‘This is how we would like the City to talk to the community about Princess Vlei: with transparency, accountability, inclusivity and mutual respect.’
This was the overall message from a diverse group of people who gave up the rugby and soccer on Saturday to attend a workshop hosted by the Princess Vlei Forum.
The workshop was part of the Forum’s Imagine Princess Vlei campaign to develop a community-led vision for Princess Vlei as a nature and heritage site. Following the watershed decision in March to scrap the plans for the mall at Princess Vlei, the City has committed itself to developing and implementing the vision with the community, and Ald. Belinda Walker has set up a team for this purpose.
Since its inception in 2012, the Princess Vlei Forum has been canvassing community views on what should be at Princess Vlei. This was building on the work done by the Dressing the Princess Project to rehabilitate and re-envisage the space, which was undertaken in collaboration with Working for Wetlands under the direction of Kelvin Cochrane, SANBI and the City.
The Forum is now working with the City to ensure that the process to consolidate this vision, and to manage the vlei in the long term, is truly participatory, meaningful and inclusive.
The Forum hosted this workshop to explore:
- Who are the community and other stakeholders who should be part of this process?
- What are the most effective methods to engage these stake holders?
- What principles should guide the way the City engages with the community?
The workshop was attended by over sixty participants from a range of community, cultural and environmental organisations, or with an individual interest in the area. It was facilitated by Vernon Rose, who has years of experience in strategic planning facilitation and organisational development.
Daniel Sullivan, from the City of Cape Town’s World Design Capital 2014 team, faced some tough questions from community members. There was particular concern that if this was seen as a WDC project, the City would not sustain its commitment beyond the end of the WDC 2014 period. Sullivan assured the participants that this was seen as a legacy project, and the intention was to use the WDC impetus to change the way that the City works with communities. “Our mandate is not just focussed on a one year project, but on how to change the way the City does things.”
Sullivan said that the City was very committed to making the Princess Vlei project work, and using it to demonstrate how community engagement can work in a constructive way. The project would serve as an inspiration not just for Cape Town, but for the rest of the country, and give substance to the City’s new tagline “making progress possible together.”
Vernon Rose pointed out that it was also up to the community to find ways of working to ensure that they were “not junior partners” in this project with the City, and this workshop was a step in that process.
The workshop came up with a number of guidelines on how to engage with the community, including: workshops and meetings; using the print and audio-visual media and social media; using public spaces such as libraries; and ensuring that the issue is placed on the agenda of relevant organisations.
Guidelines for making the engagement meaningful and constructive included sustainability – building in checks and balances to ensure that the project did not depend on the goodwill and interest of individual councillors and community members; community ownership and empowerment; transparency; signing agreements to ensure accountability; inclusivity; respect for heritage and nature, and many others.
The outcomes of the workshop will be conveyed to the City by Sullivan and by Forum members, and will be used to guide the process going forward.
Although there are many challenges ahead, the Forum welcomes the City’s commitment to this process. This is complex but extremely exciting time in the history of the struggle for Princess Vlei. If we all play our part, this could be a flagship project modelling meaningful community empowerment and engagement around public spaces and natural resources. We call on all with an interest in this Princess Vlei to join us in this exciting journey.
Dr Ian McCallum of Marina da Gama, analyst, poet, author, lecturer and Wilderness Leader, was the keynote speaker at an event – ‘Landscapes and Identity’ - hosted recently by Princess Vlei Forum in Grassy Park on 29th April. The theme of the evening, that identity is tied inextricably to place, threaded through all the presentations.
Linda Daniels, storyteller and broadcaster, stressed that storytelling is a way to restore memory and this in turn can restore both individuals and communities. She played the audience broadcasts of colourful stories from local residents, stories of mythological creatures such as dragons and mermaids woven in with childhood memories of family picnics, fishing, playing and observing the animals and plants that live at the vlei. Linda is currently collating local stories from the community surrounding the Vlei - anyone interested in sharing their story can contact Linda or the Princess Vlei Forum.
Patrick Dowling, Regional Head of Environmental Education at WESSA, whose talk was entitled Princess Vlei and the Wetland Kingdom, spoke about the connectivity of the wetlands in the area. Despite massive human impact through canalising, diverting and draining (even creating, as in the case of Little Princess Vlei and Rondevlei) Patrick believes that it still possible to restore them. For example, Zandvlei as an example, provides a functional a nursery for fish stocks; and Zeekoevlei is also the healthy sustainable condition. In the past a number of our vleis were seasonal, fed by both aquifer and rain. Today they are largely permanent water bodies requiring careful maintenance.
Dr McCallum stressed that in his work, when most people are asked to recall their childhood, they will almost always describe a moment or a place in the natural environment. This identifies them, places them, and can be the starting point for healing. The rapid changing of landscapes brought about by industrial and urban development can cause fragmentation and loss of identity - there is a sense of psychological discontent when there is a change in the geography of one's childhood.
However, humans have to able to connect with local natural environments to be able to identify with them. He told a story of a young man from Vrygrond who had been led on a walk up the mountain that he faces each day. Muizenberg Peak. On the way home he was asked if he could see the mountain from his home. His answer was “No, my house is too small.” But in fact, although his house was small, he had a clear view of that mountain. Until that day he had felt no identity with it, not even a recognition that it was there.
Dr McCallum also spoke about the moral issue of conserving nature. 'People often suggest that nature needs to "pay its way" to be conserved, but nature has paid over and over, and it is time to give back... Conservation without moral values cannot sustain itself, and unless we reach people through ethics, beauty, spiritual values or whatever, we are going to lose our wilderness areas'
At the end of the evening, Cicilia Johnson who recently turned 90 years old, read her beautiful poem about Princess Vlei. The full poem can be read here.
Examples of how Princess Vlei is inspiring young creative minds were evident in the models and drawings done by the CPUT first year Architectural Technology students. The students were asked to create a floating structure inspired by the natural and cultural heritage of Princess Vlei.
The discussions held clearly showed how important natural landscapes are in holding personal, cultural and community identity, and how important it is for people to have access to these landscapes in forming and reconnecting with their individual and collective identity. Princess Vlei, with its rich history, is a landscape with a vital role to play in the identity of thousands of CapeTonians. It's continued preservation and rehabilitation is vital to enable it to play this role.
“I’m totally against the mall being developed at Princess Vlei. As a teenager, I love malls, but we have enough to keep us going. We need nature − without nature, we would have no life." Nikita January, Lotus River High.
The Khoi Princess of Princess Vlei would have been happy this Women’s Day, to see the gathering of remarkable women and community elders on her shores at the Women's Day event hosted by the Princess Vlei Forum. The Forum is an association of concerned community members and environmentalists to protect the Vlei from the threat of the shopping mall development, which was approved by MEC Anton Bredell earlier this year.
Women elders from the local community and three local old age homes gathered to plant three Milkwood trees to honour strong South African women, past and present. The most honoured guest was one-hundred-year-old Sophie Norling, a passionate nature lover from Retreat.
Sophie Norling led the ceremony by planting the first Milkwood tree, which was planted in her honour. The other two Milkwood trees, planted by 82-year-old Joan Evans of Plumstead and 88-year-old Cicilia Johnson from Grassy Park, were in honour of the Khoi Princess, and Saartjie Baartman. August 10 this year marks the 10th anniversary of the return of Baartman’s remains to South Africa.
The women were then hosted at a tea party at LOFOB hall in Grassy Park, where they were treated to snacks and tea provided by Menngos, an organization devoted to promoting local small enterprises. Menngos also supplied posies from local flower growing projects in Lavender Hill and Retreat.
At the gathering, Sophie Norling and other guests were invited to share their memories of the area around Princess Vlei. Mrs Norling spoke about raising her children at the Langvlei in Retreat, and describe how much she valued the natural beauty of the local vleis. She thanked God for blessing her with a long life, family, and a long happy marriage to her husband who died in his nineties. Her daughter, Mrs Denis Variend, described the many hours her family had spent picknicking on the banks of Princess Vlei.
“I am very passionate about saving the Princess Vlei, because that is where my kids grew up,” she said.
Eighty-nine-year-old Mr Pietersen has lived near the Princess Vlei for his whole life, and remembers swimming in the vlei and taking his horses to cool down in the water. He recounted the popular legend that the Khoi Princess had, on her death, become a mermaid who would lure young men to their death if they swam in the wrong part of the vlei.
“When we grew up, there were Proteas growing everywhere in this area. We used to pick them, and eat veldkos from the bulbs – in those days we did not know we were damaging the environment.” He described how Zeekovlei dried up from a drought in 1932, and how a Mr White would give the local children rides in his aeroplane.
Mr Johnson, who also grew up near the Vlei, described how he would travel into town with his parents, who were farmers, to sell vegetables. He would be given half a crown, which he spent on ‘boermusiek’ records.
Mrs Cicilia Johnson, who has spent 64 of her 88 years near the vlei, recited a poem that she’d written to express the pleasure that the serenity of the vlei brought to her:
“My Haven of Refuge I found
Where the carp and the trout abound;
Where the Weeping Willow softly sway.
This dear Reader, is Princess Vlei.”
Students from Lotus River High School and Cedar House School were there to serve the food. Nikita January, from Lotus River, explained that she is part of an environmental group at the school, which has been extensively involved in projects to rehabilitate and save the Vlei from unwanted development.
“I’m totally against the mall being developed at Princess Vlei.” she said, “As a teenager, I love malls, but we have enough to keep us going. We need nature − without nature, we would have no life. Being in nature is very valuable for children, it brings a feeling of serenity. We are very committed to saving the Princess Vlei.”
Philip Bam assured the guests that the Forum would engage the community in fighting to protect the Vlei. “Those of you who love the Princess Vlei, who grew up there, know that we will fight to save the Vlei. No mall, no taxi rank will be built on our beloved Vlei.”
The Princess Vlei Forum is determined to fight for the right of our communities to decide on how our city’s natural resources can best be protected and preserved for future enjoyment by all. We have developed a People’s Plan to show how the Vlei could be developed to honour the historical, cultural and environmental significance of this natural wetland, and to serve our community for generations to come. This Woman’s Day event is an example of the type of community service the Vlei can provide if it is properly protected and sustained.
“If the bulldozers come my wife must look for another husband because I will fight to the end…”
Elton Rinquest, local community member in response to the proposed mall at Princess Vlei.
This message expresses the feelings of most attending the Youth Day Celebration hosted by the Princess Vlei Forum (PVF) on June 16. The event was held to show what at living, breathing Vlei could offer surrounding communities in contrast to the Mall development effectively approved by MEC Bredell earlier this year.
But despite the militancy expressed by many speakers and audience members, the mood of the day was festive and celebratory. It seems as if someone much higher than the MEC was smiling kindly on the event, by providing one of those magical midwinter sunny days to welcome the participants. The crowd was a mirror of Cape Town’s diversity, ranging from five –year old princesses decked in pink organza and tiaras, to octogenarians reminiscing about what the Vlei has meant to them over the years. There were Muslims, Christians, businessmen, workers, nature conservationists, community activists, rappers, kite-flyers, fishermen, poets…. all united in their passionate desire to defend ‘the Princess’ from unwanted and destructive development.
Children rode the two ponies on offer, painted banners and posters, and tied themselves in knots break-dancing on the stage, while their parents enjoyed braaing and picnicking and taking in the colourful sights in a more leisurely fashion.
Graffiti artist Mak1one demonstrated his considerable skill with a spray can on a board. He’d graced the Princess Vlei toilet block with the masterpiece a few weeks before, but the council had it removed. So this time he brought his own “wall”. The back proved a canvass for children to contribute their own messages and drawings. “Don’t even think about destroying our wetlands”, said a butterfly drawn by one young artist. “I totally agree” replied a neighbouring fish.
Mak1one has a long history with the Vlei, having grown up in nearby Kafda. He used to sneak out to swim in the Vlei, disobeying his grandmother who subscribed to the common belief that the Khoi Princess who was murdered here took a life each year in payment – and she was determined that her grandson would not be sacrificed. Mak1one claims that the beatings he earned were worth it.
The formal part of the day was hosted on the back of truck donated by Buildwell Buildit (Grassy Park). It began with a cleansing ceremony, introduced by Chief !Kora Hennie van Wyk and others from the House of Xoraxoukhoe. The dignitary leading the ceremony explained that the imphepho herb which was burnt , often used in Xhosa ceremonies, was originally significant to the Khoi san – showing how the Khoi ancestry is common to many of us.
Shegh Shaheen Abrahams opened with a prayer for the future of the People’s Plan for the Princess. He remarked on how critical young people are to our future, and how much better they are served by open spaces than a mall. “ It is nice to see our youngsters here … if our youngsters are full of spirit, if they are active, then our community has a future.”
His prayer was followed by one by Rev John Oliver, of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, who said that “the earth is on loan from God, and we must keep it in safekeeping for our children and our children’s children.’
Long standing residents commented on how memories of the Vlei are deeply interwoven with their lives. 84 year old Mr Edward Johnson raised his six children three minutes away. “On Saturday afternoons we would walk down to the Vlei and I would put in a line for each child and they would catch beautiful carp…. In winter, th Vlei would run over and we couldn’t get out of our house… My children still remember these days… This Vlei belongs to our people.”
Mr Sam Khan recalls, “I can remember the days when every evening I took a walk down here with my dog and we watched the swans in the water… everything was so peaceful… I believe that this land was left to the people by a private land owner in the early fifties so I say this matter must go to the highest court in the land, and I will put part of my pension towards the effort.”
Mr Philip Bam, Chair of Lotus River and Grassy park Civic Association (LOGRA), one of the founding organisations of the Princess Vlei Forum, commented on how the campaign was another step in helping people of the area in their search for heritage and identity. “One of the wonderful things that this campaign has done for us it has brought us to realise who we are… Harry the Strandloper was the undignified way the powers of the old days referred to our people. In this way they took away our heritage and inheritance. Just as we are restoring the fynbos here at the Vlei, we will restore our dignity….
Tony Ehrenreich roused the leisurely crowd to enthusiastic applause when he said: “Don’t for a minute believe those who will tell you that workers will stand with these big business interests because it will provide us jobs. We know that we need jobs in this country but much more importantly we know that we need to defend and sustain our heritage and that is why COSATU is standing behind the Princess Vlei committee.
“We have come together in all our hues, black and white, DA and ANC, this is not about politics and it is not about race, it is about assuring ourselves that we must stand on the side of justice”
Ehrenreich commented on the power of open public spaces to unite South Africans and build a common nation: “We need places where we can come together as black and white in a real space like the Princess Vlei, but those spaces are shrinking… they are being taken away but they should be expanding.
“Our greatest responsibility is to raise the house of our people to be better than how we found it, and it will not be better if we are tearing down the legacies and beauty of our country in the interests of a few capitalist who have no regard for our long term interests … an injury to one sacred space is an injury to all.”
Ehrenreich concluded with the following pledge: “We want to assure you as COSATU that while we will sign petitions and pray for the Princess Vlei, we will also not hesitate to fight for the legacy of all our people…”
The speeches ended, and as the shadows lengthened across the grass as the crowd sang and danced into the afternoon, the children ran and laughed, and the Vlei seemed to smile to see her banks being so enjoyed by so many. For one day, the Princess Vlei Forum and the community, the birds, the water, the mountains had all come together to show what can happen when natural spaces are cared for and made available to heal us, unite us, and, (to paraphrase a comment by Philip Bam) “soothe our angry souls.”
We can only hope that those with the power to ensure that the Vlei is not “Malled” will recognise the priceless value of this land as a restored and nurtured natural space. But the day made one thing clear: Anyone who wants to build a mall on the Vlei, will have to fight a rapidly growing and determined community of people dedicated to defending their Princess.
Posts by Bridget Pitt unless stated otherwise.