‘I tell my children the story of the Princess as a bed time story, I want to bring them here just so that they are grounded, and grounded in their heritage.’ Emile Jansen.
Getting grounded in our heritage was literally what our planting on Mandela Day was all about, when twenty-five people came together to create a heritage garden at Princess Vlei.
The plants are to bring companionship to three trees that were planted there four years ago to honour three strong women significant to our KhoeKhoe heritage: The unnamed Princess in the legend of Princess Vlei; Saartjie Baartman, and Krotoa. All of these women suffered abuse at the hands of invading coloniser forces, as indigenous people and as women. All of them left a powerful legacy of the spirit of resistance that endures against hardship and oppression.
The tree planted in honour of the princess is of particular significance, as it is a sapling of the ‘Treaty tree,’ a 500 year old Milkwood in Woodstock which was:
Emile Jansen is a founding member of the Forum, and performed at the first big protest event hosted by the Forum ten years ago on June 16, 2012. His organisation, Heal the Hood, works to encourage children from areas such as Lavender Hill and Retreat to learn about and develop pride in their Khoe heritage, through his work with Heal the hood. This project uses hip hop, music and dance to develop a strong sense of identity and self-confidence in local youth. Emile is also leader of the Mixed Mense group, which composed the song ‘Cry me a river’ to tell the story of the struggle against the proposed mall at Princess Vlei.‘
'We must keep working to realise our vision for Princess Vlei, because it is one of the few success stories of the people standing up against a mall.… It’s ironic, because the colonialists came here to build a refreshment station, then they wanted to build a mall here at Princess Vlei, now they are trying to build a virtual mall [the proposed Amazon development on the Liesbeeck] …We have to invest in these struggles for our children.. young people need to realise that our role in nature is to let it be, and to assist it to revitalise itself.’
Another person with deep roots of connection to the vlei is Anthony Martin, who was there with his two grandchildren.
‘My grandfather used to irrigate his gardens from this very vlei,’ Anthony told us, ‘and he grew quite a few crops, potatoes, carrots, peas, until the council wanted grounds to build that caravan park, and he had to vacate the area…My aunt told me how they used to bundle up the crops and sell them to the community, even the people from the other side of the track used to come and buy They also had a few milk cows here and made their own cheese and butter….
‘I was born in that house, which was built in the old style of masonry, no bricks. We were one of the last houses with thatch in this area. We moved to Steenberg when I was three to a council house, but I carried on visiting the house. I would sleep in the pantry because it was one of the coolest places… I wish we had known more about this history, and how connected we are to this part of the world, even to the soil itself.’
Mandela Day was another expression of how Princess Vlei is more than just a community of plants and animals, it is a community of people, whose lives, identities and histories are interwoven with the other species that live there. It offers us a vision of how we can live in the world where we recognise our kinship and interdependency – with each other, with the birds, the insects, the chameleons, the otters and the beautiful and generous fynbos that sustained us for millennia.
“The biggest threat facing our youth is the destruction of our planet. By coming here today, you are making an investment in the earth, and building a future for our young people”
Bridget Pitt, Deputy Chair of the Princess Vlei Forum, greeted the forty people who came to plant fynbos at Princess Vlei on June 16 2022 with these words.
Pitt went on to explain that the plot where they would be planting had a complicated history, like Princess Vlei itself. In July 2020, Forum volunteers and community members, together with the Kirstenbosch branch of the Botanical Society, came out of lock down to plant over 5 000 plant units onto the site, bringing it from a biodiversity of 4 species to over 40.
This was the culmination of several months work by the Forum restoration and botanical team. After extensive research into what vegetation had once naturally grown at Princess Vlei, the team created a five-year restoration plan, and sourced and cultivated plants for the site from seed or cuttings.
By May 2021, these plants were flourishing and most had survived. Then disaster struck: an operator contracted by the City to clear water hyacinth destroyed two hundred metres of shoreline, and eradicated two-thirds of the restoration site, burying it under piles of sludge and hyacinth extracted from the vlei.
Since then, the City has been working with the Forum to repair the damage. On June 16, the City provided 670 plants of 10 different species to plant in the area. While this could not return the site to the condition it was in before it was destroyed, Pitt said it was an important gesture from the City that was appreciated by the Forum, and was part of building a relationship of trust and collaboration that was essential to enable the community to participate meaningfully in the restoration and governance of fragile ecosystems in the city.
The Forum also aknowledged the City officials and counsellors who came to assist with the planting. Among these were Teboho Maliehe, Luyanda Mjuleni, Sihle Jonas, Ashton Mouton and Asanda Mdladlamba, and Cllr Kevin Southgate. Cllr Southgate has long been a champion of the the Princess Vlei, even before he was a councillor. On behalf of the Forum, Emma Oliver thanked them for coming, and for their contribution to the refreshments.
Another significant person at the planting was Nikita January-Johnson. Nikita first became involved as a school learner from Lotus High in 2012. Many of the plants now flourishing at the Vlei were planted by Nikita and her classmates, as a form of protest against the planned shopping mall. She was now coming to plant with her husband and two small children.
In a Facebook post about the event, Nikita said, “I loved getting my hands dirty while cleaning up the vlei regularly … When I became part of the environmental club at school it was at first an escape from everyday challenges. It later became something deeper when I joined the Forum because then I got to be part of something greater than myself.
“Ten years later my daughter got to enjoy this beautiful space, seeing how it all became something that I remember as plans and meetings and after school clean ups has now become this beautiful serene space I can take my kids to … I could not be any more proud.”
As so often with planting events at Princess Vlei, there was a certain magic in the air on June 16. Perhaps it was the ring of mountains, from Muizenberg to Devil’s peak, so perfectly mirrored in the still water. Or the monarch butterfly exploring a Wilde Dagga flower, or two cormorants flying overhead through a drift of scattered clouds
Or perhaps it was the simple but powerful magic of people of all ages, from all walks of life, coming together to grow something new and restore a small, battered patch of ground to the glory that nature intended.
'Don’t litter, and respect nature and animals… Don’t chop down all the trees and keep birds safe and don’t pollute their homes …. Protect and look after the birds so that we don’t lose our birds….If we can protect the birds then we will have birds in the future.'
These are the simple but profound messages of several primary school learners who were part of our ‘Save the Birds’ game at Princess Vlei. Not yet in their teens, but these youngsters show more wisdom than many of our most powerful global leaders.
Forty-five learners, from Hillwood, Buck Road and Muhammadeyah Primary Schools, took part in the imaginative game, where they were 'time-travellers' from 200 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 Denisha Anand), 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 butterflies and the birds. ‘But then new people came, who did not care for the land, who chopped down the forests and built in the wetlands… luckily, some of the new people were different. They learnt from the indigenous people, and have continued to try to protect nature where they can. That is why Princess Vlei is still here, and has not been built on by a shopping mall. 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. He explained also that humans were cyborgs, and could not longer talk so they had to find other ways of communicating. Their important mission was to discover everything they could about birds, and to craft messages for the people of 2022 to ensure that there were still birds in 2222.
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 2022
The children investigated the area in groups, and made many interesting observations and discoveries, which they later shared with the group. They were helped by the time lords, who were also sometimes their teachers. When the Vuvuzela sounded, they all charged back to get through the portal in time.
This exciting game, sustained by Brendon’s zany imagination and role playing abilities, is a wonderful way to help children think about the consequences of today’s actions for the future, and to realise that can play an important role in creating a future where nature and humans can flourish.
Below are some of the observations made by our keen-eyed time travellers.
Posts by Bridget Pitt unless stated otherwise.