The history of the Princess
A Quintessentially South African Story...
The story of Princessvlei is a quintessentially South African story, encompassing violence and dispossession as well as hope, healing and harmony... and some very feisty women.
Before the arrival of European settlers, it was a watering ground for early Khoi herders. The first encounter between these herders and Europeans was with the battle against Fransisco D’Almeida, which has been linked to the legend of the Princess.
In the five hundred years that followed this encounter, the Princess’ descendents were enslaved, raped, exiled and killed. However, but the early 20th Century, the Princess seemed to enter into a period of relative harmony, with residents of all races dwelling on or near its banks. One of the most colourful of these was Edith Mary Woods, who bought 30 acres of land, which comprised the entire vlei and about 10 acres of water.
According to Kelvin Cochrane, Woods, who later became the first female journalist at the Cape Argus and the first woman to fly an aeroplane over Kenilworth Race Course, fought for the emancipation of woman and refused to pay taxes.
She lived on the south side of the vlei, where Sassmere Estate is today. “Woods later brought over a French woman, Susan Perrode, and a Dutchman,Wouter Sass. Perrode and Sass married, although they later divorced,and Perrode opened the Jolly Carp Restaurant at the vlei.
The name ‘Sassmere’ was derived from the surname of Sass and ‘mere’ from the vlei. The Jolly Carp became a famous restaurant in the Cape, renowned among French sailors and the military for, among others, its fantastic Sunday afternoon teas. The military would march from Military Road to the restaurant. This is also where Military Road got its name from.
In 1945, Woods, sold the land and moved to Camps Bay. “This was when the owner,
believed to be Mr Perks, opened a riding school at the vlei, with stables and a wooden and iron house, which can still be seen,” Cochrane says.
On the other side of the vlei lived two coloured families, the Jacobs and Adriaanse families . After World War II, the father of the Jacobs family was given the land on the Eastern side to open a fruit and vegetable stall as compensation after losing an eye in the war. The Jacob’s farm stall flourished for several decades and became a well known and much loved landmark, and was taken over by Mr Jacob's son. In the fifties the council took the land back from Mr Jacobs, but allowed him to continue running the stall until the seventies, when the land was taken to enable the widening of Princess George Drive.
The Nationalist victory brought changes to the area. The Government began a process of ruthlessly forcing coloured and black people removed from their homes in Cape Town, and driven out to bleak council tenements on the Cape Flats. White families who lived around Princess Vlei were also removed to make way for the housing estates of Grassy Park, Lavender Hill, Lotus River, Steenberg and Retreat.
The government of the day designated most attractive natural areas as Whites Only. But Princess Vlei posed a curious dilemma for apartheid planners. Its beauty and natural assets proclaimed that, under apartheid logic, it should be retained exclusively for white use. But, as one of the few recreational spaces with borders abutting both “white” and “coloured’ group areas, it was seen as lying too close to the “coloured” Cape Flats to be used safely by whites, and so became one of the very few natural recreational spaces open to coloured and black people.
For the families traumatised by forced removal, Princess Vlei provided a welcome respite from the desolate wasteland in which they found themselves. It was a place where they could escape the growing gangsterism and crime, reunite as families, and experience some of the tranquility of nature.
During these years, Princess Vlei grew to acquire a significance in the hearts of community members quite disproportionate to its physical size. Deprived of access to most of Cape Town’s recreational beaches and scenic areas, coloured people from miles around adopted Princess Vlei as their own. It was nicknamed ‘Claremont Beach’, and the area around the small vlei was called ‘Gala land’.
However, it was neglected by the authorities, and became run down and degraded. When Princess George Drive was widened in the late seventies, there was dumping on the vlei, and became more neglected. The road also served to separate the people from the vlei. But the threat posed by the mall has reminded the residents of the value that the vlei brought to their lives, and galvanised the community to reclaim it and create a new vision for the future of Princess Vlei.
Thanks to Tasmin Cupido, Princess Vlei has a rich heritage, People's Post, 24 November 2009
An Eye for a Farmstall
Donovan Jacobs grew up working in his father's Farmstall. Mr Jacobs Senior inherited the stall from his father, who was given the land after losing an eye fighting in World War II. Here, Donovan recalls some memories ....
“My dad used to pride himself in doing the farm stall up with signage and displays, everything had to be right. If the cars didn’t stop, he’d say, ‘there is something wrong with the display, you must start again.
“He was really a workaholic. People so scared of him, when he comes, they’d start making out they were working.
“My mother would counsel everyone, especially vagrants on the vlei, because they’d come from country areas, and lose touch with their families. She buried about 14 people on the vlei. She’d take on herself to give them a decent burial. I would say to her, “Here I need a takkies or jeans, and you don’t even know the person, but here you are spending thousands of rands”
“We were fascinated by the baptisms. We used to hold the “baptism stick” at the farm stall for safe keeping. Any new baptism group would know that the stick is there, the stick was a very holy thing. It was be a big problem if we could not find it
“There was one case where they were feeling with their stick and found a body. They’d search quite often for bodies. People always said the “Princess takes four people every year”
“We used to swim in the vlei. We used to play ‘darts’ in the mud: we’d light up my father’s cigarette stubs and throw them in the mu and they’d would make that hissing noise when they hit the mud.
“I can remember driving a big truck when I was thirteen years, and I would sit on a pile of cushions. We had to use a screwdriver to start it. Once this cop pulled me over, and I lifted the screw driver to turn the engine off. Maybe he though I was going to stab him, so he started running to his car and talking on the radio. So they fined my dad and fined me.
“Everybody knew the stall. Christmas Eve and New Years Eve the farm stall would stay open all night. We’d all work hard at that time.
" After my Dad lost the store, it was like something died in him. He was always ‘get up and go’, he used to drive us. He was not the same person, he lost the fight to start again... that vlei was his life.”
Dance for the Princess
THE first ever all-South African ballet was based on the legend of Princess Vlei. The legend of Princess Vlei was depicted in a production by UCT Ballet School students at the Van Riebeeck Festival in 1952. The festival celebrated the third centenary of Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape and featured several cultural performances including music, dance and drama. The ballet, “Vlei Legend”, was truly South African, with a South African producer, choreographer, composer, dancers, decor designer and costume designer. The Ballet was first produced and performed in the Cape Town City Hall on 21 February 1952, with Pamela Chrimes in the lead role, choreographed by Dulcie Howes.
Astrid Schwenke is in the process of researching and documenting local ballets. “I decided to do ‘Vlei Legend’ first because it was the first all-South African ballet and I find it interesting that at that time a Khoisan legend was chosen for a traditionally white festival.”
Thanks to Vlei flows deep into SA ballet history
TASMIN CUPIDO, People's Post 3 August 2010; and to Cultural Historian Astrid Schwenke.