Community-led restoration in South Africa transforms a wetland

Princess Vlei water edge
Millie Timms

Millie Timms

Decades of Apartheid rule dissected and assigned natural spaces around Cape Town, South Africa as white or non-white spaces. Princess Vlei, a wetland area, was one of the few green spaces where people of color could come to fish, swim, and spend time in nature. But after years of neglect, the government tried to sell the land to private developers. This is the story of how a community came together to fight the construction of a shopping mall on land that is culturally and spiritually important, and how restoration is bringing joy to a new generation of young people.

The history

The long and fraught history of violent colonial rule in South Africa set a dangerous precedent for the institutionalization of these forms of oppression and extraction. Apartheid, meaning apartness in Afrikaans, was brought into law in 1948 by the all-white, Afrikaans National Party, implementing policies that legally enforced racial segregation. These included the Group Areas Act which saw people of color forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to undesirable areas, the outlawing of interracial marriage and the relegation of people of color to lower levels of social and economic life.

Cape Town, located in the Western Cape, is one of South Africa’s three capital cities. During Apartheid many non-white people were forcibly removed from the city’s economic center, as well as the surrounding desired coastal towns and lush, green areas, and relocated to the Cape Flats. The Cape Flats is a large expanse of sandy, low-lying land often pummeled by strong winds and, during the wet months of the year, experiences regular flooding. Under the Group Areas Act, the Cape Flats, which had previously been uninhabited, became populated with a mix of government-built housing and informal settlements. In the years since the end of Apartheid the population living in the Cape Flat has continued to grow, increasing the number of people living in informal homes, often with very limited, if any, access to services.

Princess Vlei before and after

The wetland, in South Africa also known as a vlei

In amongst the Cape Flats sits the Princess Vlei, 104 hectares of wetland. The name comes from an indigenous Khoi legend, one of the few that endured the colonial decimation of indigenous culture. It tells the story of a Khoi princess who lived in the mountains above the wetland. Each day she would venture down to the water body and bathe whilst her cattle would drink and graze. One day she was accosted by a group of Portuguese sailors and murdered. Although her body moved on, her spirit remained and sought revenge, taking the lives of two men a year from the vlei. Still to this day, some male members of the community won’t venture down to the water, the legend and the fear of her spirit still fresh in their minds.

During Apartheid natural spaces were dealt the same fate as people, dissected and assigned as white or non-white spaces. The Princess Vlei was one of the few green spaces assigned to people of color. It became a place of healing for people who had been traumatized and scattered, a place where people of color could gather, fish, and where parents could teach their children to swim. The religious community developed a deep spiritual tie to the water body, and it became a site of baptism.

However, the vlei was extremely neglected by the Apartheid government, a legacy that continued post-Apartheid, and the area became a dumping ground for toxic waste and a hangout for gangs. The vlei was in such bad condition that in 2014 the city government attempted to sell the land to private developers to build a shopping mall.

This was the trigger moment that brought a fragmented and alienated community together to fight the sale of the land. The community organized and stood firm against the urbanization of their land, fought for their right to green open spaces, and won.

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A frog in the Princess Vlei

Community restoration

So, where does restoration come into the story of the Princess Vlei?

During the community campaign against the mall, restoration became a pillar of active protest. Restoring the vlei and planting indigenous fynbos was the community’s way of demanding the recognition the site deserved for its social, cultural, and biodiversity value. Through putting down roots in the neglected, sandy soil the community stood strong against the city.

The approach to restoration at the Princess Vlei is unlike many other biodiversity management projects as it emphasizes and values community engagement. After the successful campaign against the shopping mall, not only was a restoration management plan established to direct restoration efforts, but the community also founded the Princess Vlei Forum, created to facilitate community governance and participation. This prioritization of community custodianship is a vital part of urban conservation and shines a light on the social and cultural importance of healthy ecosystems in addition to the nature-based benefits. The Princess Vlei has become not only a space of buzzing ecological life, but also a place to nurture and build community, and to connect previously disadvantaged communities, struggling with the many challenges that such a fractured history brings, with nature.

To encourage participation the management team at the Princess Vlei work hard to involve and educate members of the community. This is done by working with schools to incorporate nature-based learning into their curriculum through workbooks and day visits out into the vlei, as well as engaging with adults, bringing them to the vlei to help weed and plant whilst sharing knowledge on the medicinal properties of the indigenous flora species. In fact, most of the restoration planting has been done by the community, fuelling connection to the space and a sense of care and stewardship.

Restoration and community engagement at the Princess Vlei is an ongoing journey. Challenges with the city’s governance systems and the continued call for the area to be recognized for its biodiversity value make tiring work. The Princess Vlei Forum hosts annual general meetings and more regular community gatherings to discuss the matters around the area but can only do so much to encourage active participation when the surrounding low-income communities have many other pressing issues.

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Large proteasa are growing for the first time in 50 years

But even in the context of such a painful history and with a multitude of socio-economic challenges, the vlei has been transformed over the last eight years from a sandpit-like landscape, scarred by tire marks left by unregulated and careless vehicles, to a vibrant ecosystem. A walk through the vlei today will take you past large proteas, growing for the first time in 50 years, chameleons slowly making their way up reeds blowing in the wind, and indigenous fynbos and strandveld flora standing proud, hosting a variety of the vlei’s pollinators, bees, moths, and beetles. In the summer, long grass will brush your calves, peppered with white daisies. The Princess Vlei team will use Restor to bolster the visibility of the Princess Vlei, attract funding for the continued restoration of the site, and connect with other organizations working with wetlands.

When I asked Bridget and Denisha, two members of the team working to restore the vlei, what makes them hopeful about the space, they smiled and immediately burst into conversation. They said, “when we bring school kids to the vlei, we do activities that encourage the kids to think for themselves and observe for themselves. Seeing the excitement when they find a simple beetle pollinating a flower or a bullrush, it’s the smallest thing, you see the little spark. One child picked up the piece of a water hyacinth and asked if she should put it back, I said no because we are trying to get those out of the water as they are problematic and explained a little why. I overheard her telling the other kids “I found this thing and it’s really dangerous”, holding out the soggy bulb, her friend squealed. The joy, it makes it all worth it, it’s like magic”.

Explore the Princess Vlei on Restor.

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School children learn about nature at Princess Vlei