Our Burning Planet

PHOTO ESSAY

Coastal communities on the frontline of the climate crisis — Dwesa-Cwebe in Hobeni, Eastern Cape

Coastal communities on the frontline of the climate crisis — Dwesa-Cwebe in Hobeni, Eastern Cape
16 November 2023: Madala Gobizembe Dumezweni is both a traditional healer and a pastor. When he was called by his ancestors he was directed to perform certain rituals at the mouth of the Mbashe River. He says that an oil spill would cause all the animals and people who are able to leave the area to leave. The ancestors would be forced to leave as well. 'There will be no life here,' he says. (Photo: Barry Christianson)

This series of photo essays explores the relationships between the people living in various coastal communities and the ocean, in each of South Africa’s coastal provinces.

Hobeni is a small village on South Africa’s Wild Coast, in the Eastern Cape. It forms part of the seven Dwesa-Cwebe communities. Ancestors of its current residents settled at the Mbashe River, which flanks the village, centuries ago. From that time onwards hunting in the forest, fishing, and harvesting of shellfish was governed by customary law. In addition to their livelihood, they’ve relied on the ocean for  their spirituality because their ancestors are in the ocean. 

The people living at Dwesa-Cwebe have suffered multiple dispossessions. Forced removals under the guise of conservation began in the 1890s, and continued until 1970s when the Dwesa-Cwebe reserve was fenced off. In 2000 the area was declared a marine protected area with a no-take ruling prohibiting residents from fishing and harvesting mussels.

There have also been a few victories. A land claim was awarded to the Dwesa-Cwebe villages in the form of a monetary settlement in 2001. However, in 2010, Malibongwe David Gonqgose was arrested for fishing at the Mbashe River. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that customary law and conservation can co-exist. “… the Dwesa-Cwebe communities have a greater interest in marine resources associated with their traditions and customs, than any other people. These customs recognise the need to sustain the resources that the sea provides,” the judgment reads.

Dwesa-Cwebe

13 November 2023: Jongithuba Mathelele Mpampa (72) hunts for octopus in the rock pools on the coast near the Mbashe River mouth at low tide. His agility belies his age. He hops from from rock to rock, poking his stick into rock pools looking for octopus. Keeping a watchful eye on the waves, he decides whether to anchor as they break or hop to safety. Octopus is used as bait when targeting the large cob that inhabit the waters around the Mbashe river mouth. (Photo: Barry Christianson)

So, when Shell began its third seismic survey in waters off the Wild Coast, the Dwesa-Cwebe Communal Property Association was one of the applicants that approached the courts to stop Shell. 

They argued that, as affected parties, Shell had failed to meaningfully consult them before beginning its third seismic survey. On 1 September 2022 the high court ruled that Shell’s exploration right was granted unlawfully. 

The judgment, delivered by Judge President Selby Mbenenge, included the following text: “… it is incumbent on them to protect the natural resources, including the ocean, for present and future generations; the ocean is the sacred site where their ancestors live and so have a duty to ensure that their ancestors are not unnecessarily disturbed and that they are content.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Seismic judgment — Eastern Cape high court sinks Shell’s Wild Coast exploration rights

Climate change, accelerated by fossil fuel production, is making the lives and cultures of people who rely on the ocean more and more precarious. Coastal communities are therefore at the frontline of the climate crisis, which South Africa’s push for marine oil and gas extraction threatens to exacerbate. DM

This work was supported by the Pulitzer Center. Daily Maverick will publish a series of four photo essay this week. This is part one.

Dwesa-Cwebe

13 November 2023: An octopus hangs off a stump of a tree branch, waiting to be sliced into pieces of bait. (Photo: Barry Christianson)

13 November 2023: Malibongwe Gongqose fishes at the Mbashe River mouth close to sundown. In 2010 Gonqgose was arrested for fishing at the mouth of the Mbashe River. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Appeal found that Gongqose was exercising his customary right to fish when he was arrested. (Photo: Barry Christianson)

13 November 2023: Fish scales lay scattered on the floor of the mangrove forest at the Mbashe River Mouth, waiting for the high tide to sweep them away. (Photo: Barry Christianson)

17 November 2023: Nowinasi Ndawo takes part in the tradition of harvesting shellfish in the intertidal zones in order to feed her family and sell for a bit of income. She was taught by her mother who in turn was taught by her grandmother. Each month when the moon is full Nowinasi makes the 3km journey through the forest which includes steep, muddy sections to collect mussels, limpets, and red bait. After filling her buckets, she makes the same trek back home, retracing her steps. (Photo: Barry Christianson)

17 November 2023: A knife rests on a small pile of limpets while the women rinse and separate the mussels they harvested on the day. (Photo: Barry Christianson)

17 November 2023: Nowinasi Ndawo is regarded as the most skilful mussel collector by her peers. One of the reasons is the fearless way in which she navigates the rocks at the edge of the intertidal zone. (Photo: Barry Christianson)

17 November 2023: Mussels and other shellfish have been harvested at Dwesa-Cwebe for three centuries. For the women who participate in the activity the mussels represent a valuable source of protein as well as a source of livelihood as they sell their harvest to neighbours in their villages. (Photo: Barry Christianson)

15 November 2023: Malibongwe Gonqgose walks home on the road that winds through Hobeni. (Photo: Barry Christianson)

16 November 2023: Malibongwe Gonqgose fishing at the Mbashe River mouth in the evening. That evening he didn’t catch a single fish. ‘I don’t know why they aren’t biting. Maybe the water is too cold.’ (Photo: Barry Christianson)

16 November 2023: Malibongwe Gonqgose packs up his fishing gear after a fishless evening and prepares to make the 6km walk home. Speaking about the possible impact of seismic surveys and the possibility of oil spills, he asks: ‘What will happen to the fish? What will happen to the fishermen? What will happen to the ancestors?’ (Photo: Barry Christianson)

Gallery
Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Terril Scott says:

    Crisis? Climate changes throughout history, inhabitants adapt or perish.

  • Agf Agf says:

    Global warming. Climate change. Climate crisis. Blah, blah, blah (to quote the brat Thunberg).

  • peter selwaski says:

    Crisis? If you can’t handle a degree of temperature increase you’re on the wrong planet. Additionally, we are still emerging from the most recent mini ice age. Lighten up.

  • Random Comment says:

    ““… the Dwesa-Cwebe communities have a greater interest in marine resources associated with their traditions and customs, than any other people. These customs recognise the need to sustain the resources that the sea provides,” the judgment reads.”
    I an not entirely sure that this is a “victory” – for the environment, that is.

    My last visit to the Wild Coast was, admittedly, years’ ago but – even then – the damage to the infra-tidal zone was clearly evident (to a casual observer). The rocks had been denuded of all forms of life and the rock pools were similarly barren. Malnourished kids were selling undersized crayfish barely larger than a king prawn – further evidence that the community and the environment were not in a sustainable relationship. This was in the coffee bay / hole in the wall area – here’s hoping things are managed better in the Dwesa Reserve.

  • Craig King says:

    I know it is obligatory to link every article about our natural surroundings to Man Made Climate Change but this one is a real stretch. These people have been jerked around by politics for over a century and not by climate change.

    As was the case with City of Cape Town a few years back when we almost ran out of water, Day Zero was blamed on Climate Change and drought was the “new normal”. Climate Change is just a useful blanket to throw over official incompetence and venality; today we have lots of water and the “new normal” hasn’t come back. The poor planning that will be revealed by the next dry spell will be blamed on Climate Change again. It is infuriating.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options