A once litter- strewn wetland in a township outside Cape Town becomes the community’s own botanical pride.
A retired wheat and sheep farm, high on a weather-scoured plateau in the Northern Cape, has its work-weary slopes restored to protect a treasure of plant life.
An illustrated story of the fictional character, Kobus February, brings to life the reality of labourers working to grow South Africa’s food.
A cut-budget blog in which EMG asks government how it will police pollution caused by a fracking spill.
Four disparate stories from diverse communities. Yet each one captures something of the work done by Cape Town-based civil society organisation, the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG).
EMG tries to encourage ‘sustainable development’ through economic and social justice, in a way that leads to more human relationships with each other and the natural environment.
These are some of the organisation’s ‘Untold Stories’.
Makhaza: ‘This is my Kirstenbosch’
For some of the women living in the poor township of Makhaza, Khayelitsha, outside Cape Town, being unemployed isn’t a reason to sit about, idle, bored and hopeless. If anything, it’s their joblessness that has motivated them to take on the battle to clean up their neighbourhood. This is the story of how a simple campaign to stop men beating up their wives grew into a small, organised movement of activists who are reclaiming the community’s water, soil, air and parklands.
It all centres around a kidney bean-shaped body of water on their doorstep, a piece of wetland where criminals occasionally dumped bodies or in which children sometimes drowned, writes Leonie Joubert. Photographs by Sam Reinders.
This is the story of the Makhaza Wetland Park, Khayelitsha’s very own ‘Kirstenbosch’.
The colour of peace
IT STARTED WITH neat stripes of colour painted modestly around strategic pieces of brickwork and cement in Makhaza, a neglected corner of Khayelitsha. The shades of purple, yellow, blue, pink and green are becoming dusty with time and exposure to the elements: broad bands of parallel colour enclosing the walls of an outdoor toilet; thinner stripes of the same, decorating a cement curb on the edge of a pavement; draped along the full length front wall of a home; or filling in the blanks on a few otherwise muted fence posts.
Their tones are as soft as the message’s loud roar: this is a violence-free neighbourhood. Here, the colours declare, here our women and children are safe.
All this painting happened on a single day of activism initiated by Prevention in Action, an organisation tackling gender-based violence. Its aspiration may have been lofty, but the purpose was sound: a single, symbolic gesture to claim back the streets in neighbourhoods around the country. While stamping out domestic violence in a community as poor as this isn’t as simple as splashing some colourful paint about, it set an intention. Before long, the newly mobilised women of Makhaza realised they couldn’t stop there, because this was a community in need.
The story of this movement’s origin, unfolds one winter’s morning in 2013 as a group of women stroll casually through Makhaza, giving an account of how they rallied together in this community living on the economic margins of South Africa’s Mother City.
They point to the newly fenced-in grass around a wetland that no longer stinks of dumped rubbish; they chatter proudly over budding vegetable plants in newly turned trench beds; they pop in to check in on a neighbour whose leaking toilet recently got fixed by municipal contractors; they stroll over the plush grass of a park which they’ve claimed back from local hoodlums so that kids can play here again.
After the campaign against domestic violence, they began cleaning up a badly polluted wetland on the edge of their neighbourhood. They learned how to turn the ancient sand dunes in the back yards into fertile vegetable patches. They started comparing Makhaza’s air pollution levels with other communities’, and they decided to challenge the City of Cape Town’s discriminatory water delivery policy.
Finding her niche
Too old to get a job, too young for a state pension, the 57 year old Cynthia Wana has better things to do than sit around.
Each woman has her own story. Each one has her own reason for being part of this group. But perhaps none sums it up better than 57 year old Cynthia Wana, who chuckles wryly as she explains how she’s too old to get a job, but too young for a state pension.
Why, for instance, does a woman who is reaching retirement age voluntarily splash through the edges of a stinking wetland, picking up litter, when many regard this as the City’s responsibility? Why walk door-to-door through her neighbourhood, rallying people together so they can learn about how to read water bills? Why care about whether a park is safe to stroll through on a Sunday afternoon?
‘Because this is my place,’ her mouth breaks into a gentle smile beneath brown-rimmed spectacles. ‘It must look nice. Even if visitors from all over the world came here to visit, our place must look nice.’
But it’s more than that. It’s also about fending off the malaise of boredom and apathy and frustration that comes with not being able to find a job, of not having the freedom that comes with financial independence.
‘Because when you sit down, and do nothing, you think too much,’ her face softens. ‘But if you just do something with other people, if you go with people and do something...’
Her voice trails off.
Once you’re passionate about one thing, Cynthia and her fellow activists show, you get caught up in all the issues. You can’t just be a health activist or an environmental activist in a neighbourhood like this. You’re fighting to improve people’s lives. You’re fighting for people’s wellbeing.
Meet the activists of Makhaza, recently named the Makhaza Wetland and Food Growers, and the playground they built.
From dump to green belt
Wellington Tiwe is having words with a cattle herder who is stretched nonchalantly on a grassy hillock next to the reedy fringe of the river which trickle-feeds the Makhaza wetland. The cattle man is propped up on one elbow, legs stretched out. It’s hard to tell from his body language how he’s taking Tiwe’s request – or is it a command? – to keep his boss’s cattle away from the park.
A special place
‘This is my Kirstenbosch,’ beams Yandiswa Nxawe, pointing to a bed of newly planted ornamental plants on either side of her front door.
Six months ago, the area surrounding the pond on the ends of the Makhaza Wetlands Park was just sandy ground with a few plugs of grass struggling to survive. Now it’s crowded over with a lush green carpet – the kind of backdrop for picnicking families, soccer playing kids and glowing newlyweds posing for photographs. Since the City put a fence up around the park, and replaced the stolen cattle grid (nothing is safe from the scrap metal merchants), the grass has recovered nicely.
‘In the past, people used to drive all the way through to Kirstenbosch (National Botanical Garden) if they wanted nice wedding photos,’ explains local activist Yandiswa Nxawe, from the Makhaza Wetlands and Food Growers group. ‘Now they have their photos taken here.’
Her beaming smile suggests so many layers of story underlying how significant it is for this poor township community to have a place where the community can gather.
It wasn’t always like this, though.
The park itself has been there since 1997 – and Wellington’s tenure as caretaker goes back as far as then (‘I’m a Jack-of-all-trades,’ he grins, when asked to describe what his job entails).
But the nearby wetland, on the edge of the park, was the problem. It became the place where the locals dumped all the rubbish which the municipality wouldn’t take away, anything ‘that didn’t fit into the black wheelie bins’ used for refuse collection: mattresses, building rubble, dead dogs.
‘Ja,’ one of the Makhaza women says as she and her fellow activists escort some visitors through their community, ‘when someone’s dog dies, what do you do with it?’
The wetland became a catch-all for the detritus of life in the absence of decent refuse removal. Then there’s the problem of the Belleville wastewater treatment plant, which discharges into the Kuils River system and drains down into this network of wetlands.
At home EMG’s Thabo Lusithi and Cynthia Wana survey the reeds alongside the Makhaza wetland. A few years ago, the wetland smelled so foul that people couldn’t go near it. Now it is become a source of beauty and pride.
The natural pond on the edge of the park stank dreadfully, they say. Sometimes they’d find a body floating in it. Sometimes a child would get into trouble and drown. A dense thicket of alien invasive bush made the place a haven for criminals. Troublesome youth began to take over the park and so the community stayed away.
But all that changed in 2008. It’s hard to track the exact sequence of events: who started the process; where did the activism around the wetland restoration begin? But between the City of Cape Town’s parks department, various civil society organisations concerned with environmental issues (the Coalition for Environmental Justice, CEJ, and the Environmental Monitoring Group, EMG), the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the Department of Water Affairs’ Adopt-a-River Programme, and an increasingly involved local community, they began to reclaim this space. The wetland area of the park was enclosed with a fence, fynbos plants were put into some of the beds, the alien bush was cleared so the indigenous reed beds could recover, and a number of local volunteers began picking up the litter that had been dumped here.
EMG’s Taryn Pereira explains how unexpected it was to find, in the summer of 2012, that there were still pockets of living ecosystems in a space that is mostly just viewed as a ‘sprawling urban ghetto, overcrowded and underserviced, with little remaining connection to the underlying natural ecosystems of the area’.
‘In spite of the huge pressures on the wetland, it’s still a functioning ecosystem. It supports many plants and animals,’ she says.
Mothering the neighbourhood
Pumla Vuso volunteers her time to help keep the park and wetland clean.
Even though it’s been degraded over the years, it can still help buffer against the force of flooding, and can strip pollutants out of the water.
‘This wetland is important to people. Some use it for collecting medicinal plants, others for ritual washing before traditional ceremonies. Some use it to water their livestock, for swimming, and even as a hunting ground.’
The work is far from over – the water is still too polluted to even use for irrigating the park’s grass and gardens, according to Tiwe, and certainly can’t be used for religious rituals like baptisms. But it has become a tremendous source of pride for the Makhaza Wetlands and Food Growers. Now these woman police the wetland, explaining to people in the neighbourhood why they shouldn’t dump their household waste here, or reporting those seen doing it.
But why do they do this, giving up so much of their time to pick up other people’s rubbish?
It’s simple. As many of these women admit in a quiet moment of reflection, they do it to deal with the stress of being unemployed, to avoid the heavy places your mind wanders off to when you have too much time on your hands. Activism like this is a wonderful distraction from the hardship of poverty and unemployment.
Buds of hope
Thembisa Vani (42) strolls down a pockmarked road in Makhaza, Khayelitsha, chattering like a bird in spring. Her voice bubbles, even though the pages of her story reveal a life that can’t have been easy: bedridden and nearly paralysed with polio at the age of five; a childhood of wheelchairs and crutches; hobbling through adolescence; dropping out of school; travelling to Cape Town with her father for treatment; multiple operations and physiotherapy and learning to walk again.
After growing up in Cofimvaba, in what was then the rural Tranksei, Cape Town was thrilling.
‘There were a lot of people in the streets,’ she laughs, ‘I got excited! I decided to stay.’
‘I’m not disabled’
Growing up in the aftermath of polio wasn't easy for Thembisa Vani, but this is life as she knows it, and she sees herself as being as able bodied as the next.
She grins, her legs swinging through their awkward gait, her left foot still twisted out acutely. Even the occasional stumble doesn’t trip her up, though. This is life as she knows it, and she insists she’s as able bodied as the next.
She chatters on, about how she married, had three children, and got on with life.
Lately, she’s taken up food gardening after doing a course with a local non-governmental organisation, Soil for Life, who came into the community and showed them the ropes of urban food farming
She escorts the party she’s with into her unfenced garden, little more than a square of mostly bare ground, and she beams as she points out her latest project: infant spinach leaves, giving a lacy green finish to soil inside the upended case of a discarded television set. Next to it, a newspaper-lined crate, teaming with seedlings of spring onions, broccoli, radishes, cauliflower.
Nearby, she points out a rectangle of garden, fenced in with a green shade cloth, where more young leaves push out of the ground. Some are dotted with holes, testimony to Thembisa’s new battle ground: bug versus broccoli. But she’s got a few ideas on how to boost her young plants’ defences, thanks to the food gardening workshops.
Green fingers Khunjulwa Mtyhita points out her lush spinach crop, growing out of beds made in discarded car tyres. Her back yard is wall-to-wall vegetables.
Food gardening has long been on the minds of many Makhaza women, who initially starting turning the communal soil along the edge of their wetland, so they could grow fresh vegetables for their families. But some of the local cattle grazing nearby found these easy-access greens irresistible, so the beds had to move into the women’s gardens.
Then the City threatened to push ahead with its plans to rezone the nearby Philippi Horticultural Area for housing development. Smallholder plots on this 2 400 ha piece of land apparently supply half of the City’s fresh vegetables. A group of local activists spoke at the Makhaza group’s regular Friday meetings, explaining how important the survival of these small Philippi famers is for keeping Cape Town’s food system resilient. Food security issues landed right back on the agenda for these Makhaza women. With the help of Thabang Ngcozela, a Makhaza resident who works with EMG, the women signed up for weekly food gardening workshops.
‘Twenty out of twenty!’Yandiswa Nxawe points out the immaculate vegetable beds wedged in on either side of her front gate.
About a quarter of all South Africans experience hunger on a daily basis, according to the Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC’s) recent South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, while nearly a third are at risk of hunger. People still tend to buy food according to price rather than nutritional value, says the report. For cash strapped communities like Makhaza, where many are unemployed, being able to grow your own food is an important livelihood strategy.
It’s early days yet, but the Makhaza food gardeners are learning the finer points of digging trench beds, controlling pests organically, rotating crops, and nutrition. You can feed a family all year round from a patch of earth the size of a door, they learned. And so they’re tilling the sandy soils in their gardens on the ancient dunefields of the Cape Flats. It’s hard work to eek goodness out of this naturally poor soil, but they’re composting and mulching and watering their formerly barren gardens with determination.
Plugging up the leaks
The hand writing, in black marker pen against the rusty purple-coloured paint on the back wall of the toilet cubicle, translates roughly from the original Xhosa: Please keep the toilet clean. Your cooperation is appreciated.
Like most of the amenities in this township, it’s an outdoor toilet enclosed in a cement cubicle, with a single tap on the outside.
Nthabeleng Malefane points to a shadow on the floor where moisture once pooled, and explains how people from the municipality came door-to-door a month earlier, in July 2013, asking if her house had any water leaks.
Taking charge Nthabeleng Malefane felt empowered by the fact that she knew how to deal with the City’s paperwork when a team of contractors came door-to-door recently, wanting to repair water leaks.
Yes, she said, and pointed them to the outlet pipe of the toilet which had been weeping onto the rough cement floor for years. It took as little as 20 minutes to repair the broken seal.
‘This is the first time (in years) since the concrete is dry,’ she asserts.
The matter of leaking pipes, taps and toilets is central to an ongoing tussle between the activists of Makhaza and the City of Cape Town, and an area where EMG has stepped in to initiate a conversation between the two.
The City faces twin challenges, in terms of water delivery. It is obliged to feed water into every home in its jurisdiction, where the swelling population is already around 3.75 million. This includes getting water into the historically under-serviced low-income homes on the Cape Flats which were known as the ‘dumping ground’ for people of colour under the apartheid system.
Makhaza residents say they are not opposed to paying for water, but they need more information, and informed participation.
But many of the homes in these poorer communities get their water via decaying or inferior quality infrastructure. Shoddy workmanship or low-budget materials on some government-built homes often lead to taps and toilets failing. Tight household budgets mean many people can’t afford to fix and maintain the taps and toilets around their homes. Or they might not know how to make repairs, or even realise the importance of it.
The result? Faulty pipes, taps and toilets that leak water, bleeding untold litres of this pressured resource out into the ground daily; and water bills that, for this poor community, are almost laughable they are so high.
EMG researcher Taryn Pereira explains what this means for a population as economically marginal as the people in Khayelitsha.
‘We calculated that of about 80 households in the community where we work, together they owe the City R20 million in water bills. That’s R250 000 per household,’ she smiles at how absurd it is that a bunch of families who don’t have lawns to water, cars to wash, or swimming pools to keep topped up, could possibly rack up this kind of water bill.
For these people, though, the bills are a constant source of background anxiety and stress. None of them would be able to furnish debt this high. Some might be sitting with inherited debt from a previous home owner. Because of the informal nature of house ownership here, and title deeds not transferring properly, it is difficult to know where a previous owner’s water use ends, and a current owner’s begins. For many, there’s a culture of non-payment: either they believe that water is a free thing from God and they shouldn’t have to pay. Some still have a lingering resistance to the state, a hangover from apartheid-era resistance.
But mostly, the people here don’t know their water rights, they don’t know how to read municipal bills and they don’t understand the importance of stopping the leaks.
As a result, the communities fail to pay, the City cannot collect its debt, and water is not being managed effectively.
Taryn Pereira squats down next to a rectangular black plastic lid buried in the grainy sand outside Nthabeleng’s lavatory. The EMG researcher pries it open, and starts digging away the sand that’s worked its way in under the lid.
Behind the smudged glass face of a water meter, some digits appear: 01237m3, above four dials the size of ten cent coins, each with stout red arrows pointing in apparently randomly directions.
‘This is good,’ Pereira explains, partly to Nthabeleng and partly to herself. ‘If the numbers aren’t moving, it means there aren’t any hidden leaks in here.’ She points to the toilet block in front of her.
EMG has been working closely with the Makhaza residents to help them muddle through the difficulties they face with water delivery, leaks and bills. They’ve held a series of workshops here, where they’ve showed people how to read their bills, explained the water cycle, informed them about the need for a healthy environment and brought them up to speed on the community’s water rights.
As a result, the women of Makhaza have rallied together to take this information into their community, going door-to-door informing people of the very issues they picked up in the workshop process.
They’ve since taken up the cause with the City of Cape Town, asking the municipality to fix the leaks, zero their debt, and let them start with a blank billing slate.
But, as Pereira explains, it’s not as simple as that.
‘The City has said it will only fix household leaks and freeze high debt if people agree to have a water management device installed,’ says Pereira.
Five years ago, the City tried to deal with water management in some residential areas by installing a ‘smart water’ metering system.
Leading the chargeNokuzola Bulana is another local firebrand and one of the women who headed up the community’s activism around water access and cleaning up the wetlands.
The system is simple in concept, but the reality is more complex: every day, the smart meter feeds through the municipally-allocated 350 litres of free daily water to every household. Once that’s been delivered, the meter shuts off the water.
But these meters have largely been installed in low-income houses in poorer communities like Makhaza, rather than in wealthy communities who are free of the financial constraints that would otherwise limit their water use. Once the meter shuts off the water, families are left without water for the remaining 24 hours, until the next free daily cycle begins. This leaves them having to collect water in buckets from neighbours or nearby community taps.
The meters are a rather blunt instrument. They don’t recognise how many people might be using a single household’s tap – four or, say, 10 – and they don’t discriminate between actual water used, or water leaking out of the broken system. There are sometimes technical problems with meters.
So a family might find its 350 litres disappearing into the ground and their water cut off daily. As a result, they’re also getting charged for water they haven’t used, leaving them with often grossly inflated bills.
The Makhaza folk call these water meter devices the ufudo, Xhosa for ‘tortoise’, because these blue-topped devices ‘hide in their shell and we can't see what’s going on inside’. They see the City’s water management policy as punitive and unfair; it discriminates against the poorest and most vulnerable and effectively operates as a pre-paid system.
People like Nthabeleng have managed to avoid having this meter installed – she has a normal water meter ticking over in her front yard, just centimetres from where the municipal pipes connect with her toilet and tap.
But many in the community are nervous to approach the City either to have their debt cleared (at one point Nthabeleng owed with City about R17 000) or to ask to have leaks fixed, because if they put themselves on the City’s radar, they fear they might be bullied into having an ufudo installed, or will be asked to settle their debts immediately, or be disconnected.
Working togetherThabang Ngcozela works with EMG and lives in the Makhaza community, spearheading an activist movement that has pushed for greater food access, adult education, the wetland clean-up and a less punitive water service delivery approach from the City.
Negotiations continue. The City has showed a willingness to consider zeroing people’s water bills, but it’s cynical about such a measure, saying previous attempts to scrap debt hasn’t resolved the ongoing lack of payment. More recently, the City has agreed to fix leaks without insisting on installing smart meters and has said it will consider reducing or scrapping people’s debt for a trial period of six months. Whatever happens, according to EMG, there needs to be a more realistic reflection of water use by these low-income homes, and civil society needs to be included in negotiations very deliberately. And there needs to be greater transparency in terms of making sure that good materials are used for leak repairs, and the City needs to work with communities to help them understand water management measures.
Checking the factsEMG’sTaryn Pereira and Makhaza activist Thembisa Vani read a municipal water bill, trying to understand a credit adjustment. The confusing billing system confounds many residents here.
Meanwhile, Taryn and Nthabeleng chat in an offhand way about the contractors who fixed Nthabeleng’s leak. Did they ask her to sign any paperwork, Taryn asks, and what were they asking her to sign? Yes, they did. But it turns out that Nthabeleng was on the lookout for any underhand dealings that might have resulted in her unwittingly signing an agreement to have a meter installed.
No, Nthabeleng says, she knew what to look out for and only signed to confirm that the work was done. What’s significant in this, though, is not just that she understood what she was signing, but that she was taking charge of her own circumstances. That seems to have done wonders for her self confidence.