A ten-year campaign to save an urban wetland in the city of Cape Town, South Africa from the development of a shopping mall has finally borne fruit with the announcement by government that the proposed commercial development, would be scrapped once and for all.
The wetland, known as Princess Vlei, has a cultural resonance with local people who point to the vlei as a sacred space marking their indigenous ancestry. The vlei has been used for ceremonies, including baptism and more generally for recreation. During the Apartheid regime, when the movement of persons of color was restricted, Princess Vlei was one of the few recreational spaces available to people of color.
Princess Vlei, according to a popular legend, was actually so named after a local princess.
According to the legend, 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 at the violation she endured, created the smallest vlei in the string of wetlands, known ever since as Princess Vlei. The legend was part of what informed a robust community led campaign to save the wetland from commercial development.
The Princess Vlei Forum, made up of volunteers, was established to lead the campaign. The Forum argued that the land was of historical significance to the indigenous Khoisan people – the descendants of whom live near the vlei – and that the land itself lies in the endangered Cape Flats biome.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) website, South Africa’s Western Cape Province, which is where Princess Vlei is located, is more “botanically diverse than the richest tropical rainforest in South America, including the Amazon.”
The commercial development on a portion of the vlei has been on the cards for over a decade and in 2009 the proposed sale of the wetland was rejected by the city government. However, this was overturned by the provincial government and sparked fury among Princess Vlei supporters. The Princess Vlei Forum also alleged fraud and corruption was part of the proposed shopping mall development deal and this led to a high level independent investigation.
Meanwhile, the campaign to save the vlei from commercial development received a high profile boost from South African Nobel laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu when he expressed his support for the Princess Vlei Forum’s efforts to save the vlei from commercial development. In a letter to the forum, he said, in part, “I would like to express my support for the campaign to save the greater Princess Vlei area from the inappropriate development of a shopping mall, and for its protection in perpetuity as a nature and heritage park. Princess Vlei is a valuable place for citizens to come to be close to God and nature, to find peace and to build family and community.”
In a statement released by the deputy mayor Ian Neilson, he confirmed that, “the city of Cape Town has listened to the community and decided that the proposal for a shopping centre on the Princess Vlei land is inappropriate and will cancel the project.”
The statement continues in part: “The city has been in discussions with the prospective developer of the land over the past year to investigate alternatives to the proposed development. “We have come to the conclusion that, notwithstanding the zoning that has been achieved for the development, the only workable option would be for the city to cancel the proposed sale of the land to the developer and compensate him for the costs that he has incurred on the project.”
The Princess Vlei Forum welcomed the announcement and had this to say in an official statement: “This represents a significant victory for civil society. It is a testament to the power of collective imagination, the power of memory, and the tenacity and determination of those who recognized that the value of this space far out-weighs the value of a shopping mall. The communities most invested in Princess Vlei have limited financial resources. At times it seemed impossible that we would win against the march of profit. But as one resident remarked to us “If our people stand together we can win this thing.” Princess Vlei represents what can happen when citizens take ownership of their city, and collaborate to ensure that what they value is respected.”
The Deputy Mayor’s announcement paves the way for the Princess Vlei Forum to continue its own project to revitalize the land, which includes amongst others developing hiking trails on the wetland.