Cape Flats are going green

Posted: 1 July 2002

Author: Christine Riley

Author Info: Christine Riley is Press Officer at WWF-South Africa.

The South African Cape Flats are barren, dusty, and windswept. Home to over a million people, this string of black and coloured townships on the east side of Cape Town is a hard - and dangerous - place to live. But now, thanks to a local community organisation, the settlements are are going green, as Christine Riley reports.

The settlements and townships of the Cape Flatswere were forcefully established in the early 1980s under the apartheid government of the time. They include a high percentage of informal shacks with no electricity or running water, built on infertile sand dunes and unprotected from severe wind and rain.

Unemployment ranges from 50 to 90 per cent, and the sheer difficulty of survival breeds crime and violence. With schools and school grounds resembling desert-like prisons, there is no reprieve from the hostile environment even for children, many of whom are not fed before coming to school.

Urban gardens

In this environment conservation has little meaning. But a community-based organisation is changing this harsh picture. Abalimi Bezekhaya - which means 'planters of the home' - is slowly transforming the sandy urban desert into a productive green environment.

The organization was founded in 1982 to promote and facilitate urban food gardens in Cape Flats, where residents had little access to fresh vegetables. Two non-profit community garden centres were established in the townships of Khayelitsha and Nyanga to supply a wide range of low-cost gardening resources, such as manure, seed, seedlings, tools, and pest control remedies.

Farmer, Miriam Petersen, sells fruit grownin the Abalimi Bezekhaya-supportedcommunity gardens© WWF-South AfricaEach garden centre is run as a business, but mark-ups are very low (approximately 20 per cent) to ensure that the goods remain affordable for even the lowest income groups. The garden centres also provide a comprehensive education programme.

The garden centres quickly became well patronized. By 1991, over 7000 people had made use of the centres' resources and sales were growing at an average of 80 per cent eaxh year. Today, the two centres provide agricultural resources to some 5000 subsistence farmers each year. In addition, Abalimi Bezekhaya-supported community gardens have started to organize regular market days to sell their sought-after organic vegetables.

School projects

Through community demand, Abalimi Bezekhaya's programme has expanded to include a broader environmental and greening approach. Since 1994, the organization has helped community groups to establish different types of permanent model projects to improve both the standard of living and the environment of Cape Flats. Abalimi is currently engaged with over 200 community based urban agriculture and environmental renewal initiatives.

One model project is the greening of Cape Flats schools. With support from WWF-South Africa's Green Trust, Abalimi Bezekhaya has developed over 20 Green School Models, with over 20 more in the queue. In each participating school, a major portion of the school grounds has been converted from desert to green area using indigenous, water-wise plants. In addition, school vegetable gardens have been established and supported.

In an extension of this project, the S.E.E.D. (Schools Environmental Education & Development) programme was created in 1998 to further assist teachers and school communities to green their school grounds and use them as an outdoor classroom. A practical guidebook for school greening was compiled and a teacher-training course was developed.This year (2002) the project has focused on setting up sustainable structures for the vegetable gardens, including rain harvesting systems, fencing, herb and leguminous tree borders, and windbreaks.

Community parks

Another model project is the creation of community managed parks, such as Manyanani Peace Park in Khayelitsha. Created in 1994, this is the first community park to be successfully established in the informal settlements of Cape Town, and remains the leading model for community-based park development. The park covers 1.8 hectares and is planted with lawns, trees, and groundcovers, most of which are indigenous species.The Peace Park includes an open air amphitheatre, drinking fountains, benches, a half-size soccer field, an open-air basketball court, a small community centre, and play equipment such as swings and slides.

Abalimi Bezekhaya's model projects have proved extremely successful. They have not only directly improved the lives of Cape Flats communities, but have influenced broader policies, including improved open spaces and urban farmings. In addition, the organization's community garden centres are still the only agricultural resources in the informal settlements of Cape Flats.

The organization continues to expand its activities, entering into new partnerships with schools, environmental youth clubs, and community gardens. Abalimi Bezekhaya certainly is a green light for the future.