South Africa

Business Maverick, Maverick Life, South Africa

Philippi Horticultural Area: An urgent plea to save our wetlands

Philippi Horticultural Area: An urgent plea to save our wetlands

The Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) provides the majority of Cape Town's vegetables and potentially holds the key to its future water supply. But it is under threat. Together with concerned citizens, local farmers are fighting to keep the area from development that could spell disaster. They have won some battles. But according to the letter of the law, the war is far from over. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

I. The PHA

The Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) is a little surreal. The farms are so close to the surrounding main roads and industrial areas that if you weren’t familiar with the PHA, you’d never guess it was a short drive away from some of Cape Town’s busiest business districts and industrial areas. Some of the farms are, in fact, adjacent to the main road; you can have a chat with the farm workers while watching the cars drive by in peak hour traffic.

Nazeer Sonday’s one-hectare farm is a small piece of land adjacent to a tiny café on one of Phillipi’s quieter, but still well-known roads. He used to run the business next door but gave it up for full-time farming and advocacy. The farming itself is a source of fascination for his neighbours – “they know me as that crazy guy who grows weeds,” he explains. And indeed he does, in a way. As a fully-fledged organic farmer, Sonday uses only natural processes on his farm, growing produce seasonally and preparing the land naturally for each new crop. He’s just completed the sunflower cycle (a few blooms remain) and is currently growing plants that will prepare his soil for the next rotation. Mustard as a natural bio-fumigant; radish to release nitrogen. He previously grew tomatoes only, and raised chickens, but found that that wasn’t very profitable on such a small scale. His current method works better for his needs and capabilities. Although, he adds, it’s a little difficult to get any farming done nowadays with the amount of activism he’s doing.

Photo: Nazeer Sonday (Marelise vd Merwe)

Sonday leads the charge among a group of farmers and concerned citizens who are fighting plans for the development of the Cape Flats aquifer. He, with the PHA Food & Farming Campaign, is fighting plans to develop the area further.

The fight is not new. But for the Food & Farming Campaign, it’s becoming ever more urgent as the ramifications of the drought become more serious. “We have had to fight so hard to get media interested in our campaign,” he says. “But now, with the drought, people are starting to sit up and listen.”

Photo: Philippi farm. (Marelise vd Merwe)

Here’s the issue: the Philippi Horticultural area is, firstly, an area where small-scale farmers are able, feasibly, to make a living. There are also some residents farming successfully as a result of land reform procedures. Secondly, the Cape Flats Aquifer – an integrated underground water system covering 630 square kilometres and mostly located underneath the Cape Flats – is mostly covered by tar and concrete already. The last remaining area that has not been developed yet is in the PHA. According to UN hydrogeologist Yongxin Xu – currently a professor at UWC – the aquifer holds enough fresh water to supply the city with 30% of its potable water needs almost immediately.

Essential to the health of the CFA is its recharge zone – the above-ground catchment area. The PHA farmlands and wetlands form the last natural green space where rainfall can permeate freely into the underground aquifer, a process integral to its survival. Thirty percent of the PHA floods during winter months, creating numerous seasonal wetlands. These wetlands are habitat to 98 bird species including flamingos, and play a vital function in ‘recharging’ the aquifer. Paving over the PHA farmlands with housing, asphalt and mining silica sand, explain hydrogeologists, will starve and eventually destroy the aquifer.

One of the primary problems the Campaign has highlighted is that one of the spots targeted for development is precisely the most fertile portion of the remaining catchment area [see diagrams].

Map: PHA is at the heart of the Cape Flats. (Campaign)

Map: PHA area of highest aquifer productivity. (Campaign)

Map: Rapicorp (blue), MSP-Uvest (red): There’s a clear overlap with the area of highest aquifer productivity. (Campaign)

At the last count, the PHA produced around 100,000 tonnes of vegetables annually. Around three-quarters of that produce goes into supermarkets, including well-known retail chains like Pick ‘n Pay, Fruit ‘n Veg City and Woolworths. Costs are kept down because of Philippi’s proximity to the city centre. Actually, Philippi produces about 80% of Cape Town’s vegetables. Activists from Philippi have been campaigning to have their produce branded so that shoppers can be aware of where their food is coming from, says Sonday, because at the moment the Cape Flats farmers appear largely unknown. One knows of Elgin apples and Stellenbosch wines, he argues – why not Philippi lettuces?

Photo: Harvesting lettuce. (Marelise vd Merwe)

Because of the abundant water in the area and the mild weather, crops can be grown all year round. On some of the farms, there are as many as five crop cycles per year.

“There have been so many studies on this area because it is so unique,” Sonday says. “And since our annual produce was last measured, our production area has increased by around 20%. We need a new study to take stock, but our annual production has definitely grown – and that’s not taking into account the flowers we produce, or the livestock.” According to his survey of farmers in the area, around 2,500 livestock leave Philippi per week, and there is urgent need for an abattoir. There’s also an abundance of sand mines in the area.

Table: By travelling and average 10km to the major consumers, the effective fuel savings achieved is significant.

Even if the whole PHA is not rezoned, it does not matter, he says. If the most productive section of the aquifer is built up, it will have disastrous consequences for the farmers on the rest of the land, because the aquifer will not be able to recharge. “We won’t survive it,” he says. “We won’t.”

II. Complications

From the City’s point of view, it’s a difficult choice to make. They’re under pressure to provide housing to the growing population, and Philippi itself is in a struggle for survival in more ways than one. It is large. According to Census data it falls under the Cape Flats Planning District, bordered by Ottery, Hanover Park and Manenberg – areas long battered by gang violence, with Ottery and Manenberg being two of the Cape’s most notoriously violent areas. Over half the households in the district earn a monthly income of R3,200 or less, and the largest portion of adults have some secondary schooling but no further qualification, which places the City in something of a dilemma; which is more important for residents’ economic welfare? Industrial development and housing or continued agricultural growth?

In the 1970s, Philippi East was rezoned from a farming area to an industrial zone, and has become a growing industrial node in Cape Town. Nowadays, there are an ever-increasing number of people moving through the area.

Photo: Dumping of rubble is a serious problem on land in the PHA. (Marelise vd Merwe)

In a 2012 report by the City entitled “The Role of the Philippi Horticultural Area in Securing the Future of the City”, the City expressed the rationale behind development as follows: “Provide and maintain economic and social infrastructure to ensure infrastructure-led growth and development, as it supports sustainable city development by promoting the development of already identified and planned for new development areas in the vicinity of the PHA rather than the unplanned for development of an acknowledged agricultural area of the city.” But in the same report, it the authors also acknowledged that:

“The Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) is a critical resource in Cape Town due to: its exceptional horticultural production (linked to unique local climatic and water availability conditions); the current and future possibilities of the high quality subsurface mineral resources in the form of silica sand and important, though lower value, building sand; and its role in contributing to securing affordable food, which is becoming increasingly important, as well as holding potential for long-term water supply in Cape Town.” It added that the agricultural area was “a major employer of especially lower-skilled workers” with the potential to grow in this respect. “The impact of climate change on food production, and fuel security on the affordability of food, heightens the value of the PHA to the City’s food security,” the report noted, which would surely become all the more relevant as food prices soar during drought conditions.

A 2012 study by Rooftops Canada-Abri International and the African Food Security Network, which specifically investigated the PHA’s role in sustaining food security within the Cape Town municipality, found that without it, the city would be “place[d] in extreme risk” of food insecurity. Unsurprisingly, low-income households would suffer the most, researchers found.

Problematically, though, the City’s researchers have also noted that there are “significant management challenges” related to the Philippi area, notably competing land demands for housing. There is significant pressure for the PHA to be developed for residential purposes, the City argues, which is reflected by pockets of informal settlement on parts of the existing PHA.

The two proposed developments that have been on Sonday’s radar for the past few years have been a proposed 280-hectare development by U-vest, which included housing and a private school, and a second Oakland City development, which would take up 472 hectares and include several thousand houses and a privately run prison. The fight started in 2008, when Rapicorp 122, the company in whose name the land is registered, lodged an application to have the land-use designation changed from horticultural to urban. Rapicorp’s application was approved in 2011, but the company hit a speedbump when its parent, the Rocklands Group, was placed under curatorship following a Financial Services Board investigation.

According to Councillor Johan van der Merwe, the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Energy, Environmental and Spatial Planning, last year the City “received a development application for rezoning of a portion of this land, about roughly a third [of the PHA], for residential purposes”. He stressed that the City was not yet working with developers, but occupied with development regulations.

Sonday says the Campaign is not opposed to development altogether. Some of the water coming into the aquifer – particularly on the northern side – is coming through an underground system which includes polluted arteries in Epping and Athlone. “They can’t farm properly there; they have to get another water source,” he says. “They want the right to sell their land to developers. And that’s practical, actually. If we want to give up our land, let’s give it up in that area, but save our best land.”

The Food & Farming Campaign approached a number of stakeholders including countless Philippi residents in an extended survey to ask for input to develop an alternative spatial plan. Suggestions included targeting the polluted area for development and saving shopping centres for existing urban zones. “We don’t want the wetlands covered over – it’s so beautiful here in winter,” says Sonday. “The plan garnered major support.” From residents, that is, but not from the mayor or the City.

In 2015, the Campaign arranged a seminar of hydrogeologists to present their views on the viability and the state of the aquifer.

The abovementioned Professor Yongxin Xu and Dr Maryke Malan of UWC were present at the seminar. They led researchers towards two notable outcomes: firstly, Xu’s finding that the City could likely utilise the aquifer to supply 30% of Cape Town’s water needs through overflow water from the aquifer each year, but that further study needed to be commissioned to determine the most efficient method. Secondly, in a study led by Malan, samples were taken from irrigation water, soil and vegetables in the area, and it was found that there were certain heavy metals including cadmium, zinc and lead. The researchers noted that there was a difference between the summer and winter crops, with the winter crops having a lower concentration of metals, and that further study was recommended to mitigate the effects. A further study by UWC also previously found that the area’s water can be susceptible to salinity if there is too much agricultural activity, but that the water is nonetheless suitable for irrigation; however, the authors recommended that care be taken with the PHA’s water system.

“There is no management plan in place currently,” says Sonday. “If you want to understand how to bring toxicity down, think of the aquifer as a bathtub, where the water collects. The main recharge is from the rain. We have water coming from all over. To manage pollution, you firstly have to make sure that your sanitation is right – you have to upgrade several areas, especially townships. You must also – and this is bad news for the City – protect the wetlands, which recharge the aquifer. You have to leave the catchment area free from development.”

It may, however, be a little more complicated than this to keep Cape Town’s water free from contamination. Groundwater clean-ups are notoriously expensive using engineered systems, but natural attenuation has attracted controversy where it has been relied on internationally. US researchers found that “community leaders indicated a willingness to accept natural attenuation when responsible parties and regulators can provide solid evidence that natural attenuation processes are transforming the contaminants to harmless products” and that it was necessary for hydrologists to develop a substantial understanding of subsurface processes for the sake of all stakeholders.

III. Recent developments

The Food & Farming Campaign achieved a victory a few days after Daily Maverick’s visit: Heritage Western Cape opted by a vote of seven to three not to approve the overlay rezoning for one of the two proposed developments in the PHA, namely U-Vest Property Group’s. The proposed rezoning of the land from agricultural area to a sub-divisional overlay zone for urban development was rejected.

Sonday called this “a major victory in the ongoing saga of the U-Vest development land-grab in the PHA”.

A key question now, he said, was how the PHA was going to be kept under heritage protection. “We will certainly support this as the local community,” he said. “Permanent protection is highly desirable.”

The fight for Sonday and the Food & Farming Campaign is not over, however. The HWC ruling is not binding on the City, and nor is Minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, Anton Bredell’s rejection of the proposed development in 2014. Technically speaking, the City can still approve the application.

And in the meantime, Sonday is left fuming, saying that even if houses are developed on the land, they will likely not be accessible to the poor. While water and food become all the more dear.

The City, in turn, is left with an undesirable dilemma: rapid short-term job creation or long-term food security?

But whichever way the wind blows, it appears those struggling for income will lose out. And Philippi will still require investment. The question is whether it will be forthcoming – and when. DM

Main photo: Lettuce harvest at the Philippi farm. (Marelise vd Merwe)

Read more:


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

Make your taxes work for you

Donate to Daily Maverick’s non-profit arm, the Scorpio Investigative Unit, by 29 February 2024 and you’ll qualify for a tax break.

We issue Section 18A tax certificates for all donations made to Daily Maverick. These can be presented to SARS for tax relief.

Make your donation today

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Otsile Nkadimeng - photo by Thom Pierce

A new community Actionist every week.

Meet the South Africans making a difference. Get Maverick Citizen in your inbox.