Save Princess Vlei, heartbeat of the Cape Flats

Save Princess Vlei, heartbeat of the Cape Flats

By Bridget Pitt and Therese Boulle

Kelvin Cochrane walks us around the fynbos garden he is creating at Princess Vlei, as part of the rehabilitation project to “dress the Princess”.

As he shows us the restios and ericas tentatively reclaiming the soil, he speaks of “the Princess” with the same tenderness and respect he would show his child or his grandmother.

For Princess Vlei encapsulates a fundamental element of Cochrane’s history, and of the history of all Capetonians. It also holds an equally critical key to our future.

The future of the vlei hangs in the balance as the rezoning of the site to allow commercial development on a portion awaits final approval. The proposed development by Insight Property Developers would include a 9 090m2 shopping mall and 100m2 taxi rank.

Councillor for the ward Jan Burger has defended the project, saying it would offer “much needed economic development”. But protests by residents indicate this kind of development is the last thing they need. And the controversial development seems set to violate a number of cultural, historical and environmental sensibilities.

The story of Princess Vlei is a quintessentially South African story. According to tales told by Khoi herders and passed on by slaves – and recounted by Jose Burman in Safe to the Sea (Human and Rousseau, 1962) – the vlei was named after a powerful Khoisan princess. Her stronghold was a cave in the Constantiaberg, now known as the Elephant’s Eye Cave.

The Prinses Kasteel River ran from above the cave to feed the vlei, a favourite spot of the princess. While bathing there, she was abducted and killed by a passing band of Portuguese sailors – believed to be from the party of Francisco d’Almeida who died in a skirmish with the Khoisan in 1510.

It was her tears that created the small vlei beside the larger one. According to local superstition, Princess Vlei claims one life every year to pay for this violation.

In the 500 years that followed, the princess’s descendants were enslaved, raped, exiled and killed. Under the Nationalist government they were forcibly removed from their homes and driven out to bleak council tenements on the Cape Flats.

For those removed to Lavender Hill, Grassy Park, Lotus River, Steenberg and Retreat, Princess Vlei provided a welcome respite from the desolate wasteland in which they found themselves.

It offered a refuge from the growing gangsterism and crime, a meeting point for scattered families, and a welcome breath of tranquillity.

Deprived of access to most of Cape Town’s recreational beaches and scenic areas, coloured people from kilometres around adopted Princess Vlei as their own, and the place acquired a special place in their hearts. Residents today have cherished memories of watching birds skimming over the water, fishing, picnics and rites of passage such as weddings and baptisms.

It was nicknamed “Claremont Beach”, and the area around the small vlei was called “Galaland”. A well-loved landmark was the vegetable stall that was granted to a Mr Jacobs in compensation for losing an eye during service in World War II.

But under apartheid, the site suffered the same neglect as other “coloured amenities” and gradually became degraded, particularly when it was used for dumping sand and rubble during roadworks on Prince George Drive.

But the people never lost their love for the place, and when the application for its rezoning was first tabled, the community launched appeals that have delayed the process.

One of the most passionate objectors to the development was Cochrane, who approached the SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) with a proposal in July 2008 to rehabilitate the vlei.

A partnership was formed with Sanbi, Biowatch and the City of Cape Town Parks, with Cochrane as the project manager.

This initiative set out to remove alien vegetation, plant indigenous fynbos and trees, create pathways and boardwalks and construct bomas and other appropriate structures. Long-term proposals include an environmental education centre, a memorial commemorating the place’s history, and trails linking the vlei to Tokai Manor House, and up to the Elephant’s Eye Cave.

Cochrane sees the restoration of Princess Vlei as a critical part of a process to liberate the Cape Flats from its status as “the poor step-child” of the Mother City. Before becoming degraded by subeconomic urban development and widespread alien vegetation, the Cape Flats was an ecological wonderland, commanding an extraordinary diversity of fynbos and animal life.

It is not only an ecological imperative that much of this as possible be restored and preserved, it is also a social and cultural one – to redress the injustices of the past and restore the dignity and self-worth of the communities forcibly removed to these areas.

Cochrane believes the vlei can demonstrate that, instead of relying on the government, the community can take their future into their hands and transform their surroundings into something aesthetic and wholesome. To promote community participation, he has involved six schools in the Princess Vlei restoration project.

The children come at weekends to plant fynbos, often with their parents. They learn valuable environmental lessons about fynbos and, more important, discover how the efforts of ordinary citizens can transform a degraded landscape into a thing of beauty. These efforts have had a huge impact on surrounding communities, and when signatures were invited at the vlei recently for a petition, people came from all over to sign expressing their opposition to the development proposal. The petition had 1 588 signatures.

The development has also been opposed by the nearby Sassmeer community, and by the Lotus River, Ottery and Grassy Park Ratepayers and Residents’ Association.

The rezoning of the vlei was provisionally approved by the then-MEC for environmental affairs and development planning, Tasneem Essop, in 2004, allegedly on the strength of an EIA that claimed the area had little environmental value.

The area may be degraded and lacking a coherent ecosystem, but this assessment overlooks three crucial points.

The first is that as a wetland, the vlei has irreplaceable value for our city. Research has shown that wetlands play a critical role in flood management, as well as in cleaning and purifying water. Cape Town’s water situation is serious. Stormwater drains are crumbling and overloaded, our rivers are dangerously polluted, and the likelihood of extreme weather associated with global warming can only make us more vulnerable to flooding. Every wetland we have should be fiercely protected.

Second, none of our urban conservation areas are pristine environmental sites. Rondevlei Bird Sanctuary, now considered a treasure house of bird and aquatic life, is not even a natural vlei – it was created to divert flooding from the building of surrounding houses. Zeekoevlei was degraded, but is now being restored by the city in partnership with Cochrane and other residents.

Princess Vlei is a natural vlei, and a key feeder for the chain of wetlands in the Rondevlei and Zeekoevlei system. Surely the rational response to the degradation of a precious natural asset is not to degrade it further, but to restore it?

The third point lies in the potential of the vlei to give birth to new environmentalists. Cape Town is blessed by many passionate environmentalists like Cochrane from the Cape Flats. They come from all walks of life and from all cultures and language groups. But the one thing common to all of them is that their love of nature began with some encounter when they were young. And for most this encounter occurred not on Table Mountain or Kirstenbosch, but close to their doorsteps – in the last remnants of open space that are fast being swallowed by the city.

One such person is environmental scientist Ismail Sonday from Grassy Park, whose passion for the subject began on family visits to Princess Vlei.

The vlei represents a unique opportunity to create a space where more passionate conservators can be born. And without these passionate conservators, the future of all our natural heritage sites is doomed.

The arguments against the development of Princess Vlei are overwhelming. The arguments for it are spurious. Shopping centres bring limited value to an area, and there are many other sites for such centres. A restored Princess Vlei promises a tourist attraction, a recreational area, eco-trails, a place where future generations may enjoy nature in an urban jungle, a refuge for birds, plants and aquatic life, an educational focus for children, a venue for sunset concerts, and more.

Most significantly, it is a cultural and historical jewel cherished by all who live around it. It was the “Galaland” of the Cape Flats.

It has a resonance for this community that Kirstenbosch, Cape Point and other less accessible natural sites do not have. Trashing the vlei is like trashing the sensibilities of these communities, and has no place in a city committed to treasuring all its citizens and all its natural assets.

If you have not visited it, do yourself a favour and go there. Take in the peaceful stretch of blue water overlooked by the Constantiaberg and the Elephant’s Eye Cave, the birds skimming the reeds, the burgeoning fynbos. When one stands there, one can only wonder at the lack of imagination that allowed someone to look at this place and think “shopping centre”.

As Cochrane said, building on Princess Vlei is like cutting out its heart. Arguing that it would not have much effect on it is like arguing that removing a heart would not kill its owner.

Next year is the 500th anniversary of the Khoisan princess’s abduction. Let us hope it will not be the year where once again the Princess is irreparably violated.

Pitt and Boulle are researching and writing a handbook for urban conservationists on behalf of Cape Flats Nature. This article is written in their personal capacity. Published on the web by Cape Times on August 16, 2009.

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