Winning at Grassroots Activism takes a Village

What are the models for effective, ground-up community development? When our political and service delivery systems are under such severe strain and the need in South Africa is so clear, so broad and so pressing, what can be done on a day-to-day basis by ordinary citizens to try to find sustainable solutions? Apparently, quite a lot -- if you pick your partners well.

When Hilton Davids moved to Vogelvlei 20 years ago to start a family with his wife Milly, he established a welcoming home overlooking the Helderberg and the Kuils River and a position within the small neighbourhood of Delft that, today, is central to the survival of his community.

“It’s difficult to concentrate at school on an empty stomach,”

Davids was always acutely aware of the myriad and often extreme need all around him, particularly that of the children whose parents he knew weren’t able to get jobs to put food on the table or shoes on small feet. Unemployment is Vogelvlei’s greatest scourge, Davids says, followed not coincidentally by gang-related violence. As a spiritual leader, he and Milly felt a sense of responsibility towards their neighbours and began making meals for as many of the children who began to frequent their house as the couple could afford. So after he was retrenched from his warehousing and logistics job three years ago, Davids wasted no time in turning that occasional pot of soup after street soccer into an almost full-service community centre and safe space for 150 youngsters.

“It’s difficult to concentrate at school on an empty stomach,” Davids said.

The Vlottenburg Community Organisation (VCO) is everything a model grassroots NGO in South Africa should be. It’s led by the community, for the community, and its various services directly address real, measurable and often urgent need. It’s attracted involvement and awareness from government and, crucially, enduring and meaningful relationships with the private sector -- notably Shoprite Checkers. With this public-private-community partnership in place and hunger prevention at its core, the VCO has established a viable and sustainable value chain.

“We recently started a recycling programme as well [which is] still in the process of growing. But the income we receive from that we use to support the organisation with electricity, petrol for the vehicle, etcetera,” said Davids. “The rest is voluntary.”

Food first

VCO’s value chain involves organic subsistence farming at the local school, which aids both the curriculum and pupils’ mental wellness and supplies several feeding schemes. It encourages waste disposal incentives, after-school care, safety and drug awareness programmes, successful, revenue- and job-generating recycling and anti-litter programmes and a solution to the illegal dumping that had become untenable in the area. What’s more, drug abuse and violence have been reduced, from the 65 young men who Davids says were executed in the streets of Vogelvlei by rival gangs in 2015.

Gerald Bezuidenhout and Hilton Davids in one of the community gardens

“I spoke to some gang members about what we were doing, they saw the value in it and moved elsewhere,” said Davids. “Then Shoprite was introduced to us through the Union of Jewish Women of South Africa. They came and visited us and saw local children doing their homework in the unfinished church next door.

“They saw the need and sponsored us two containers, chairs and tables for the kids to work from,” he said.

From there, a mobile soup kitchen operation was set up that now feeds 600 people once a week. The next step was discovering a vacant plot of land with some neglected shade-cloth infrastructure at Vogelvlei’s Rainbow Primary School a few blocks away. It was a job for Benjamin Getz at Urban Harvest - a local business that has produced more than 350 gardens in the Western Cape over the past 14 years.

Sustainable in all the right ways

Once uncertainty over land-use was cleared up in late 2017 and Shoprite and the Department of Agriculture got behind the project, Getz and his team quickly got to work converting the school’s rubble-filled backyard into a beautiful 450 square metre Mandala-shaped edible garden, based on permaculture principles and well-point water. By early 2018 the stone-clad rows were planted; and since then the little farm has been consistently producing enough food for both the school’s feeding scheme and VCO’s - roughly 5 to 10 kgs of fresh, organic produce a day.

“It’s natural farming and permaculture-based; and the round design and flow of the garden means that 200 kids can run through the different pathways without creating a traffic jam, because there are so many different ways to move,” Getz said. “It’s one of the most beautiful spaces we’ve created and the best of the Mandala gardens. And the reason for that is definitely Gerald,” he said.

Gerald Bezuidenhout works in the garden from sunrise until sunset, keeping his domain pristine and his yields high. Bezuidenhout, who grew up working various jobs on various farms in Stellenbosch, took to the volunteer work in a big way after getting bored of retirement.

“The pupils are eager to get involved. The worms are the main attraction -- they love them,”

“I don’t like sitting at the house doing nothing,” Bezuidenhout said. “Hilton knew me and my skills and when the project began, he knew I would be perfect for the job.”

He’s been so perfect for the job that the garden project recently won third place and R10 000 in a highly competitive provincial school garden competition. Out of the proceeds Bezuidenhout can finally draw a bit of a salary and build “Phase Two”, as he calls the new beds of onions, pumpkins and cucumbers he wants to plant next.

The school plans on exposing its pupils to gardening more and more, using it to help calm kids who have been exposed to traumatising situations and stress and drawing on it for practical use in the science curricula of its older students, said deputy principal Mariette Filmalter.

“The pupils are eager to get involved. The worms are the main attraction -- they love them,” she said.

The garden’s most important function by far though is contributing to the breakfast and lunch served to the 1200 youngsters who attend the school each day, as well as to VCO’s many charges. For many of them, it’s the only food they receive during the week.

Then of course there’s that little matter of winning first place in this year’s school garden competition...

Waste not, want not

Further down the road, the compact recycling plant Davids and his team set up next to a popular illegal dumping site is in full swing. A donated trailer is being filled with plastic bottles the staff have already sorted and separated, ready for delivery to a client. Collecting, sorting and selling discarded cardboard, plastic and tin cans has created several jobs, and it’s the arm of the organisation that generates some cost-covering income. Davids has plans to develop it further.

“We recycle a tonne of PET bottles, 300kgs of plastic and 1.5 tonnes of cardboard a month,” Davids said. “It really helps our environment and the dumping from overpopulation in our area.”

The recycling initiative that was set up by Davids and his team

Thanks to the way the VCO’s value chain has been envisioned and developed, it can keep fulfilling its mandate: When residents bring a bucket full of recyclable garbage to Davids’ door, they receive a plateful of fresh food in return.

“We are here to help. But we are trying to teach the youth especially that you can’t just get everything for free. You must work for it,” Davids said.

The Vlottenburg Community Organisation is a young and ambitious project with many challenges and plenty of hurdles to jump as it works daily to solve the endemic problems so many of Cape Town’s -- and South Africa’s -- informal and semi-formal areas face. But it’s living proof that, by empowering dedicated, passionate and skilled individuals working in communities with the resources and experience of both private sector initiatives and government programmes in a hands-on, meaningful way, grassroots projects can turn a pot of soup into a feeding scheme for thousands of people, a dusty dump site into a beautiful garden, and a community in crisis into a community that cares.