Formerly a professor of law at the universities of Cape Town and Chicago, Cowen perceives himself to be engaged, at 76, in a universal struggle. The words of Milton, Cromwell, Shakespeare and Churchill pepper his conversation as he describes - in terms of good versus evil, liberty against tyranny - his battle to protect one of the world's most wondrous landscapes from the predatory longings of the state and Godless capitalism.
The professor marshals his troops from the chair of the council of Rooi Els, a hamlet with a population of 300 perched on the windy coast of False Bay, on the Indian Ocean. Across the bay, in sharp outline on the horizon, is Drake's 'fairest cape', the peninsula of the Cape of Good Hope. Behind Rooi Els a mountain rises, hiding from view a valley commandeered by the state-owned arms industry to test artillery and space rockets. The professor wants the test site moved.
Rooi Els lies on the south- western edge of the Kogelberg peninsula, the nucleus of the 'Cape Floral Kingdom', which supports a greater variety of plants than any other place in the world. Kogelberg has been nominated to Unesco for registration as southern Africa's first 'biosphere reserve', one of a number planned around the world to preserve the Earth's gene pool.
Somchem, the company that occupies the Rooi Els site, has poured 20 tons of chemical waste into a reservoir that provides all the local drinking water. Locals have become accustomed to the boom-boom of the G5 and G6 cannons, long-range guns employed in the Iran-Iraq war and elsewhere, since they were first tested in 1979. One of Professor Cowen's fellow campaigners, Penny Berens, said the rocket launches, which started in 1989, were like 'a Boeing landing in your back garden'.
Two years ago the Rooi Els council served legal papers on Somchem and their allies in regional government, resting their case on the contention that the company had no legal right to occupy the area - 400 hectares of state land leased to Somchem at a low rent and fenced in, strictly out of bounds to local people.
The community - an all- white, elite group which includes brain surgeons, company chairmen and rich entrepreneurs - has raised 900,000 Rand ( pounds 180,000) for the case, R40,000 coming from Professor Cowen's own pocket. Prey to continual delaying tactics by the defendants, the case has not yet come to court. It is now awaiting the outcome of a referendum at Rooi Els.
'The referendum is an act of blackmail. We are supposed to vote 'yes' or 'no' to an offer from Somchem to cover the remaining legal costs, end the case and let them stay there,' Professor Cowen said.
Why are Somchem and the state digging in? Somchem and government officials have confirmed a joint co-operation scheme is under way with the US to develop a low-orbit satellite. Last month President F W de Klerk agreed a deal with the Americans. In exchange for South Africa dropping its long-range missile programme, the US would help in the development of a new space programme in the Cape. Plans are also under way to lease out the Kogelberg site to foreign enterprises wishing to conduct their own rocket tests far from home.
'There's big money behind all this,' Professor Cowen said. 'Obviously orders have come down from government at the highest level to block us.' President de Klerk's stated articles of faith in negotiations for the 'new' South Africa's constitution have been devolution, the empowerment of local communities, and the protection of minorities. 'What they are telling us is that the constitutional rule of law is not worth a damn and can be bulldozed by money, greed, corruption and the naked power of the state.'
So the professor will fight on. 'I can't give up. For what's at stake? 'Love one another as I have loved you' . . . I feel to the very marrow of my being that everything is at stake. Everything.'
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