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A View accross the Kei River in South Africa

Updated on November 9, 2016
Tribal life
Tribal life | Source
The Lodge at Mpotshane in the Eastern Cape
The Lodge at Mpotshane in the Eastern Cape | Source
A valley in the Kei River area
A valley in the Kei River area | Source
View from the lodge
View from the lodge | Source
Pont crossing the Kei River at Kei mouth
Pont crossing the Kei River at Kei mouth | Source
Typical Tribal houses in the Transkei area
Typical Tribal houses in the Transkei area | Source
Cattle in Forest areas near Keiskamahoek
Cattle in Forest areas near Keiskamahoek | Source
Traditional Huts
Traditional Huts | Source

A View across the Kei River: A look at the present Eastern Cape from a historical perspective

Meeting Phillip Mbali at Gubu Dam near Keiskamahoek and Andrew Brill near Komga in an action packed two weeks, has given me a new perspective on life in this interesting part of South Africa. Earlier in the month I read the story of the 1820 Settlers in the Port Alfred and Grahamstown areas of the Eastern Cape and their conflict with the Xhosa people to the north. What happened in the past determines what is happening in the present.

In 1820 the British Government sent families to settle in the Eastern Cape along the frontier to provide a buffer between the white colonial population in the Cape Colony and the black tribes to the north. North of the Kei and Fish rivers, the Xhosa nation was being forced southwards by the Zulus under their leaders Dingiswayo and Shaka. The Zulus, who started as small group of tribes between the Mhlatuze and Mfolozi Rivers, had embarked on an expansionist movement forcing the Ndwande Tribe into Swaziland and the Sotho Tribe under Moshoeshoe, into Lesotho, and the Pondo and the Tembu Tribes southwards. Caught in between these groups and the white colonists were the Khoikhoi, whose sad fate is another story.

The resultant Frontier Wars were fought in this area of the Eastern Cape between the British and the Xhosa. As the newly arrived immigrant farmers and the Xhosa cattle farmers came into conflict in the area known today as The Border, (part of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa) trouble was on the cards. These wars took place mainly in the area between the Fish and Kei Rivers.

All this interesting history had been well documented in Noel Mostert’s excellent book “Frontiers” described as: “The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the tragedy of the Xhosa People”.

Enter the present time and two men from widely different backgrounds; Mbali and Brill, both interesting gentlemen who shared something of their past and present with me that I feel needs to be recorded. One from the “white” side of the Kei River, the Eastern Cape and one from the “black” side, the Transkei.

The Xhosa Cattle Farmer:

Phillip Armstrong Mbali comes originally from a tribal village to the north of the Kei River. His family moved from there into the Keiskamahoek area where he grew up. It would be interesting to know exactly why they moved but this is lost in the mists of time. Only oral records remain as little was recorded by the black population until more recent times. Wanting to attend school near his home, Mbali could not because the nearby St. Matthews School, established by early Missionaries in 1857, was for girls only at that stage. So he had to attend a somewhat inferior school further away. He was eventually employed by the South African Government as an Agricultural Advisor to the tribal farmers in the area, helping with pastoral and crop farming. Since his retirement he has become a cattle farmer, following the example of his forefathers. His cattle feed in the forest areas, where some grass areas exist, and along the road verges between his home and the town of Stutterheim. He has the full number of cattle allowed, that is sixty. As the herd increases he has to sell some. He wishes for 100ha of his own land where he can grow fodder to fatten his cattle before sending them to the market place. He is angry that SAFCOL (South African Forestry) wants to plant more trees as the present ones are harvested. He and the other cattle farmers in the area rather need more grazing and so less forest suits them. After all, this land “was stolen from them by the whites” he complains. This brings us to the fact that in South Africa many feel they were dispossessed by the whites and so lost their land. It must also be stated that land use in the tribal areas is based on a communal grazing area and a small patch of land around their home that is only suitable for a bit of subsistence farming: a few pigs, chickens and some pumpkins and maize. Rainfall in the area of the Transkei is relatively low and irregular and so not really suitable for crop farming. Drinking water is often still fetched by the women in the river bed far below their homes. The Mbali family has a long history with the Anglican Church and his great grandfather William Phillip he tells me translated the English Hymns into Xhosa.

The Game Ranch Owner:

Andrew Brill and his family own a farm on the south banks of the Kei River near the town of Komga. Here the Brill family has farmed for probably nearly two centuries. On his farm are the ruins of Fort Warden, one of the early British defensive positions in the Eastern Cape. Also on the farm is The Outspan, a place where early travelers in their ox-wagons stopped off to feed and water their animals before crossing the Kei River. They would then continue northwards towards Durban and Natal. The deep ruts cut into the rocks and earth by their wagons can still be seen. This is rugged territory and today the farm has changed from a cattle farm to a game farm. In the steep valleys next to the Kei River is the private game reserve called Mpotshane. The view from the deck at the modern lodge is amazing and the dining room/bar area has a great collection of stuffed animal trophies. Some of the animals shot by Brill and his daughter while others by visiting hunters from Europe or the USA. Where exactly his forefathers came from to settle here along the border of the Eastern Cape seems lost in the past, but they are in his words “a mixed bunch”. This is mountainous country with a great selection of indigenous plants growing across the deep ravine that the lodge overlooks, including rare Clivias and Cycads. As I enter the grounds a beautiful Nyala Ram and Ewe with two young greet us, and a herd of Impala bound across the road in the late evening sun. A Jackal Buzzard flies up the valley to feed its chick, precariously perched in a nest against the cliff face. A Mocking-cliff Chat and its mate look for a sunny spot on the edge of the deck. A noisy couple of Egyptian Geese come home to roost. This is Africa at its best for an overseas visitor. As we chat in the lounge before supper Andrew tells us of the desperate drought that they are experiencing. The spring that supplies them with water has dried up for the first time in their memory. He complains about others who use more water as farming in the area grows and expands. He believes that they here at Mpotshane, are doing their bit in preserving the environment and in breeding game. He tells us that he now sees Cape Vulture on a regular basis, previously a rare occurrence. He ascribes this to the increase in game farming that is replacing sheep, cattle and crop farming in the area.

As I had the opportunity to meet these two men from two sides of the Kei River with their very different cultural and economic back grounds, I again realize that we here in South Africa are living in a “rainbow nation”, diverse in history and facing the challenges of the future that are firmly rooted in our past.


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    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 15 months ago from East London, South Africa

      The life of some in South Africa is hard indeed but thanks for the comment.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 15 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very interesting. We call the open grazing here "Cattle Ranches". This sure looks beautiful. But I am sorry for those who are made to struggle.