There was something quite magical at Princess Vlei on 22 July, when over forty friends, family and community volunteers came together to honour the memory of George Davis.
George was a founding member of the Princess Vlei Forum, and had been involved in the Dressing the Princess project to restore indigenous vegetation at Princess Vlei from 2008, four years before before the Forum was launched. He also served on the Forum's management committee for 2 years, and together with Laurence Dworkin created a powerful documentary about the Princess Vlei project. He died in February this year, after a long illness.
Stacey Stent, George's life partner, spoke about George's passionate commitment to the conservation of Princess Vlei, as well as the many other conservation projects that he was involved in. "I have observed a common element in all his work, which was his concern that humans sustain a positive balance with the environment, so that they do not present a threat to biodiversity."
Stacey quoted an interview with George, in which he said, “Humans need to be listened to when they want to live cooperatively with their environment, and humans who don’t want to need to stand back and listen.”
While it is traditional to plant trees to honour those who have passed on, George was passionate about fynbos - and so it was appropriate that we were planting proteas and watsonias. About 15 species and 500 plants were put in the ground. Amongst these were 25 Aristea dichotima, a plant once flourishing at Princess Vlei but not seen since 1910. This plant will not be seen at Rondevlei or further south, as these vleis are too salty.
Also honoured in the planting was Father John Oliver, who died ten years ago in July 2013. Like George, Father John was a founding member of the Princess Vlei Forum, who was instrumental in setting up the organisaiton. He too was passionately committed to saving the Vlei from commercial development.
It was a bright sunny day, a relief after all rain. The planting was greatly enhanced by the beautiful harmonies of volunteers from the Centre for Creative Education, who invited the other planters to join in the chorus of “Stand bright in your corner, where you are.”
George and John both “shone bright in their corners”, and their brightness continues to shine at Princess Vlei. It shines in the plants, birds and insects that flourish in the space where a mall was planned, and in the many children and community members who gather to enjoy the beauty, and to plant and nurture fynbos each year. We greatly miss them, but their spirit lives on.
By Gary Stewart
It was with great sadness that we heard of Bennie Rabinowitz’s untimely death earlier on this year on May 9. Bennie was a long term supporter of the Princess Vlei Forum and the campaign to stop the all development of the banks of the vlei.
He was a man of seeming contradictions, at once being a wealthy property developer, whilst also funding and actively campaigning to preserve numerous treasured public open spaces around Cape Town, including Princess Vlei. Notably, he was Chairperson of Seafront for All (SEAFA) which successfully campaigned to protect the Sea Point Pavilion from commercial development, and also funded the challenge to the Oudekraal development which preserved Muslim burial sites on the Atlantic seaboard.
Bennie supported the Princess Vlei campaign in the very early days, in particular providing legal support to challenge the city’s proposal to build the mall. His involvement was an essential driver in keeping the mall development at bay, whilst the campaign mobilised public support, putting political pressure on the city to eventually withdraw the mall development proposal.
As a young man he studied at UCT, and was award the very prestigious Rhodes scholarship to do postgraduate study at Oxford. Later in life he would use his affluent position which his education had afforded him to fund a number of students’ pursuit of higher education.
He was an early funder of the Weekly Mail, the pre-cursor of today’s Mail and Guardian newspaper, when such activity put him at odds with the dominant Apartheid state. As the society changed, he engaged the local political establishment, being unafraid to challenge them when he thought they went astray.
Bennie loved to invite members from his very wide circle of friends and associates to lunches at the Cape Town Press Club, or dinners a good local restaurant, particularly his beloved Mario’s in Green Point, and would happily chat about local gossip, civic issues and also the big social and political issues of the day. He took great pride in his social activism and had an undeniable generosity of spirit.
He could so very easily have spent his life in the bubble where many fortunate people find themselves. But he went beyond his comfortable life and actively sought to improve the lives of many around Cape Town in countless ways.
Bennie chose his own path. He chose to fully pursue the opportunities which life had accrued to him and then use his position to better understand the society around him, using the resources at his disposal to actively improve the society in a meaningful way.
Bennie’s was a life well lived. He is sorely missed.
‘My name is Ziah Booysen … my experience here was very interesting as I have always wanted to know more about plants. Ever since I starting coming to Princess Vlei I fell in love with plants… It’s nice to actually learn more about nature.’
Ziah is one of 30 learners from Levana Primary and Lotus High who braved the cold and rain to do planting in our new restoration plot on the Northern shore (Briana Extension). This area of Princess Vlei has the right soil to restore critically endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos which is critically endangered because urban development has destroyed most of the areas where it can grow.
The learners were planting twelve bags of seeds which had been collected and prepared by Alex Lansdowne and his restoration team. The seeds included Protea scolymocephala, Protea Rebens, and mix of annuals. Altogether, about 100 litres of seed were put in the ground. The seeds were protected by branches arranged in circles, called ‘arrays’.
Restoration consultant Alex Lansdowne explained to the learners: ‘My team and I collected a whole lot of seeds from grasses and proteas and Ericas, and put them in a tent. Then we made a big fire. We took the smoke from the fire and pushed the smoke through a pipe in to the tent. So we tricked the seeds into thinking that there’s a fire. Because fynbos seeds need fire. If there is no fire, they don’t grow.
‘If we plant the seeds now, by December the will be only this big. And in December we will be in the middle a hot and dry summer. Now imagine if you are a tiny little plant, and you have those hot dry winds in February, you will die. If you grow plants in your garden you’ll water them in summer, but we can’t water these because they are wild plants. So we are going to help the plant by building a shelter for them called an array… so that next summer, when it is hot and dry, the plants will have a little bit of shade, and if there is a little bit of rain the array will help to catch it
In all twelve bags there are probably about a million seeds of about twelve different species.’
The learners worked in groups to scatter the seeds, rake them into the soil very carefully to avoid plants that had been planted by other learners on June 2. They then gathered branches and leaves from the eucalyptus trees which had been felled on site to enable restoration, and used these to create the sheltering ‘arrays’.
Altogether, twelve of these arrays were created by the learners.
While the Levana students were busy with this, the Lotus High learners gathered with Lisakhanya Mathiso and Ruby Sampson from the African Climate Alliance, to learn about the climate and other environmental crises facing us, and how young people can get involved. This is what Ruby and Lisa said about this discussion:
‘We started off discussing what the students knew about climate change and environmental issues, and how the climate crisis effects their everyday lives. There was a deep discussion about climate issues and solutions; from flooding in Cape Town because of the recent storms, to the restoration of ecosystems through planting trees and indigenous plants (which they were doing later that day). The group discussed the possibile renewable energy solutions for South Africa; such as solar, wind, water/hydro and even nuclear power.
‘We also spoke about the strain that the climate crisis can take on the mental health of young people, with the weight of solving it on their shoulders. After this heavy conversation we all jumped up and began a fun game about gratitude, by sharing the thing that brings them the most joy in life - and we had a good laugh! The session ended in reflection, where the students shared personal experiences, finding strength and comfort in each other.’
After this session, the Lotus High learners also planted out the seeds and created sheltering arrays for them.
Huge thanks to the learners and teachers of Levana Primary and Lotus High, the African Climate Alliance, and Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust managed by Nedbank Private Wealth, the Kirstenbosch branch of the Botanical Society and the Botanical Educational trust, for supporting our restoration and educational work.
Huge thanks also to Gill Palm Taylor of Briana Crescent, who helped us with hot water for the learners' hot chocolate after one of our flasks broke.
It's wonderful to be able to give a home to wild plants which have lost theirs. This is what thirty-one Princess Vlei Guardians from Lotus High and Rosmead Primary did on June 2, as they replanted sedges and grasses which had been rescued from a field in Muizenberg. The plants would otherwise have been bulldozed to make way for a sports field for a school. Species included Hellmuthia, Ficinia and Ehrharta.
In addition to these, 22 Psoralea glaucina (Blouteebossie) and 250 Anthospermum aethiopicum were planted. The Psoralea glaucina is on the red list of endangered South African plants.
The guardians were working at our newly established Briana Extension restoration site.This site was created earlier this year by clearing several small invasive eucalyptus gum trees, with the help of Top Fell tree fellers, sponsored by the Kirstenbosch Branch of the Botanical Society. It is impossible to grow fynbos under gum trees due to their allelopathic properties. Felling the trees will enable us to restore the critically endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos that would nave naturally occurred there before human interference.
An additional 35 species will now be reintroduced to this area, of which at least 5 are on the Red List of Threatened Plants. We will also plant indigenous Keurbooms (Virgillia oroboides) which would have naturally occurred in this landscape. Clearing of these trees will benefit the hydrological and soil health of the broader site and the adjacent wetland.
This is what some of the learners said about their experience:
We’re planting indigenous plants to save animals and birds so that we have a better world. We like animals and birds and plants because they are part of our nature, they are part of our history (Bazile Nkoyi, Onitha Wgangafu, Mihlali and Linomtha, Rosmead Primary)
I am planting to create a good ecosystem (Lamla Mabhoynua, Rosmead Primary)
I am digging holes for the plants to give their roots space to grow longer so that we can have a healthy environment. If we didn’t have a healthy environment the earth would no be so beautiful and you wouldn’t have oxygen to breath. Fresh plants for Fresh air! (Noliwe Nduru, Rosmead Primary)
I’m planting plants because they are special and they also have a right to live and we need to save nature
Today we are rebuilding Princess Vlei from all the breakdowns it had, we are just trying to help it and plant fynbos and to help the environment and all life on earth. Out oxygen comes from plants, so if we don’t have plants we are going to die (Bradwell Harvey, Lotus high).
I’m here to day to rebuild princess vlei because of the damage that people caused here from dumping and all that … I want to restore Princess Vlei because I love plants (Ziah Booysen Lotus high
‘We will promise to keep you safe. We must stop hunting them and polluting the water and air
Don’t cut down trees because it is where most of them live
Protect the birds from danger and preserve biodiversity, and make the eco system stronger
Protect the birds because they are vital to our ecosystem. Stop pollution, it is hurting our birds.’
These simple but far-reaching messages were expressed by our young ‘time travellers’ who visited Princess Vlei from 2123. Thirty-eight learners, from Levana, Harmony and Rosmead Primary Schools, took part in the imaginative game, where they were 'time-travellers' from 100 years in the future, from a world where birds had been driven to extinction. Their task was to find out about birds: what they needed, what threatened them, and how to protect them to ensure that they did not go extinct.
The time travellers were met by the ‘Spirit Guide’ (aka Bridget), a spirit with wisdom gathered from all the ages, who told them how the first indigenous people who lived near Princess Vlei lived in harmony with nature and looked after the plants, the insects and the birds. ‘So we must learn from the wisdom of the indigenous people, and keep searching for ways to live in harmony with earth and other creatures.’
The Supreme Time Lord (Brendan Bussy) explained that to the learners that they had travelled from a world where everything was different, and Princess Vlei was just concrete with no birds, insects or plants. Their important mission was to discover everything they could about birds, and to craft messages for the people of 2023 to ensure that there were still birds in 2123.
He warned them that they had to come running back to the time travelling ship when they heard the siren (a vuvuzela) as if they didn’t get through the time portal before it closed, they would be stuck in 2023
The time travellers made many observations to help them understand birds better. A highlight for many were the two Gymnogenes, or African Harrier Hawks, spotted in the gum trees near the Jolly Carp.
They also noticed many things that could hurt birds, such as “garbage that people leave behind. Birds think its food and eat it and then they get sick and die.”
Reflecting afterwards, learners said they would be sad to live in a world without birds because
They are majestic creatures
There won’t be any lovely bird songs to wake me up
They are cute
They are a national animal and their colours make us happy
They are part of the environment and they make biodiversity more complimentary and beautiful
They provide food and keep the ecosystem flowing
Autumn and winter are the planting seasons at Princess Vlei - and we have certainly had some great rain to help the plants along. Here are two of the planting events ...
Earth Day Planting
Seven Earth enthusiasts gathered on Earth Day, April 22 to ‘kick off’ this year’s planting season at Princess Vlei. The volunteers, assisted by Neil and the restoration team, braved the rain and cold to plant 300 plants and bulbs, and 800 oxalis seeds, in the Briana Crescent restoration plot on the Northern Shore. This plot has acidic sandy soil, allowing us to restore critically endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos.
The following plants were put in the ground.
On May 4, 46 learners from Floreat, Levana, Harmony and Lotus gathered to plant in the seep area between Princess Vlei and Little Princess. In 2021, community volunteers helped to clear alien trees from this seasonal seep between the two vleis. Within months, the area started coming back to life, with many indigenous species now being given space to grow. Recently, a new Red List species, Psoralea repens, was discovered there.
The learners were adding to the biodiversity in the area by planting over 200 Elegia Nuda, as well as Psoralea glaucoma, Erica subdivaricata, Erica Verticillata and Berzelia abrotaoides. The elegia nuda are part of the restio family. There are 480 species in the restio family - and 330 grow in the Cape Floristic Kingdom. They are very helpful plants, offering shelter to seedlings, a hunting ground for chameleons which can easily hold onto the slender stems, and food for small rodents.
“I am a dragonfly, and invertebrate insect. I eat insect larvae, tadpoles and dragonfly nymphs. I spend about two years under water, and breathe through gills in our backside. While we are still living under water, we need water and plants.”
This was the observation of one group of the 120 Floreat Grade Six learners, who came to explore Princess Vlei in April. The learners were divided into three focus activities, and rotated through the following activities:
Before they went out hunting, they were reminded that they were visitors to the home of the creatures at Princess Vlei, and were reminded to:
The canoeing was a highlight, as most of them had never had an opportunity to be on the water in a boat before. The Andrew, Jen and Jason from Gravity Adventures ensured that they had a safe and happy experience.
In the fynbos treasure hunt, learners used their observational skills to spot treasures such as a creature that started life as a caterpillar but is now something else, a creature who uses its legs to sing, a seed that can fly, something that does not belong in the fynbos eco-system. They were also asked to find their own treasure. Treasures they found included a ‘a yellow flower with lots of plants around it’ and ‘a large black and white feather’.
In the habitat hunt, learners were invited to explore the water and surrounds from the perspective of one of Princess Vlei’s creatures which interact strongly with the water. We gave them information on a dragonfly, a kingfisher, and leopard toad, but one group chose a fish and made some intelligent deductions from their own observations about what a fish might need in its habitat, and whether Princess Vlei provided for this.
The learners enjoyed catching fish to study for the project, and were particularly taken with a large carp which the caught. On one of the days, a local fisherman showed them an even larger carp, which was later released.
All learners identified plastic pollution, of which there is sadly far too much at Princess Vlei, as a threat to their species.
Teachers reported that the learners had a wonderful time, and were very inspired by the experience. We hope to host them again soon.
Thanks to Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust managed by Nedbank Private Wealth for supporting our educational programs.
"We saw a stick insect and grasshoppers and a tiny Western Leopard Toad”
This was reported by our thirty young wetland explorers at the Princess Vlei Forum’s Wetland Wizard event on 7 March. The learners, from Buck Road Primary in Lotus River and Hillwood Primary in Lavender Hill, came to Princess Vlei to find out what creatures live in the wetland, and what is needed to create a safe habitat where they can thrive.
The young wizards were invited to transport themselves into the minds of different creatures who live in the wetlands - a galilule, a masked weaver, a chameleon, a dragon fly, a Western Leopard Toad - and to explore whether the area would offer them food and shelter.
The wizards were reminded to pledge to the creatures of the vlei to treat them with care and respect and release them quickly after examining them. They went out to explore, equipped with nets and sample boxes. They discovered many creatures, including dragonflies; a large stick insect; tadpole, small fish, a carp that had been caught by the fisherman. And, most magical of all, a tiny leopard toad with beautiful markings, not much bigger than a fingernail.
After completing their exploration, the wizards concluded that the wetland would offer a good habitat for these creatures, but there were some dangers, including plastic pollution and litter.
A week later, the wizards were back, this time at the Princess Vlei Eco-centre. Hillwood couldn’t make it, but we had some wetland enthusiasts from Harmony Primary in Retreat to join the Buck Road team. We explored how in wetlands, as in any eco-system, leaves form the foundation of the life. We discussed how leaves can convert sunlight into food through the process of photosynthesis. This idea was used to inspire artworks in which learners created beautiful images with leaf rubbings. They used wax-crayon for the rubbings, and dye to colour over. This gave them an experience of texture, colour and composition.
Once again Nature and Art teamed up with the Forum to give these learners a beautiful, wholistic and creative experience. Thanks to Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust managed by Nedbank Private wealth for funding part of our education program.
The Princess Vlei community has been greatly saddened by the loss of George Davis, who passed away on 27 February this year after a long illness.
George was a founding member of the Princess Vlei Forum in 2012, but his involvement in Princess Vlei goes back to 2008. In this year, while working at SANBI, he assisted Kelvin Cochrane in launching the Dressing the Princess initiative. This project was a partnership between the CoCT, Cochrane and SANBI, to restore indigenous fynbos at Princess Vlei, thereby (in Cochrane’s words) restoring dignity to the vlei and the people it served.
George served on the Princess Vlei Forum management committee for two years, and on the World Design Capital subcommittee, which made a successful bid for a community design project at Princess Vlei. He offered a helpful hand at all Forum events, and documented much or its work on camera. After his retirement from SANBI in 2012, he worked as an associate on the CareTakers Project, a documentary film project that was a partnership between STEPS and SANBI. The CareTaker series focused on the connection between people and the environment. As part of this series, George created Dressing the Princess, which narrates the efforts to restore Princess Vlei and save it from a shopping mall development.
Siya Myeza, who worked with George on creating a film based in Niewoudtville, said at George’s memorial service, ‘The environment and the people are intertwined, and you need gentle eyes and a very listening ear and quite an inquisitive mind to unpack those stories meaningfully, not in an extractive way, but in a way that brings dignity, that surfaces the nuances and histories that are embedded in the mountains and the people who stay there. George managed to do this.’
George well understood the intertwining of people and the environment, and was a pioneer in evolving a community based approach to conservation in South Africa. His work at SANBI was initially focussed on botanical ecophysiology and ecosystems research, but became increasingly focussed on urban ecology and other systems in which humans are a significant factor. His work included implementing the Working for Wetlands initiative to restore wetlands in Cape Town.
As far back as 1991, George was part of a forward thinking group of individuals who founded the Environmental Monitoring Group, and he continued his involvement with it for 25 years. The EMG sought a vision for conservation which moved beyond fencing off natural areas for the benefit of the wealthy and privileged, and connected to an emerging global movement of environmental rights. This vision saw environmental policy that was people-centred and rights-based, which would enable communities to engage with the natural world around them, not just to extract resources, but to benefit from its spiritual and restorative power.
George was also a member of the Project Advisory Group to guide Cape Flats Nature. This organisation, created through a partnership with the CoCT and SANBI, recognised that natural spaces located in the economically challenged areas of the Cape Flats needed to develop an approach to conservation which enabled communities to actively engage in protected natural spaces and to benefit from them. As part of his work George assisted in the writing and production of Growing Together, a guide to community-based conservation in urban areas.
George is remembered by all who knew him as a humble, deep-thinking man, a good listener, a visionary, always willing to help, with a McGyver-like capacity to find innovative solutions for technical challenges. He was a scientist, an activist, an artist, writer, musician, photographer, and filmmaker. His legacy will live on in his films, in his stories, in the many projects he initiated, and the many hearts he touched. He will be sorely missed.
Princess Vlei is a good and safe place for toads to live.
This was the finding of young toad explorers from Buck Road Primary, Harmony Primary and Levana Primary, who came to Princess Vlei on a field trip to investigate what toads need to live well, and to breed. The explorers looked out for insects that the toads might eat, and for plants that would attract insects and give the toads somewhere to hide. They explored the water creatures, including small fish, tadpoles and water beetles. They used nets to catch them and study them briefly before returning them to the water. They made note of threats to the toads, such as predatory birds, plastic pollution, and cars to migrating toads.
A highlight of the field trip was the opportunity to explore Princess Vlei by water, thanks to Gravity Adventures who gave the learners a safe but exciting experience of canoeing.
A week later, the toad explorers met again at Harmony School Hall. They created their own toads and tadpoles out of clay, and painted habitats for them on paper plates, making sure to include everything the toads and tadpoles need such as water, insects, reeds, and other plants.
'I painted the sky, the mountains, the reeds that’s in the water, birds, plants and insects for it to eat,’ Caitlin Castle of Buck Road Primary told us. Christopher Jackson, also form Buck Rd, introduced us to his toad called Michael Blackstone; Patience Majuni, from Harmony Primary, created a tadpole called Young Piggy.
Encouraging the learners to explore the vlei from the perspective of a toad, and to later sculpt and create a story around their toads, nurtures their curiosity and creativity. It enables them to look at the world with more than human eyes, and to understand that all living creatures need a safe place to live with food and shelter.
Thanks to Gravity Adventures, the teachers and Harmony Primary School for hosting us, and Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust managed by Nedbank Private Wealth for supporting our educational work.
Posts by Bridget Pitt unless stated otherwise.