Bridget Pitt (article appeared in the Cape Times on Friday, 31st August 2012)
We live in a divided city. A city riven by history, by class, colour, culture, language, creed. Those who have and those who don’t. Those who are allowed to dwell in the natural paradise of our landscapes, and those forced to live in polluted, ugly wastelands. The council house dwellers, the shack dwellers, the new-comers, the old timers, the larnies in their mansions on the hill. The cracks that divide us run deep, mirrored by the lines that snake across our city: railway lines, highways, rivers, mountains the constructed and natural boundaries which the apartheid government deployed so successfully in that pernicious social experiment called the ‘Group Areas Act.’
Our social and cultural divisions are mirrored too by the isolation that poor city planning has imposed on the natural systems that underpin and sustain our city’s environment health. Forests are fragmented and die, fynbos struggles in small patches, cut off from pollinators, the waterways are polluted, diverted, clogged, damned, canalised, forced underground, drained, and built over.
Nothing thrives in isolation. Ecosystems and social systems depend on communication, on a free flow and exchange of resources and ideas, on collaboration. And on a profound recognition that we depend on each other: we are all in this city together if some go down, we all go down. We can put up walls and electric fences to keep out the undesirable humans (and animals) who threaten our lifestyles, but in the end if our city does not function as a healthy socio-ecosystem, no fence will be high enough to keep out the desperation and chaos that ensues.
It is hard to overcome these barriers. Our city is scarred by years of politically manipulated or short-sighted planning driven a mean and self-centred vision, and by discriminatory neglect. But every now and then an opportunity comes. A chance is offered to those in charge of our interests to show some grace and wisdom and display an ability to see the bigger picture and act in the interests of all; to nudge our city onto a path that offers our children greater hope and greater promise.
The Princess Vlei story is one such opportunity. First, it is a water course: by its nature a highly valuable connector gathering the waters that flow from Cape Town’s southern mountains and the waters from our storm water drains, and feeing them into the great wetlands of Grassy Park, Zeekovlei, and the sewage works, before releasing the waters into the sea. In this it plays a valuable role in cleaning water, preventing flooding and offsetting storm damage.
Secondly, the Princess Vlei connects our ecosystems, providing a habitat for birds, insects, aquatic life few remaining wild creatures and plants who share our cities and provide us with a priceless engagement with nature.
For many that would be enough to make it worth conserving. But it does so much more than that. It connects us to our heritage, plugging into that evocative story of the Khoi Princess, who lived in Prinseskasteel (now known as the Elephant Eye cave) and was raped, murdered or abducted by European sailors. The Princess has gone, but her legend lives on vividly in the memories of those who grew up around the vlei, passed down through generations.
Here is a connection to the first people of our nation and our city, the ones who bore the brunt of European colonialism, who were enslaved, dispossessed and hounded into virtual extinction. These people represent the closest connection we have to a common ancestor, and offer some small glimmer of understanding as to how those early humans lived before the great migrations into Europe, Asia and America.
The Princess Vlei also connects us to our later history. After the waves of expropriation and forced removal in the sixties and seventies shattered so many homes and families, it became one of the few natural areas that black and coloured people could access. Thousands of residents have some memories linked to the vlei as a refuge from the bleak dormitory estates they were now forced to occupy. For Black Baptismal Churches it became a symbolic link to the waters of the ancestors.
The Princess Vlei connects us to our present. Located on the fault line between wealthy, white Cape Town and the vast sprawl of the Cape Flats, it offers a meeting point for Capetonians from both sides of the divide to come and enjoy the tranquil beauty of the water nestled amongst the reeds. Church members still come from Phillipi and Khayelitsha to be baptised in its waters; while for local residents it offers a leafy respite from the mean streets of Lavender Hill and Lotus River. Children catch tadpoles in the shallows, adults fish, or paddle canoes across the lake.
And of course, the Princess Vlei connects us to our future – either to a future where socio-environmental needs are recognised and honoured; or one that is more divided, more fragmented, one step closer to self-destruction.
A glimpse of the future has been offered in the unprecedented campaign by the local community and others to save the vlei. Workers, environmentalists, school children, civic members, and faith groups have been volunteering to rehabilitate the Vlei’s vegetation degraded by years of institutional neglect. They have held several community events on and around the vlei, from break dancing for local teenagers to a Woman’s Day tea party for the elderly. At these events, octogenarians have offered to lie down in front of bulldozers; school children have vowed to fight for the vlei. Capetonians have occasionally come out to fight unwanted development in grand, iconic spaces such as Table Mountain. But I cannot think of any instance when such passion has united such a diverse group over a relatively humble natural feature.
The inspiration driving these endeavours is the “people’s plan”: a vision of a socio-environmental development of the Vlei that: celebrates the Khoisan heritage; inculcates in our children a love of and appreciation for nature; provides a haven of serenity for communities wounded by poverty, overcrowding and crime; draws together the fragmented corners of our city by devising hiking trails from the Vlei, linking the Elephant’s eye cave to Maccasser dunes and Khayelitsha; and provides income opportunities for locals through tourism and small, environmentally appropriate retail. And a vision that restores the Vlei to its natural glory and enables it to do its work of absorbing floodwater, offsetting the damaging consequences of climate change, nurturing life, and purifying our water.
It does not seem to require much goodwill or imagination to leap at this opportunity to heal the fractures of our city and build a common and invested future. And yet, MEC Bredell, a man elected to serve our city, our people and our environment, has chosen to irrevocably destroy this asset by extending the rezoning of this property. In doing so, he overturns the decision made by the city council to scupper this ill-advised proposal, and gives the developers a chance win their bid to build a double volume shopping mall and taxi rank. Only the most cynical can claim that this mall will not overwhelm the natural space; choke the Vlei with building rubble; poison it in the coming years with toxic run-off; and force out of business small local traders who currently bring jobs and much needed income into these communities.
Oscar Wilde once said, “Nowadays, everyone knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” How true this is of MEC Bredell. Whatever price the city has been offered for the Princess Vlei, it is too low. The value of a conserved vlei is priceless. Equally, the cost of the mall to our environment, to our struggle for a common citizenship and unity is incalculable.
It may be useful to remind our provincial and local government that they are the stewards of our land, not the owners. Princess Vlei is not theirs to sell. The land belongs to us, to our past, our present, and our future. We as citizens need to hold our office bearers accountable, to ensure that they take proper care of our precious natural resources and assets, and do not squander them for inequitable profit or short-term gain. The Princess Vlei is our Princess. And she is not for sale.