It was a remarkable gathering: A Catholic archbishop and a primary school jazz band, chiefs from Khoi and Xhosa tribes, a rabbi and a sheikh, a baptising Pentecostal elder and a Buddhist… a rare moment when our rainbow nation shone in all its colours.
But perhaps what was most remarkable about this gathering was that this group had come together on September 22 to defend one Cape Town’s most contested natural features – the Princess Vlei.
What has motivated these moral custodians of our city to take this stand? Why has Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu bothered to weigh in to the debate with a message of support?
Superficially, the Princess Vlei issue might seem a small issue. But it is an issue in which the greater social, cultural, historical, economic and environmental connections are so starkly and eloquently expressed that it serves as a microcosm of critical choices facing our city, our country and indeed our planet. Perhaps this is why it has caught the attention even of those who have never had the pleasure of watching pelicans coming in to land on the water, or seeing the Constantiaberg mirrored in its still surface.
Princess Vlei holds an urgent lesson, the same lesson that is being ignored by global political and financial leaders as they continue to avoid taking the decisive action needed to avert the catastrophe of uncontained climate change. The lesson is so simple: If we continue to sacrifice social justice and environmental well-being for the short-term enrichment of a minority, we will soon find ourselves in a world that is uninhabitable.
It is self-evident that building a shopping mall on a wetland does not promote environmental sustainability. What may be less obvious is the damage this development could do to social sustainability, which is equally critical to the long-term health of our society.
A socially sustainable society is one that pays attention not only to people’s physical needs, but also to their psychological and emotional needs. Critical to the psychological health of a community is access to recreational spaces where people can connect with nature, interact with each other in a relaxed way, or find solitude and peace. For those living in over-crowded homes with no gardens, such solace can only be found in natural public spaces. In this context, these spaces become the pressure valve that enables people to cope with the stresses of social and economic hardship in densely populated environments.
Princess Vlei has long served this purpose. People from the ages of eight to 80 have remarked that what they value most about the vlei is that it gives them a feeling of peace.
In the words of Mak1, a graffiti artist who grew up in Cafda: “No matter what happened economy-wise or family-wise, Princess Vlei was one place people went and had a good time… the sun would set, and I remember the fires and the braais going on, music playing, people were happy.
“You knew when you went home there’d be skelling about no money for this or that, or not enough to eat, but while we were here at the Vlei, people had a great time. Among all the negatives… the Vlei was the one memory that shone through, and you knew if you could focus on that, you could survive, you could make it through.”
People in the community speak of Princess Vlei as a place given by God, a place that is free. There is a sense that God (or nature) has generously provided such beauty and tranquillity without expecting anything in return. This generosity helps people to feel wealthy in a more profound sense, to forget that they are deprived, or poor, or lacking. The water sparkles just as brightly for a single mother from Parkwood as it does for a wealthy Constantia resident. Probably a lot more – Constantia residents are treated daily to lush views in their garden, or at any of the holiday locations they can afford to visit. Most people living near Princess Vlei have no gardens and no car.
A shopping mall, on the other hand, can make all but the super-rich feel poor, with its display of goods that few can afford to buy. A shopping mall entices people to spend beyond their means. A shopping mall diverts money from small traders, breadwinners in this community, into the profits of big business. A shopping mall may create jobs, but it kills local enterprise.
The value of Princess Vlei to the community is clear and widely acknowledged, a value that would be greatly enhanced if the space was developed as a nature and heritage park.
Yet all indications now are that the city is set to go ahead with the sale of the land to the developer. What is driving this intention?
In his keynote address at the Princess Vlei Forum prayer meeting on September 22, Bishop Geoff Davies quoted the story of Jesus chasing the money-lenders out of the temple. “Is not the whole world God’s temple?” he asked. Has not God brought life to this planet? Hasn’t Princess Vlei been a temple for generations of users?
“Yet we have made this wonderful planet of life, this temple of God, into a den of thieves. We do everything to make money… We rape the environment, so we have rhinos facing extinction, so that people can make money. We have open-cast mining, polluting air and water and destroying the soil, all to make money.”
At the heart of the Princess Vlei story is the tale of two cities: An uncaring city driven by commercial development at the cost of social and environmental sustainability, versus a caring city that balances economic needs with long-term social and environmental health. The DA claims to be running a caring city, and its policy frameworks do embrace this vision.
But recently, city leadership seems to be ignoring its own policies. Lately, as in the case of the Wescape development, the Philippi Horticultural Area farmlands and Princess Vlei, Uitkamp at Durbanville, and the Two Rivers Urban Park at the confluence of the Black River and Liesbeek Rivers, the city’s decisions seem to favour bids for private development over community interests, even those which contradict its own policies or advice by its own professionals. This trend threatens to push us towards the first city, a city driven by short-term gain rather than long-term vision, a dangerous, uncaring city where even the privileged cannot build walls high enough to keep out the misery and anger beyond them. Social and environmental sustainability are not luxuries. A city that is not socially and environmentally sustainable is a city sowing its own seeds of destruction.
Perhaps these developments fill the city’s coffers, but they carry social and environmental costs that in the long term far outweigh whatever wealth they generate. No doubt our city’s leadership make difficult choices every day. But the decision to save Princess Vlei is not a difficult choice. The gains of another shopping mall, particularly to the disadvantaged neighbouring communities, are negligible, if they are there at all. The loss of this iconic wetland and recreational space is irretrievable and incalculable.
We should be able to trust the city to conserve these precious natural resources and communal spaces, but increasingly it is falling to civil society to defend them, sometimes at considerable cost. The struggle to save the Sea Point waterfront cost some R2.7 million, financed by generous individuals from the relatively wealthy Sea Point community. Princess Vlei, once affectionately named “Claremont Beach” is a “seafront” and traditional gathering place for the many local residents who cannot afford the transport and time to travel to the beach. Must the schoolchildren, the unemployed, the pensioners and other hard-pressed community members from around Princess Vlei struggle to raise funds for a similar court action to defend one of their few accessible recreational spaces?
In the words of Bishop Davies, “This is not just a moral issue. It is a deeply spiritual matter. How we live together – with God, one another and the rest of creation is a deeply spiritual matter. We have come because all religions call for justice and righteousness – for fairness. So we now call on the authorities to seek justice for the people and the planet. If they allow the development of a shopping mall at Princess Vlei, we know that they are bringing conflict and perpetuating injustice.”
Let us call on the city leadership to revitalise their vision of a city that cares for all, that protects the interests of the marginalised and the vulnerable, and to pursue this vision honestly, and assiduously. We owe this to our citizens, and to our children.