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Historic Keiskammahoek abandoned by revitalisation projects that were meant to preserve our heritage


Mandisi Aplom is a researcher in the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders. He writes in his personal capacity.

The dilapidated state of Keiskammahoek is a tragedy and a betrayal of the heritage bequeathed to us by those who have gone before. So much could be done to revitalise this struggling community, not least by recognising its place in our country’s history.

Scholars define heritage as what we have been bequeathed by our forefathers and what we are transmitting to future generations.  

Here in the Eastern Cape we might not have all the gold that is found elsewhere, but we have sweet waters, beautiful landscapes and a rich history and legacy – and numerous landmarks we hold dear.

In early colonial times, missionary influence moved us partly away from our indigenous cultural values, through the process that Steve Biko termed “acculturation”. Credit for keeping us grounded in our heritage ought to go to early indigenous intellectuals who drank the sweet waters of the Tyume River and devoured knowledge at Lovedale and Healdtown colleges.

After protracted wars the gun was replaced by the pen – not out of cowardice, but out of wisdom and visionary leadership. I have recently been considering what some of these leaders gave us – for example, the work of Eastern Cape scholar and poet SEK Mqhayi, born in the Alice district, who provided us with so much of the record of isiXhosa grammar and orthography.

Recently death struck my family and I had to attend a funeral in Keiskammahoek. Tears welled at the state of this historic town with its rich history and heritage. Keiskammahoek was a military camp established to prevent the Xhosa from scaling the mountains to wreak destruction on the Cape colony. This rural town is home to the resting place of one of the great warrior chiefs of the wars of land dispossession and a Robben Islander, Nkosi Maqoma in Ntaba ka Ndoda, and also of Reverend James Canon Calata, a well-known and respected cleric of the liberation struggle to whom a granite memorial was unveiled by the Eastern Cape government in 2020.

King Sandile himself led troops here in 1853 in a battle at the river pass known as the Boma pass, during the very long Xhosa Wars against the British. Sandile’s grave is in the district. This area is an important heritage site with much potential for tourism.

After the War of the Axe (the seventh Xhosa War of 1846-7) Sir Harry Smith initiated a peace treaty with Xhosa chiefs, after which the Anglican church began to do missionary work in the area. St Matthew’s school was started by missionaries in 1854, situated along a lovely tributary of the Keiskamma, and attended by luminaries who bequeathed to us a legacy of bravery and wisdom that ultimately helped us to achieve our freedom. 

Although democratic South Africa inherited Keiskammahoek from the politically terrible apartheid and bantustan systems, the town survived these administrations as an economically viable place and our people were able to thrive there. Urban migration had a negative impact on the area but those left behind were able to survive thanks to agrarian programmes that ensured survival. The popularity of St Matthew’s added to the economic viability of the town.

Keiskammahoek has a rich history of sport – including rugby tournaments and cricket games. Horse racing used to be very popular and attracted many people from across the province who would assemble there over the Easter weekend. As boys we used to enjoy ourselves there, enjoying the fact that local businesses were run by black people – something we were not accustomed to in the white-saturated Qonce (formerly King William’s Town). 

Much later, in my professional life, I had the honour of assisting the Cata community in conceptualising their redevelopment plan – a plan that was implemented with powerful business ideas aimed at promoting self-reliance as advocated by Biko who himself visited the area in the 1970s with his then young wife Mama Ntsiki Biko, who was a nurse at the once-glamorous SS Gida Hospital.

Seated next to my wife at my relative’s funeral, all I could think of was the decay of this town during our period of governance as black people. Keiskammahoek is now largely run by foreigners working out of old dilapidated buildings that were once owned by our people. There is no infrastructure development at all – it is just a shadow of what was once mighty, and I can understand the frustrations of local people.

I don’t know what happened to the small town’s revitalisation project that Public Works was busy with. I don’t know what happened to Aspire, the development agency of the Amathole District Municipality, and I am not sure if the Amahlathi Local Municipality has the appetite or capacity to develop the town. Why is it difficult for the political leadership to ensure the revitalisation of this town? The Maqoma legacy group and Ntinga ntaba ka ndoda have great developmental programmes that could be used for the betterment of this rural town. I know of many Saint Matthew’s alumni who would be glad to invest their time and resources in pursuit of educational revival in the area.

There are many opportunities, and different models that have worked in the past could be revisited in order to reposition this town as a heritage and agrarian powerhouse.

The new political leadership of Amathole District Municipality and Amahlathi Local Municipality are challenged to correct this unfortunate situation. All this requires is a meeting of minds of all role players. There are tourism and heritage opportunities, opportunities for sports  development, education, hospitality, for motorcycle trails and amenities that could enhance economic development; for agrarian programmes, sand mining and business revival. SS Gida Hospital needs serious attention and it is positioned to serve the poor and vulnerable.

The late John Ncinane was a highly placed sports administrator and some of us learnt a lot from him, yet sport is literally dead in his community. Is that how we want to honour our sports heroes? There is no reason for our government not to have satellite offices in Keiskammahoek to serve our people, thereby contributing to the revitalisation process.

It should not be that our people must live in squalor in a democratic era. We don’t just owe it to those political figures who sacrificed their lives for our people, but to all the people in the rural communities, for they have to be rewarded as well. There is no reason the monument at Ntaba ka ndoda, with its rich history, cannot be transformed into a Rharhabe Kingdom shrine and be a repository of our heritage.

Heritage, after all, is what we need to give to our future generations. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Bristow says:

    If there is no urge among the local people and community leaders of Keiskammhoek/Cata, then it just is not going to happen.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    It’s time for civil society to start doing there own thing,citizens who care and are leaders ,combined with private sector .Get a group who wants to, create a forum and think tank, start small and build from there.Private sector also needs to come to the party.The state and its various arms can’t be depended on

  • Frankie Ford says:

    Timely article. Sadly those who care are few. After reading “Frontiers” by Noel Mostert my interest the area was tweaked. I have since read a number of other books as well as visited the area twice. The historical sites are uncared for, some vandalized. Others impossible to find, like the site of Ford Fordyce. Instead you find a ludicrous sign saying xxxxkms to London, xxxkm to Sydney. Yes, this overlooking the famous Waterkloof where the most astute of all Xhosa chiefs, Maqoma held off the British for months in 1851. But no one there knows anything about that.

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