Legal battle over prime cape farmland

Residents say the farming area has no infrastructure, it is just a rural area. (David Harrison/M&G)

Residents say the farming area has no infrastructure, it is just a rural area. (David Harrison/M&G)

Agrarian rights campaigners, property developers and the City of Cape Town will lock horns in the Western Cape high court from Tuesday over the proposed development of a critically important piece of agricultural land in the heart of the Cape Flats.

The Philippi horticultural area (PHA) has been home to small-scale farmers for decades. And recently, more and more emerging black farmers have been investing in the land.

Originally totalling over 10 000 hectares, or roughly 10 000 football pitches in size, the farming area has shrunk to about 3000 hectares due to suburban encroachment. There are also several hundred hectares lying fallow after being bought up by private developers.

The area’s geography is significant to the demographic makeup of the city — an indicator of the legacy of apartheid-era spatial engineering that still lingers today.

To its west are the working class, mainly coloured suburbs of Grassy Park and Lotus River. North is Hanover Park, a community infamous for gangs, drugs, and unemployment problems. The north-eastern corner is close to the predominantly black African communities of Philippi and Samora Machel. To its south is ocean and the False Bay coast.

“The farming area fed the city for more than a hundred years. And even before that, it was a grazing area for Khoi groups at the time of Jan van Riebeeck. And then during apartheid people were removed from the city centre and they were moved to cape flats, so more and more of the farmlands became urbanised,” says Nazeer Sonday.

He’s the small-scale farmer who’s leading the stand against further development of the farmlands.

He bought a small property here in 1991, where he has raised a family and built a livelihood. He’s concerned that if rezoning by the city goes ahead — and developers get the green light to build — it could have disastrous effects on food security.

The PHA Food and Farming campaign claims that 50% of vegetables consumed in Cape Town are farmed here, with 80% of carrots that end up on dinner plates having been grown in the nutrient-rich soil.

In court papers for the PHA campaign, the area is described as “unique and irreplaceable,” due to silica-based soil, a readily available water resource known as the Cape Flats underground aquifer, and an offshore breeze that keep produce cool during summer months.

Sonday says proposed developments could also have disastrous consequences on underground water resources and turn the natural flood plain into disaster zones during the winter rain season.

“We are the flood plain of the Cape Flats. So if you pave all of this over, where is all this storm water going to go to? It’s going to go into the homes of people that will be built and will also flood the surrounding areas. This land is a sump that collects and recharges the aquifer,” Sonday says.

He says large scale development could contaminate the precious water source.

Sonday admits there’s a fine balance between protecting agricultural land, and finding a solution to the city’s housing crisis.

Currently, there are more than 300 000 people on the city’s housing waiting list.

But he questions why the PHA has been targeted for the proposed development.

“We have 10 000 hectares in and around the city. Places near roads, near jobs, and infrastructure for new housing. The land is available. But in a farming area like ours, there’s no infrastructure, it is just a rural area,” Sonday says.

“We haven’t had land invasions because we are using the landing. But on the land on the margins of the PHA where developers have bought to speculate on, they’re not using the land.  They’re at far greater risk of land invasions.

Sonday also dismissed the proposed economic benefits of any land development. Everything from stores, housing units, and schools are being considered by developers towards a new central business district on the cape flats.

But PHA campaigners argue that if the agricultural land shrinks in size it could mean up to 6000 job losses for mainly unskilled farm labourers.

The court case set down for two days could come at great personal cost to Sonday. He believes this is not only a fight for food security and the environment but also his personal livelihood.

“If I lose this court case I will be removed from this area for a second time. I was born in Strandfontein not too far from Philippi. We were removed in 1973 under the Group Areas Act. In 1991 I came back and I bought one hectare. I put roots down. If I lose I will lose all of that. Because costs will be demanded against me,” he says.

PHA volunteer Susanna Coleman says the ruling could have precedent-setting consequences for other rural agrarian communities.

She says current attempts to rezone farmland by the city flies in the face of national legislation guiding the use of agricultural spaces.

“In 1968 the city proclaimed the area for farming and it must stay that way… When we win we’ll have a ruling that a municipality can’t overrule a national act… So a city can’t just decide against the legislation of a national department.”

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