Nelson Mandela University: Khoisan research team uncover rich coastal heritage

There is much to learn about the wisdom and science of the first indigenous people of southern Africa. A groundbreaking book co-authored by a Nelson Mandela University academic and local Khoisan chiefs is a worthy start.

The Spirit of Water: Practices of cultural reappropriation. Indigenous heritage sites along the coast of the Eastern Cape-South Africa (Firenze University Press), published last year, was the culmination of a partnership between the School of Architecture’s Dr Magda Minguzzi and 12 indigenous leaders from the greater Nelson Mandela Bay area.

“Started in 2015 by my NRF Community Engagement Programme research group, (the project’s) scope was to investigate methods and procedures that could help re-establish the link between the Indigenous communities and their ‘forgotten’ heritage sites,” said Minguzzi.

“The representative chief for the Cape Khoi at Cape Recife, Chief Xam ≠ Gaob Maleiba of the Damasonqua tribe, told us, ‘We are finally able to write our own history from our point of view.’”

Research started with precolonial fish traps along the greater Nelson Mandela Bay coast, including at Cape Recife, with the first-ever drawings of them featured in the book.

“We refer to them as ‘precolonial’ because they cover a wide time frame; we know they were there more than 2000 years ago and that they were built and used by people along the coast,” said Minguzzi.

“These are the most ancient sites, culturally and architecturally, along the Eastern Cape coast. The Khoisan chiefs performed ancestral rituals to honour their heritage and spoke about how the history of oppression affected and still affects their lives.”

Minguzzi also published a journal paper on the work, with the Khoisan chiefs acknowledged as co-researchers.

There is a deeply poignant element of time and tide in their work. Fish traps surveyed in the Cape Recife Nature Reserve in 2018/19 are no longer visible as they were completely covered in sand during a storm in 2020. The same storm revealed new fish traps and Minguzzi had to quickly complete the site surveys in collaboration with colleagues from the School of Architecture, Lucy Vosloo and Hansie Vosloo.

Minguzzi and the chiefs also collaborated on the new sites with ocean sciences researchers Dr Paula Pattrick (South African Environment Observation Network) and Dr Francesca Porri from the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity.

“We started investigating and sampling the early developmental stages of fish larvae living in the stone-walled fish traps at Cape Recife,” said Minguzzi.

“According to Dr Porri, some of the fish traps appear to have been deliberately kept as fish nurseries where the fish larvae could develop, indicating the sustainable practices of the community.”

It would appear that the fish traps were also used as live ‘fridges’. This same practice happened all along the Mediterranean, where the inhabitants built artificial pools near the sea and kept their captured fish there.

Minguzzi has studied ancient fish traps in Australia, England and Japan and says that all over the world, precolonial people used fish traps in a very clever, sustainable way. “All the fish traps have similar dimensions and positioning, clearly designed to take into account the currents, tides and changing levels of water.”

In addition to the book, a 40-minute documentary was launched during Heritage Month last year.

Minguzzi and her team’s multi-faceted work addresses the power of indigenous lessons from the past – how human beings can enhance natural biodiversity instead of destroying it.

“(Minguzzi) is courageously tackling the much-needed – and delicate – question of the reappropriation of their heritage values by indigenous groups in South Africa,” said Porri.

“(These are) values that were forgotten during the apartheid regime and post-apartheid era. She is bringing back the voices of the previously unheard.”