How Princess Vlei was saved from mall development
March 22 was a historic day for Princess Vlei – the day the city finally declared that it would not sell off this iconic public space.
This was reported in the Saturday Argus on the morning of our planned Day of Action and Celebration, where deputy mayor Ian Neilson would later confirm this announcement.
We could not help feeling, as we battled a howling north wind while trying to set up our stalls for the event, that the vlei could have shown a bit more gratitude – offered us some placid, sparkling water, a soft breeze and warm sunshine, instead of white horses scudding a grey surface and flapping banners and gazebos being whipped out of our hands.
But then again, the winds of change are inevitably tempestuous, and the Princess always seems to have a mind of her own.
As the day proceeded, it became something of a microcosm of the 10-year campaign to save the vlei. Huge passion, creativity and vision, some political opportunism, some no-shows and some unexpected guests, a marching band, some kids’ karate, an elderly resident insisting that a huge monster came out of the vlei when she was a child, some chaos and some perfect orchestration, some undersung heroes and some overblown rhetoric, and lots and lots of people just quietly getting on with the event… in other words, all the erratic, wayward but ultimately transformative forces that occasionally come together behind a common vision of our city and remind us that Cape Town is home to all of us.
Cape Town has a history of fighting for its natural and public spaces, but the Princess Vlei campaign had two points that distinguished it. First, the space has been compromised by years of abuse and neglect. Second, the diversity of those who threw their weight behind the campaign was extraordinary – street dwellers and millionaires, schoolchildren and octogenarians, environmentalists and shopkeepers, artists and artisans, all political parties, Rastafarians, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews… It is in these two aspects that the campaign has much to teach us about citizenship, social change and city governance.
The first striking lesson the campaign illustrated was the power of vision. It has been a campaign driven by imagination, by the capacity of those to see beyond the littered shoreline, to recognise the natural life that still breathes in the soil and the waters, to recognise the value of the history and the tremendous potential of the site to build connections between nature and people.
The spark for the campaign was lit by the vision of local resident Kelvin Cochrane, who had transformed wastelands around his home into fynbos sanctuaries. Cochrane recognised the power of fynbos restoration to not only breathe life back into urban wastelands, but to restore dignity and social cohesion to embattled communities. Cochrane’s vision for Princess Vlei was compelling, but it would have remained a pipe dream had it not struck a chord in the local community.
Many people cared about Princess Vlei and remembered it positively. But what had to be overcome was a widespread apathy, a sense of helplessness, nurtured by centuries of being marginalised. People needed not only to want to save the vlei, but to believe that it was possible. Cochrane’s initial Bottom Rd Sanctuary project was an important demonstration of what could be done with slow, systematic intervention.
Thus the campaign to save Princess Vlei began not in the courtroom or municipal offices, but in the soil, beside the water, and it began not with placards but with planting. Planting was a moving experience for all who participated, particularly for the many teenagers and children. They handled the earth in a literal and tactile way, and made a long-term investment – unusual experiences in our denatured world driven by the mantra of immediate gratification. Five years on, those seedlings have flourished into small enclaves of fynbos, offering a glimpse of what the vlei could become, just as the vision and passion for what the vlei could be has flourished in the minds of those who planted.
The campaign grew, people were mobilised and to their credit the city council listened and effectively declined the mall proposal by refusing to extend the rezoning in 2011. This was overturned by a provincial minister – only for the campaign to roll out again, both fortified by the first victory and rendered more militant by the betrayal.
By now the vision had grown, and imagination was driving the campaign. People were striving not just to stop a mall, but to beautify, honour and enhance both the physical space at Princess Vlei and the intangible site of memory and heritage that it represented. Expressed as the People’s Plan, this vision became the basis of an ongoing conversation and engagement, as people occupied the space, used it widely and creatively and allowed themselves to dream of possibilities. Through this engagement, Princess Vlei became a metaphor for many things, a repository of memory, history, culture, holding out the possibility of healing for some of the schisms that have riven our society. As such, it became a symbol of hope.
Awareness grew rapidly as people all over the world became fascinated by this struggle. Thousands signed petitions and sent messages of support, although the numbers who actually came to the vlei at any one time to plant, to pray or create were relatively small. Yet those few had an impact hugely disproportionate to their numbers. As if they’d been entrusted by others to be the guardians of an important impulse within our city, of the drive towards a kinder society that is more environmentally and socially sustainable; that those who can’t afford their own gardens have a particularly pressing need for access to free natural and beautiful spaces; that we all need these common spaces to find our common citizenship.
The experience of this campaign testifies to the power of these shared public spaces as markers of our common identity as citizens. It demonstrates the power of vision in igniting passion, but also the importance of this vision being shared, being negotiated and being collectively embraced. Those for the mall had a vision too, but it was not a vision that resonated with communities. And it tells us that social change is not only effected by demonstrations or powerful people; it can be brought about by people looking out their window, seeing something that needs improving, and getting on and doing it.
For our leaders, it is a lesson in the need to listen and to pay attention. The city speaks the language of ‘public participation’, but often this is tokenism and rubber-stamping. The politicians get nervous about people having too much say because they will be quick to point out hypocrisy and opportunism. City officials get nervous because people can be demanding and complicated and not understand the rules.
But lively civic participation is Cape Town’s only defence against the scale of social and environmental challenges facing us. It is all too easy for those in power to sacrifice long-term social interests for short-term political gain, as we have seen with the Sea Point waterfront, with the Philippi Horticultural Areas, with Princess Vlei, it is the vigilance of the citizens that has drawn attention to the risk posed to these areas by short-sighted expedience and greed.
The city has changed its slogan from ‘This City works for you’ to ‘Making progress possible. Together’. This is a meaningless slogan if the city does not find ways of working transparently and accountably with all communities. To make it meaningful, the leadership needs to meet people halfway, support those working for the long-term good of the city and put political expedience aside. They should be flexible enough to change course if a proposal they have come up with is not what people want. They should not be patronising or suspicious, but willing to discuss difficult choices and complex problems openly and trust in the wisdom of collective solutions.
For much of the last year, we have felt that no one was listening – we were denied meetings with anyone in the city, including councillors, yet Neilson has told us that the decision to stop the mall was made a year ago. For some reason it was felt that speaking to us would compromise their discussions with the developer and yet their conversations with the developer were ongoing. Surely some way needs to be found to enable better channels of communication between the city and the citizens?
And a final lesson to be learnt by all of us, in particular our political leaders, is about value. Commercial value is highly prized in our society. Often it is punted as being of benefit to all, because it will bring jobs and wealth that will supposedly ‘trickle down’ to the poor. But as the divisions between wealthy and poor grow steadily, and as the trickle to the poor dries to a drip or nothing, while the flood to the wealthy expands, this argument is losing its currency.
A Princess Vlei left unmalled, cared for, restored and made accessible in appropriate ways to the community has a value that far exceeds the commercial profit generated by a shopping centre, a value that benefits and will continue to benefit thousands. The benefits of social cohesion, mental health and environmental sustainability are harder to quantify in monetary terms, but they are critical to the wellbeing of a city. And the more the social and environmental health of a city is compromised, the more it will cost us now and in the future. It is perhaps a testament to good leadership if this value has now been recognised, but it should never have been in question.
A considerable investment has been made by the schoolchildren and others who have planted at Princess Vlei, by those who have donated long hours of labour and resources, by those who have funded legal counsel, and yet the only investment mentioned by the city is the investment made by the developer. Had the mall gone ahead, the community investment would not have been recompensed, yet Neilson has made it clear that the developer will be compensated from the public purse.
So a lesson for our leaders is to recognise the value of public spaces, the value of natural resources and the massive and critical value of active, passionate and visionary citizenship.
The decision by the city not to go ahead with the development may be political expedience or it may be that the city has indeed listened – and has accorded value to these intangibles. Or perhaps, as with all human endeavour, it is a bit of both. But even if it is political expedience, it is our democratic voice that has made it expedient for them to listen and that in itself is a reason to celebrate. Neilson has expressed the city’s willingness to work with communities on the transformation of Princess Vlei. This is an excellent opportunity for the city to forge ways of working with citizens, without tokenism and expedience, and we look forward to being part of that engagement.
We would like to pay tribute to those civic leaders (and we know there are many) who were always in our corner, and to the thousands who rallied in different ways to our cause.
Let’s savour this victory, and use it as a platform to transform not only Princess Vlei, but also our city, wherever it is needed.
Author of Unbroken Wing and The Unseen Leopard.
She has written a book for the South African National Biodiversity Institute on urban nature conservation and works with initiatives to build communities through nature conservation. This article was written on behalf of the Princess Vlei Forum