Saving Princess Vlei – an Urban Wetland in South Africa
Women elders, who are members of a community led campaign to save a shallow wetland, used the celebration of Women's Day in South Africa on August 9th to highlight their objection to the proposed commercial development of Princess Vlei, an urban wetland situated in the city of Cape Town.
On Women's Day, Princess Vlei Forum supporters hosted a tree planting ceremony for the Khoi San princess after which the Vlei is named. One hundred year old Sophie Norling led the ceremony by planting the first Milkwood tree – planted in her honor. The other two Milkwood trees, planted by 82-year-old Joan Evans and 88-year-old Cicilia Johnson, were in honor of the Khoi Princess, and Saartjie Baartman. August marked the 10th anniversary of the return of Baartman’s remains to South Africa. Baartman was a famous Khoi women who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th Century Europe.
The small and shallow urban wetland affectionately referred to as “the princess” is named after a Khoi San princess.
Legend has it that a Khoi San princess once lived with her family in the Elephant's Eye Cave on Constantiaberg in Cape Town, a city on the tip of the African continent.
Every morning she would walk down the mountain and swim in one of the necklace of sparkling vleis at the base of the mountain. One morning tragedy struck and the princess was kidnapped by Portugese sailors, the first ever to round Cape Point in their attempts to establish direct trade relations with the far east.
Her tears created the smallest vlei in the string of wetlands, known ever since as Princess Vlei.
This legend has informed the robust community led campaign, the Forum, to stop the commercial development.
Campaign leader Philip Bam said: “The vlei has tremendous significance for the Khoi people where the legend has it that this is where the Khoi princess was abducted, violated and killed and so it has that kind of emotional and cultural significance and we think that if you want to desecrate that memory then a commercial mall will really do that. What we want to do is preserve that memory and turn the place into a memory park and have a center where we can celebrate the Khoi heritage in this area. This is where the first nation of South Africa dwelled and of course we are descendants of the first nation and I think we have to be given that particular recognition. It's very important for the identity of the people of this area because disease in the 1700s almost wiped out the Khoi population and then the political engineering through the decades almost obliterated the memory of who we really are and where we come from and so this is a golden opportunity for us to start bringing back that memory and to start respecting that memory again.”
The Forum has led a community-led rehabilitation project at the Vlei that they affectionately termed the “The Dressing of The Princess.” The community planted indigenous fynbos plants, removed alien vegetation and litter and created new walkways at the vlei.
The proposed commercial development on a portion of the vlei has been over a decade in the making.
In 1998 Insight Property developers set their sights on developing the shopping mall on a portion of the public open space.
Approval was given by the City of Cape Town subject to the outcome of a Public Participation Process (PPP), Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the rezoning of the area from a public space to business.
Several objections during the PPP, as well as questions regarding the findings of the EIA led to a halt in the process, which resulted in the allocated time for the Record of Decision (ROD) lapsing. When the developers then applied for the extension of the rezoning application, the city turned it down.
The community's relief was short-lived though, since the developers appeal found a sympathetic ear in the provincial government and the application for the land to be rezoned from a public space to business was granted in April this year.
Bam and supporters demand that the zoning of the land should revert back to public space.
A handful of events were planned by the Forum to save the pocket of land in the area and this included the tree planting ceremony that culminated into a tea party for the elders.
Norling was the guest of honor at the event and she remembers the Vlei when it was untamed and a place to tread carefully.
She warned her sons not to swim there because “it was not a healthy vlei. It was all bush and not like today where it is beautiful.”
Eighty-nine-year-old John Pietersen has lived near the Princess Vlei for his whole life, and remembers swimming in the vlei and taking his horses to cool down in the water. He recounted the popular legend that the Khoi Princess had, on her death, become a mermaid who would lure young men to their death if they swam in the wrong part of the vlei.
Other events planned by the Princess Vlei Forum included tree planting at the Vlei during National Arbor Week, September 1 – 7; and on Heritage Day in South Africa on September 27th, local indigenous elders were be honored.