Cape Times October 25 2013
It was a remarkable gathering: A Catholic archbishop and a primary school jazz band, chiefs from Khoi and Xhosa tribes, a rabbi and a sheikh, a baptising Pentecostal elder and a Buddhist… a rare moment when our rainbow nation shone in all its colours.
But perhaps what was most remarkable about this gathering was that this group had come together on September 22 to defend one Cape Town’s most contested natural features – the Princess Vlei.
What has motivated these moral custodians of our city to take this stand? Why has Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu bothered to weigh in to the debate with a message of support?
Superficially, the Princess Vlei issue might seem a small issue. But it is an issue in which the greater social, cultural, historical, economic and environmental connections are so starkly and eloquently expressed that it serves as a microcosm of critical choices facing our city, our country and indeed our planet. Perhaps this is why it has caught the attention even of those who have never had the pleasure of watching pelicans coming in to land on the water, or seeing the Constantiaberg mirrored in its still surface.
Princess Vlei holds an urgent lesson, the same lesson that is being ignored by global political and financial leaders as they continue to avoid taking the decisive action needed to avert the catastrophe of uncontained climate change. The lesson is so simple: If we continue to sacrifice social justice and environmental well-being for the short-term enrichment of a minority, we will soon find ourselves in a world that is uninhabitable.
It is self-evident that building a shopping mall on a wetland does not promote environmental sustainability. What may be less obvious is the damage this development could do to social sustainability, which is equally critical to the long-term health of our society.
A socially sustainable society is one that pays attention not only to people’s physical needs, but also to their psychological and emotional needs. Critical to the psychological health of a community is access to recreational spaces where people can connect with nature, interact with each other in a relaxed way, or find solitude and peace. For those living in over-crowded homes with no gardens, such solace can only be found in natural public spaces. In this context, these spaces become the pressure valve that enables people to cope with the stresses of social and economic hardship in densely populated environments.
Princess Vlei has long served this purpose. People from the ages of eight to 80 have remarked that what they value most about the vlei is that it gives them a feeling of peace.
In the words of Mak1, a graffiti artist who grew up in Cafda: “No matter what happened economy-wise or family-wise, Princess Vlei was one place people went and had a good time… the sun would set, and I remember the fires and the braais going on, music playing, people were happy.
“You knew when you went home there’d be skelling about no money for this or that, or not enough to eat, but while we were here at the Vlei, people had a great time. Among all the negatives… the Vlei was the one memory that shone through, and you knew if you could focus on that, you could survive, you could make it through.”
People in the community speak of Princess Vlei as a place given by God, a place that is free. There is a sense that God (or nature) has generously provided such beauty and tranquillity without expecting anything in return. This generosity helps people to feel wealthy in a more profound sense, to forget that they are deprived, or poor, or lacking. The water sparkles just as brightly for a single mother from Parkwood as it does for a wealthy Constantia resident. Probably a lot more – Constantia residents are treated daily to lush views in their garden, or at any of the holiday locations they can afford to visit. Most people living near Princess Vlei have no gardens and no car.
A shopping mall, on the other hand, can make all but the super-rich feel poor, with its display of goods that few can afford to buy. A shopping mall entices people to spend beyond their means. A shopping mall diverts money from small traders, breadwinners in this community, into the profits of big business. A shopping mall may create jobs, but it kills local enterprise.
The value of Princess Vlei to the community is clear and widely acknowledged, a value that would be greatly enhanced if the space was developed as a nature and heritage park.
Yet all indications now are that the city is set to go ahead with the sale of the land to the developer. What is driving this intention?
In his keynote address at the Princess Vlei Forum prayer meeting on September 22, Bishop Geoff Davies quoted the story of Jesus chasing the money-lenders out of the temple. “Is not the whole world God’s temple?” he asked. Has not God brought life to this planet? Hasn’t Princess Vlei been a temple for generations of users?
“Yet we have made this wonderful planet of life, this temple of God, into a den of thieves. We do everything to make money… We rape the environment, so we have rhinos facing extinction, so that people can make money. We have open-cast mining, polluting air and water and destroying the soil, all to make money.”
At the heart of the Princess Vlei story is the tale of two cities: An uncaring city driven by commercial development at the cost of social and environmental sustainability, versus a caring city that balances economic needs with long-term social and environmental health. The DA claims to be running a caring city, and its policy frameworks do embrace this vision.
But recently, city leadership seems to be ignoring its own policies. Lately, as in the case of the Wescape development, the Philippi Horticultural Area farmlands and Princess Vlei, Uitkamp at Durbanville, and the Two Rivers Urban Park at the confluence of the Black River and Liesbeek Rivers, the city’s decisions seem to favour bids for private development over community interests, even those which contradict its own policies or advice by its own professionals. This trend threatens to push us towards the first city, a city driven by short-term gain rather than long-term vision, a dangerous, uncaring city where even the privileged cannot build walls high enough to keep out the misery and anger beyond them. Social and environmental sustainability are not luxuries. A city that is not socially and environmentally sustainable is a city sowing its own seeds of destruction.
Perhaps these developments fill the city’s coffers, but they carry social and environmental costs that in the long term far outweigh whatever wealth they generate. No doubt our city’s leadership make difficult choices every day. But the decision to save Princess Vlei is not a difficult choice. The gains of another shopping mall, particularly to the disadvantaged neighbouring communities, are negligible, if they are there at all. The loss of this iconic wetland and recreational space is irretrievable and incalculable.
We should be able to trust the city to conserve these precious natural resources and communal spaces, but increasingly it is falling to civil society to defend them, sometimes at considerable cost. The struggle to save the Sea Point waterfront cost some R2.7 million, financed by generous individuals from the relatively wealthy Sea Point community. Princess Vlei, once affectionately named “Claremont Beach” is a “seafront” and traditional gathering place for the many local residents who cannot afford the transport and time to travel to the beach. Must the schoolchildren, the unemployed, the pensioners and other hard-pressed community members from around Princess Vlei struggle to raise funds for a similar court action to defend one of their few accessible recreational spaces?
In the words of Bishop Davies, “This is not just a moral issue. It is a deeply spiritual matter. How we live together – with God, one another and the rest of creation is a deeply spiritual matter. We have come because all religions call for justice and righteousness – for fairness. So we now call on the authorities to seek justice for the people and the planet. If they allow the development of a shopping mall at Princess Vlei, we know that they are bringing conflict and perpetuating injustice.”
Let us call on the city leadership to revitalise their vision of a city that cares for all, that protects the interests of the marginalised and the vulnerable, and to pursue this vision honestly, and assiduously. We owe this to our citizens, and to our children.
Mak1 is an acclaimed graffiti artist who grew up in Cafda and is passionate about Princess Vlei. Bridget Pitt interviewed him while he created this picture of the Princess....
Once I saw the Princess...
I came here this evening to represent the beautiful princess. I’ve tried to draw an image of what I think she’d look like if I ever get to meet her at the Vlei... I think I did see her when I was a kid.
My grandmother banned me to swim in the Vlei because she warned me about the mermaid that lives there and that drowns kids and I was like yeah yeah, whatever So I would swim there but close to the edge, with one leg on the shore.
But I think I did see the mermaid, although maybe it was just hunger and sun stroke It was a really hot summers day in December, in the school holidays....You know when you are playing outside time goes so slow, and you’d walk through the Vlei from Cafda... you’re nine/ten years old... so me and a bunch of my friends walked there and were swimming there amongst the reeds... I think I blacked out... I probably needed some bread!
My grandma had told us stories of this mermaid who lives in the Vlei, but my image of what a mermaid is and what I saw there was completely different. Maybe it was just a floating reed. I was young, shocked, hungry, I don’t really know what I saw... before I went home I had to stand in the sun and wait for my pants to dry, otherwise my grandmother would see that I had been swimming.
I never told my grandma about seeing the mermaid because I was not supposed to go to the Vlei without my parents.
I’ve been close to Vlei for a long time, we used to have amazing times here, growing up. We used to come and braai there... we kids would play around in the water, making baskets, you know the sort of things kids do. They had this train with a tunnel, it was such an amazing thing to go into the tunnel, it was probably only about 2 metres, but it was like who-oo... I don’t know why they took it away... it was such a lekker thing... they want to take everything away to take away the Vlei, but the Vlei still looks strong, still looks good.
The Vlei memories shone through the bad times...
The memories of growing up near the Vlei inspired me to paint. Because no matter what happened economicwise or familywise, the vlei was one place people went and had a good time, the sun would set, and I remember the fires and the braais going on, music playing, people were happy.
You knew when you went home there'd be skelling about no money for this or that, or not enough to eat, but while we were here at the vlei people had a great time. Amongst all the negatives, all the things that ill-treat a lot of people in this area, coming here to the Vlei was the one memory that shone through, and you knew if you could focus on that, you could survive, you could make it through.
The Princess has much to teach us...
They definitely should not build a mall here, it should be national park which people can appreciate without someone wanting anything back. If you go to a place that’s man-made, there is always something you have to give back, or something that they want in return. The Vlei doesn’t ask for anything... you can imagine being around here at the time of the Khoisan when the animals were roaming... so it is a link to that time. In the system we live in, everything that is given to you expects something in return, I give you this, you give something back, but the Vlei just gives joy for nothing in return... And you can teach that thing, that generosity of the vlei, to generations to come....
The Vlei can teach kids you don’t have live tied to that way, that thing that you have to step on some-one else to get what you want, if you live in community where you give without expecting something back, everyone can grow.
There is much around kids now, ... there are so many influences ... they need a space like this, they need that kind of stability offered by the Vlei.
Not just the kids, the old people too, when they come here they can remember being kids, remember being being barefoot ...You need to walk barefoot, to be close to the ground you walk on, close to your heritage. But you can’t walk barefoot in a mall, if you have no shoes you’re not allowed in.
On his painting...
My design here is influenced by what you find in nature, like the lines on leaves and the contour lines, the lines of tadpoles in the mud, so I feel this encompasses how I imagine the Princess, and its also linked to the imagery of Khoisan Rock paintings. The blue is the sky and the water, the other colours are earth colours. I used spiritual colours to show the connection through earth. I’ve painted it on a groundsheet, so its got footprints and whatever marks were on it.
I’m just painting what I feel about the place, without being too cheesy - you want to keep youth interested so you have to find ways to talk about it, don’t want to go too off too far.
On growing up...
I grew up in Cafda. My Mom’s family is from Steenberg, my Dad is from Cafda, we eventually moved to Mitchell’s Plain although we waited ten years for a house there ... in travelling between these areas, you got to see a lot of different neighbourhoods.
So I was kind of stuck between the two families... you know, in Cafda they drink beer, Steenberg they drink tea. Dad is very Khoisan looking, my Mom more English, with long English hair. At one time my Dad was actually banned from my mom by the family...
When I grew up, my hair was crew cut, that was the order of the day, no matter what you said, jou hare moet kort wees... At one stage my mom made her hair into an afro with curlers and a perm, but my dad could only grow an afro.
A remember my grandmother in the kitchen ironing her hair for church... she'd put brown paper over it... I can still remember the smell of the hair burning... that was before WELLA came in. When WELLA came in the whole house smelt... you’d be like, who died? All these weird things we took to because of the system.
The politicians have claimed that Princess Vlei is not a well used space. Perhaps they would have changed their mind if they’d come on Heritage day, and seen the hundreds of picnickers who’d come to celebrate the holiday in the traditional manner, with a braai at the vlei. And all of them were not impressed with the plans to build a mall on the vlei.
People came from all over the peninsula to enjoy the sunshine, open space, and gleaming stretch of water beneath the benign gaze of the Elephants Eye. One family reunion had over 150 members.
“We come here because it is central – we come from Hanover Park, Lavender Hill, Steenberg, Mannenberg...” A family member told us.
“I was baptised here when I was nine years old, now I am 45.”
“This the only place we have were we can come together and stand together,” an elderly family member from Lotus River said. “We are poor people, what must we do to keep this place?
A 67 year old man from Delft said that he came all the way here because this is a nature park, and he likes to watch the birds.
“We won’t allow people to take the vlei over, nobody will take it over look at the creation we have here, God gave it to us, it is not the government, God gave it to us, no shopping mall will be erected here, the rich just want to get richer, they want to kill the birds breeding here.
“I don’t want to see a building here... we need a park with trees and place for children to play. Zeekovlei is not safe, but here it is safe because you can see the place from the road.”
Roger Nel from Westlake said: “They can’t build a mall here, we don’t have enough recreational areas for our people. This is nice for the family and the children. It is safe here and close to home. The Mayor is forgetting the people ... there is democracy but you don’t have a say in what you want. The mayor has a big house, but we don’t... this is for our children. This must stay a nice happy recreational area for our kids and for ourselves. This has been our place for so long... how can they take it away and do this to our children? If any politician wants the coloured vote then they will not take Princess Vlei away from us.
“A mall is not necessary and will kill the other businesses here ... it doesn’t make business sense. Retreat road also has an array of business... they will bring a monopoly.”
His wife agreed. “We must all stick together... we must stand together on this, this is our children’s future... no one can take this land. God is on our side, if we pray together and stay together they will not take this place away ... this is the land of God, they do not have the right to build a supermarket here”
Pastor Ray from the Gospel Ministers Centre said “This is a nice calm safe place for your children, they must use the money rather to build a playground and add more toilets ...this is a nice place for children to meet their friends, there is no crime here.”
A 62 year old woman from Grassy Park said, “I used to bring my kids here when they were little babies, when you come from work you are so tired, but this is a place you can bring children, you can relax. This how I raised my children – we used to watch the baptisms here on weekend. Now I come here with my grandchildren
“I don’t agree with a shopping mall, then there will be no place for us to come... They are taking away our heritage. This is where I was raised, I want to pass it on to my children and grandchildren. This place has been standing for how many years, if they must put up a mall, what will happen to our heritage? This is very unfair, they must leave Princess Vlei the way it is, they shouldn’t take it away from us. We’ve all grown up here and come to love this place. They must leave it for our children.”
Another 55 year old woman from Grassy Park said: “Sometimes I take a walk here, if there is no transport, I can just come down here, I have been coming every Sunday since I was three years old. If they build a mall, where will we go? There are not rich people in the area, here you can just pack you bags and walk down here.”
Perhaps the message of the people is best summed up by young Ziya from Lotus Primary: “I enjoyed my day here and we don’t want yous to build a mall because the children have fun and play here”