Mapping marine and coastal socio-cultural uses in Algoa Bay, South Africa

Nina Rivers, Mia Strand and Loyolah Chilo Nonyane

Social and cultural interactions and connections to the coast and ocean include cultural, religious and spiritual practices, as well as uses based on livelihood, recreation and wellbeing. Participatory community mapping approaches can help map culturally significant areas along the coastline, and in the context of Algoa Bay, South Africa, we have supported these approaches and explored their integration into marine spatial planning in 2022 and 2023.


Hub early-career researchers Dr Nina Rivers (University of Strathclyde/Nelson Mandela University), Dr Mia Strand (Nelson Mandela University), masters student, Loyolah Chilo Nonyane (Nelson Mandela University) and Professor Bernadette Snow (Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS)/Nelson Mandela University), piloted this use of participatory community mapping of culturally significant areas along the coastline in Algoa Bay. The objective of this work was two-fold: (1) to develop appropriate and ethically sensitive methods to identify and map marine and coastal  socio-cultural uses in Algoa Bay (2) as well as build a better understanding of  coastal and marine socio-cultural values in the country to ensure they are included and safeguarded in future coastal and marine decision-making, governance and developments.

The researchers have adapted arts-based participatory methods to suit the South African context by contextualising these methods in the form of storytelling and photography that researchers co-developed with Indigenous and local community members of Algoa Bay as co-researchers. Using arts-based participatory research, the Hub team of researchers in South Africa have also been looking at ways to identify culturally significant areas along the coastline. The objectives of identifying culturally significant areas are to: build understanding of current research on coastal and marine socio-cultural values in South Africa, explore synergies between research initiatives and potential for collaboration, and develop a framework for identifying, mapping and assessing marine socio-cultural values in South Africa. One of the art-based approaches that Dr Strand piloted in their research is the use of photovoice. In this arts-based participatory research methodology, co-researchers (research participants) are the authors of their own work and use photos and voice recordings to document their cultural connections with the ocean and coast.

Loyolah Nonyane mapping culturally significant areas with co-researchers at the Sundays River in Algoa Bay. Photo: Nina Rivers
Collaboration with the South Africa National Biodiversity Institute

The development of arts-based participatory methods has led to the collaboration between Hub researchers based at Nelson Mandela University and the South Africa National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). SANBI had been working towards a national framework for identifying and mapping Culturally Significant Areas (CSAs) in the marine and coastal environment of South Africa. Hub researchers based at Nelson Mandela University developed methodologies to identify and map CSAs in the marine and coastal environment of Algoa Bay to support the development of a South African national framework for mapping CSAs. This arts-based participatory process also initiated a process whereby local Xhoi and San communities in the Bay seek to declare a culturally significant area (ancient fish traps) as a national heritage site.  More information here; here; and here.

“Mapping social and cultural phenomena, which are both complex and dynamic, is no easy task and requires a very careful way of working due to South Africa’s violent colonial and apartheid past which removed and (continues to) exclude(d) people of colour from certain areas of the coast. Some culturally significant areas may also be sacred to people and communities”  Dr Rivers says.

In this case, co-researchers (research participants) were instructed to either not mark these areas on maps at all or rather mark very broad areas, as they saw appropriate. The results showed that most of the coast in Algoa Bay have cultural uses and that these areas need to be taken into consideration when planning for present and future coastal and marine developments as well as addressing past injustices where people have been denied access to areas of the coast where they live out and perform their social and cultural coastal and marine practices.


Going forward, it is important to be critical during these processes by asking questions such as: Why are we mapping? What is the bigger system? Who is benefiting? Who is losing? How can we change the system from inside? There is also a need to work deeply and slowly to understand the cultural dimensions of ocean and coastal use while at the same time empowering and capacitating local coastal communities to participate in ocean decision making and governance. At the national level, there is great interest for research like this. Doctors River and Strand have been working closely with the South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA) who sits on the National MSP Working Group and are keen to elevate and incorporate knowledge and research like this to inform the national MSP process.