These words, spoken by Marie Genniker, expressed the feelings of many who came to plant trees in memory of loved ones at the Princess Vlei Forum event on July 28 this year.
The event was dedicated to Neville de Koker, an EPWP worker at Princess Vlei, who was shot by gangsters in a drive-by shooting, while walking near his home in Retreat on July 4. He was accompanying a neighbor to the shops as she did not want to walk alone. He passed away later in hospital due to his injuries.
Neville’s sister, Carmen, spoke about the pain of losing her brother, and of the many questions the family faced about why such an innocent and loving person should have been so brutally killed. ‘I used to visit Princess Vlei with Neville when we were children, and when Denisha told us about the tree planting, I thought that is so awesome because by planting a tree here it as is if I was returning to that childhood with my brother … I really want to thank the person who donated these trees … we must be strong and we are trying to be strong as a family.’
Also at the ceremony were the EPWP workers who had worked closely with Neville in the last eight months of his life.
Another woman who lost a family member tragically was Leslie Wyngard, whose son Rory had been shot after he’d witnessed a crime. She said she was part of a movement called Moms for Justice, which counselled mothers who had lost their children to violence. ‘I miss him every day, but I know that he is in a safer place now, that he is free in Heaven.’
Charlene Houston spoke of her mother, Juanita Houston, who passed three years ago. ‘We all feel the loss but we feel for the family who lost most recently. I want to thank everyone involved in starting this project… our people have lived for so long in spaces that were not green, where trees have been cut down .. and just have a sandy, barren existence … so this is a very important, very symbolic, very significant gift. My mom was also part of the campaign to save the Princess Vlei so that makes this also very special for us this morning to honour her, along with you, and to see the project growing from strength to strength.’
Sarah Oliver spoke of her father John Oliver, a founding member of the Princess Vlei Forum, who died five years ago of a heart attack.
Ebrahim Abrahams planted a tree on behalf of Beverley Johnson the principal of John Graham Primary, a school that has greatly supported the campaign to save and beautify Princess Vlei. Beverley lost her mother, Daisy Hermanus, earlier this month.
Susan de Vos planted a tree in memory of her mother Marie Leeman Hoorn. Susan told the gathering that her mother had always wished for her family, the Leeman family, to come together. After her death, the family resolved to honour her wish and gather at Princess Vlei every year on Heritage Day. So the Vlei has a special significance for the family.
After planting the tree for Neville, the family sang together a hymn “Count on me through thick and thin, His strength will never end.” They had first sung this song at the birthday celebrations of Neville’s cousin in April this Year. They then presented a beautiful photograph of Neville with Denisha to the Princess Vlei Forum.
Thirty trees were donated to the Forum by the Platbos Indigenous Forest reserve, and are all indigenous species –Olea europaea, Sideroxylon inerme, Maurocina frangula, Chionanthus faveolatus as well as a few Sersia. They were planted in a thicket – a tight circle so that the trees can support each other and draw nourishment from rotting stumps that were buried in the centre of the circle.
Cllr Kevin Southgate extended deep condolences to all those who had lost family members. ‘But its such an honour to be part of this gathering and to know that we are going to be establishing a little sanctuary here at Princess Vlei … Princess Vlei has sometimes been reknown for all the wrong reasons but today we are part of that turn around strategy of creating a good space, a beautiful space for the community of this area. We are a sanctuary and hope all will feel welcome to visit the sanctuary.’
In his closing prayer, Philip Bam of the Princess Vlei Forum said that ‘as the tree grows its roots deep in the soil let us be reminded that all things are possible if we are rooted in the deep and all-embracing love of God.’ He called on God to heal the suffering of those present, and to ‘bless and Sanctify these trees that it may serve as a sign of hope and a reminder of the good of those that came before us…’
What was clear in this event was that every tree was planted with great love. The trees bring together people of all ages, from all walks of life - the remarkable extended family that is held by the nature, history and presence of Princess Vlei. What was also evident was that while the community around Princess Vlei is torn apart by the tremendous pain caused by economic hardship and crime, it is also held together by generosity, kindness and love. We hope that the Vlei can truly be a place of comfort and sanctuary to all.
We would like to thank Francois Krige for facilitating the donation of the trees, and providing guidance and support in their planting. Thanks also go to the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust Managed by Nedbank Private Wealth, for supporting our work in rehabilitating and replanting Princess Vlei.
Neville De Koker was born in 1979, and attended Sibelius High School. His wife, Charlene Stroebel De Koker said that he was passionate about helping his community and neighbourhood, and hoped for a full time job at the City so he could continue doing this work and support his family. He also loved soccer, singing and pool. ‘He was really one amazing guy who got along with everyone. A friend of his told me how the kids miss him in the area because on a Sunday he always played games with them.
‘All he wanted was to be together with his family, and to be the best husband and dad. He was the best, but he didn’t always see that.’
Neville leaves his wife, Charlene, three daughters, Tiara, Chyler and Chalia, and stepson Chadwin, as well as his sister Carmen and his father. His mother passed away last year.