along the R102 past Nature’s Valley. There is only one road into the settlement, lined with trees. Entering Covie, the trees give way to several wooden houses that blend into the dark brown foliage nearby. As Daily Maverick drove through the main street, people waved and we were greeted next to a small graveyard flanked by a white church, which used to be the settlement’s central point.

The R102, which runs past the holiday town of Natures Valley, leads to leads to Covie. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

The R102, which runs past the holiday town of Nature's Valley, leads to Covie. A gravel road off the R102 is the only access in and out of the town.
The Bloukrans river which flows near Covie, in Tsitsikamma National Park. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

The Bloukrans River, located on the border between the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces, flows near Covie in the Tsitsikamma National Park.

Seated within a small wooden abode, adorned with, gardening equipment, shovels, rakes and packs of fertilizer on one side and a small library of books of all genres on the other, were the CPA members, Constable, Eben Davids, Lashwen Barnardo and Edna Plaatjies. They explained the settlement’s history.

Covie started as a settlement around 1883 and was a largely mixed-race community where white and black people lived side by side. The community was mainly self-reliant, thanks to employment in the area’s forestry industry, farming, livestock ownership and fishing as means to sustenance and income.  

Then problems started in the 1960s. 

The apartheid government’s forestry department decided to extend plantations within the Tsitsikamma region where Covie is located. “They wanted all the people out here because they [the government] wanted Covie for plantations,” said Constable, who grew up in the area. “What they did at the time was send R50 cheques to the people who were staying here at the time and the people that were landowners,” said Constable. 

The R50 cheques were given to families in exchange for their land. Constable said some families — predominately the coloured families living there — refused to accept the cheques. Constable added that this put the government of the day in a quandary. However, many of the town’s white residents accepted the money. These residents, who were mainly employed by the forestry department, were given a choice: either leave Covie or be fired from their jobs. “And they left,” said Constable. Some of Covie’s white residents left for Plettenberg Bay and Knysna while others settled in Coldstream, which is now part of the Eastern Cape.

In 1964, the Forestry Department declared a portion of Covie’s commonage land — which the community used as common land for livestock grazing — as being a protected “forest on the basis that there was a shortage of land and a need to expand the declining forest”. Then ten years later, in 1974, another portion of commonage land was granted protected status and lost to the community. 

In 1978, the Covie community was officially declared a ‘coloureds-only’ area by the apartheid government. 

“Also, the assistance that was given for Covie at the time, was stopped,” said Constable. Legislation was also introduced to stop people from farming and keeping livestock and the community’s access to the ocean was also curtailed. Constable said people “became poor because they could not look after themselves”.

Constable said that after 1978, no development took place in Covie. 

Driving through Covie, we saw no brick and mortar buildings, only wooden structures. Constable said that in recent years the settlement has had secured electricity, while filtered water from a nearby river is used as a water supply for human consumption. Surrounding roads are surfaced twice or thrice a year by the Bitou Municipality, the last of which occurred ahead of the government delegation’s arrival in April.


One of several wooden homes in Covie village, on the morning of Saturday, 26 June 2021. There are about 150 people that live in the community, and less than 40 houses.

The restitution process

After the restitution process opened in 1996 under the new democratic government, Irene Barnardo — a descendant of Covie’s original land claimants — applied for restitution on behalf of families of the original inhabitants. 

This claim was for both individual land lost and communal property in Covie. 

The Covie claim is among 79,696 land claims that were made as part of South Africa’s restitution process in the post-apartheid dispensation of 1998.  According to a presentation during a meeting of Parliament’s oversight committee on Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, it was confirmed that 7,743 outstanding claims still needed to be completed. 

Land restitution has proven to be a long and drawn-out process, with various stumbling blocks and delays. 

One such example is District Six in Cape Town’s CBD. After numerous setbacks and a much-publicised court case brought by the District Six Working Committee, the community’s land claims process seems to finally be on track. Currently, there are 108 housing units being finalised for claimants who have waited since 1996 for their land as well as for District Six’s most elderly claimants. But the official handover is still to be determined. 

It took almost 20 years from the start of claims in 1996 for the land claim to be fully completed. The land claim comprised both communal and individual land. 

Constable told Daily Maverick the Covie land claim was completed in 2004, but there were several loose ends that weren’t tied up. One of the issues was with SANParks, who controlled 150 hectares of Covie property — through which the Otter Trail runs. Other ongoing issues included the community’s lack of access to the ocean. 

Constable said the community had been compensated for the loss of the 150 hectares of land by SANParks. 

On 30 April, a delegation made up of Deputy President David Mabuza, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde, ministers Thoko Didiza  (Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development) and Patricia de Lille (Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure), and officials from the Bitou Municipality arrived in Covie to officially hand the land back to the community. 

The delegation handed over R12.4-million in compensation to 411 households of the area made up of descendants of the original inhabitants and those who still live in Covie. A total of 764,000 hectares of individual land and common land was handed back to the community. 

“With this land handover, the Covie community can now begin to independently determine their future, secure their livelihoods and regain their human dignity,” said the deputy president in his speech at the handover. “This event is a process of addressing the historical injustice of land inequality, displacement and dispossession,” said Mabuza in his speech.

GCIS-1.jpg

Deputy President, David Mabuza hands over land to the Covie community in the
Western Cape on, 30 April 2021 (Photo: GCIS)
GCIS-2.jpg

Deputy President, David Mabuza (centre) hands over the land deed of transfer to Cyril Constable (right), chairperson of the Covie Communal Property Association in Covie, in the Western Cape
on 30 April 2021. (Photo: GCIS)

But for the community, the handover was bittersweet. 

“For some of us there was excitement, it was also a reminder — to date, we can’t really figure out exactly what took so long because they could have done it a long time ago,” said Barnardo. “In the handover ceremony the government officials looked at us — Covie’s people — they saw almost a lack of excitement, but we’ve had ceremonies before and there’s always talk afterwards. We were very happy that we had something on paper so we can start building now,” said Plaatjies. 

There was excitement from stakeholders to create opportunities within Covie. For Barnardo, it meant he would no longer need to travel outside the settlement in order to find opportunities for himself. 

Plaatjies added, however, “I think there was [also] a lot of sadness. Many old people died… they missed this opportunity of seeing that their title deeds have been handed out,” said Plaatjies. 

These include 92-year-old Josephine Dickson, who died a few days before the handover. She was not only a land claimant but the town’s midwife.


The grave of 92-year-old Josephine Dickson, who died on 27 April 2021, a few days before the handover. Dickson was one of 411 land claimants, and was also the town’s midwife.
“A mobile clinic provides a limited service to the community but general health and the administration of medication is handled by the midwife in the community, one of the oldest residents who also played a role in the submission of the claim,” read a report on Covie’s land claim by Karin Kleinbooi and Edward Lahiff, published by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), based at the University of the Western Cape.   

A red prefabricated container, erected by Bitou Municipality around the beginning of June, stands adjacent to Covie’s community hall on 26 June 2021.
The partially constructed building is the newest structure in the village and will become clinic rooms for children.

‘Start from a point’

So, what happens now that the settlement has its land back?

“Obviously, we must put our shoulders to the wheel,” said Constable.

Constable said the community was going to “start from a point”. The association decided it would use some of the restitution funding to pay unemployed Covie residents to help clean up the area, including the removal of invasive alien species.

“We’re trying to make this place look better. When your place looks better, it does something to your spirit,” said Constable. 

An emergency focus is signage to Covie along the N2. “There’s no mention of Covie,” said Constable. Other suggestions would be to have information boards and establish links with tourism centres in Plettenberg Bay, Nature’s Valley and Stormsriver to promote Covie. The association also wants to create an information centre in the settlement. 

“We’re looking at marketing Covie,” said Barnardo.

Another focus for the community is a hiking trail that runs through Covie. The association wants the trail cleaned up and additional trails for bikes and quad bikes to be introduced. “We want to see this hiking trail marketed to that we can see by the end of this year if we can have people that know about it,” said Constable. 

In the long term, there are plans for housing with assistance from the government and the creation of accommodation sites in order to create employment opportunities for residents. 

Currently, there are only wooden houses in the area but there are plans for Bitou Municipality to construct formal housing. Constable told Daily Maverick the municipality had already assisted with temporary housing for one of the settlement’s residents. 

There are also plans by the association and the municipality for the creation of a library and clinic rooms A prefabricated structure for the clinic had already been provided by the municipality at the time of writing. 

Currently, there are around 140 people living in Covie, with around 40 houses. “And ja, nearly everyone is related to one another,” joked Barnardo. 

Most elderly residents, like Dickson, the settlement’s midwife, have passed on. The elderly, “lived for Covie — everything they did was to push that our land would be restored” said Constable. 

The association was also looking to create a recreational space for children to play instead of the town’s dirt roads where youngsters typically gathered. “I think we chose a very fine project to start with,” said Barnardo. 

He admits that the mood in Covie has changed. “There was a sense of depression, like we’re not heading anywhere but ever since we finally received our title deed, that changed — people are more hopeful”. 

9E7A1054.jpg

In Covie’s only graveyard, graves are decorated with artificial flowers on 26 June 2021.
9E7A1002-2.jpg

One of the key focuses of the Covie Communal Property Association in the following months is to
clean up and market the hiking trail which runs through the town.

And the future?

The association wants to move Covie forward without losing its rural roots.  “We’d rather focus on creating jobs than bringing in thousands of people — that’s not what the plans are”.

When asked by Daily Maverick what he thought Covie would look like in 50 years, “I see a school in Covie, I see maybe a clinic here…I see employment being generated here”.

With no schools in the area, children need to travel to The Crags Primary School (some 20km away) or Plettenbergbaai Sekondêre Skool (some 40km away) for education.

Constable said his vision of Covie’s future is “a completely different scene than what we’re having now — it has been almost restored to its original state.

“What was undone, it’s not going to take a year or two, it’s going to take a while to rectify and restore Covie,” said Constable.

“In 50 years, Covie will definitely be thriving,” Barnardo concluded. DM