Behind the battle in the Cape Town high court over agricultural land in Philippi is a complex web of competing needs and interests — low income housing, jobs for farm workers, climate crisis concerns and property speculators.
The Philippi Horticultural Area Food and Farming Campaign (PHA) and co-applicant Nazeer Sonday have taken on the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape government over the proposed development by Oakland City Development Company, among others, on piece of important agricultural land in the heart of the Cape Flats.
Originally totalling more than 10 000 hectares, the farming area has over time shrunk to about 3 000 hectares. Several hundred hectares are lying fallow after being bought by private developers.
“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,” says Sonday. “And then during apartheid people were removed from the city centre and they were moved to the Cape Flats, so more and more of the farmlands became urbanised.”
He is also one of the small-scale farmers in Philippi. He bought a small portion of land in 1991, and has used it to build a livelihood and raise a family.
More and more emerging black farmers have been investing in the land in recent years.
The area’s geography is an indicator of the legacy of apartheid-era spatial engineering. To the west of the horticultural area are the working class, mainly coloured suburbs of Grassy Park and Lotus River. To the north is Hanover Park, infamous for gangs, drugs, and high levels of unemployment. The northeastern corner is close to the predominantly black areas of Philippi and Samora Machel. And to its south is the False Bay coast and the ocean.
Sonday is concerned that if private property developers get the green light to build, it could have disastrous effects on food security.The PHA campaign claims that 50% of vegetables consumed in Cape Town are grown in the Cape Flats soil.
In the high court, its lawyers described the area as “unique and irreplaceable”, because silica-based soil, a readily available water resource (the Cape Flats aquifer)and an offshore breeze that keep produce cool during the summer months.
Sonday says proposed developments could also have disastrous consequences on underground water resources and turn the natural floodplain into disaster zones during the winter rainy season.
“We are the floodplain of the Cape Flats. So if you pave all of this over, where is all this stormwater 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 water source.
The City has disputed claims that property development would affect underground water resources.
“The developer had responded by saying that a large amount of undeveloped land (such as conservation areas, open space) within the site, and sensitive stormwater design would ensure that the aquifer remained unaffected,” it argued.
“Swales would be required as part of the solution to ensure infiltration and recharge [of the aquifer], and that aspects identified by the public would be incorporated into the forthcoming stages.”
Sonday admits that there is a fine balance between protecting agricultural land and finding a solution to the City’s housing crisis.
There are more than 300000 people on the city’s housing waiting list.
But Sonday questions why the PHA has been targeted for the proposed development.
“We have 10000 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,” he says.
Sonday also dismissed the economic benefits of any land development. Everything from stores, housing units, and schools are being considered by developers fora new business district on the Cape Flats.
PHA campaigners argue that if the agricultural land shrinks in size it could mean up to 6000 job losses for mainly unskilled farm labourers.
PHA volunteer Susanna Coleman says the court ruling could have precedent-setting consequences for other agrarian communities.
She says 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.”
But, responding in court, the City argued that according to town plans the land owned by developers to the south of Philippi does not form part of the PHA and is not agricultural land.
It describes the PHA’s position as “vague, ambiguous and legally obsolete”.It says this means the argument that national legislation — that an area deemed agricultural land can only be used for agricultural purposes — is moot.
Not everyone is unhappy with some form of development. Not even the PHA. Its lawyer said the applicants favour development, News24 reported, but not on the aquifer and the “unique agricultural land”.
Tony Jones has been living in Philippi for more than 20 years and runs a stud farm.
He says that over the years various governments have promised to upgrade infrastructure in the area but have failed to do so.
“The big problem is having vacant land in the area. So if everybody bought up land and farmed it, then we would have a fantastic situation,” Jones said. “But we are ripe for land invasions. There have been one or two attempts, but the farm watch has been able to push them out before they settle.”
Sonday dismisses this argument. “We haven’t had land invasions because we are using the land. 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.”
Jones also says arguments that the aquifer will be polluted are too late. “There are areas where it is polluted. And a lot of the pollution is from commercial farming activity. It’s the fertilisers that are used — and after 100 years a lot of that has leached down into the water table. There are many areas where heavy metals and E coli is over the limit.”
Jones says many farmers have called for some form of “ordered development” of the area
“In the bigger scheme of things, the housing shortage is real. So many farmers don’t see some development as a negative thing. At least the land will be getting used.”
There’s another aspect for the City and province to consider — mitigating the effects of climate change.
“Custodianship of water resources and local food security has to be amplified, not compromised,” the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA told Cape Argus. “More than a thousand local authorities globally have already declared climate emergencies, many this year, and such a motion will be considered by Cape Town soon.”
On Wednesday the PHA campaign’s lawyer said the provincial government’s decision in 2011 to make land available for the development of Oakland City was illegal because environmental assessment processes, including public consultation and participation, were not followed, News24 reported.
This was denied by local government, environmental affairs and development MEC Anton Bredell. His lawyer also argued that the rural development department had said the portion of land earmarked for Oakland City had not been set aside for land reform.
The City of Cape Town’s legal representative said the Oakland initiative would create housing for 15 000 people.
The PHA campaign’s lawyer argued land was available elsewhere in the City of Cape Town for developments that could include the much needed housing.
Judgment was reserved.