Princess Vlei in Cape Town - the struggle goes on

Princess Vlei is a wetland and public open space in the southern parts of Cape Town that was neglected during apartheid and post-apartheid. Currently a fierce struggle is raging between the Province and developer who wants to build a shopping centre at the wetland, and local organizations that opposes such plans. Although the City of Cape Town, after a more than year long public participation processes decided in November 2011 to turn down the shopping centre, the Province went ahead and overturned the City's decision in March/April 2012. What started as a civic-led ecological rehabilitation project at Princess Vlei in 2008, has now turned into a civic organization called Princess Vlei Trust, launched on 2 May. Below I have provided extracts from my publications that give some context to this struggle and what it means, and added links to other texts.

Articulation of values
From Ernstson and Sörlin (2012, accepted)

"4.2. The Princess Vlei in Cape Town
A civic-led ecological rehabilitation at the Princess Vlei in Cape Town [started in] August 2008 [and was] called “The Dressing of the Princess” [. It] started as an extension of a civic-led ecological rehabilitation project among residents at close by Bottom Road (Ernstson 2011). In 2010, an older plan to build a shopping center at Vlei resurfaced. While Stockholm National Urban Park [another case study used in this article] bordered highly affluent areas and could draw upon a “royal past” and scientific reports to articulate values [and become protected from exploitation], Princess Vlei was considered as having the lowest class of “wetland ecological importance” in the Cape Town Biodiversity Map (Laros 2007), see Appendix C), and also “unsafe” with stories of murders and criminal activities in the local press. However, in similarity to Stockholm, it was still the coming together of various actor groups and the interweaving of different stories—about biological rehabilitation, slave legends, and memories of apartheid-era oppression—that proved instrumental for the relational construction of value at Princess Vlei.

First and foremost, and following lessons learnt at Bottom Road, the project grew around the planting of fynbos species. While Cape Town is heavily marked by apartheid-era segregation, the city is also a world-acclaimed location for extreme plant diversity. This has gathered enormous resources in state organizations like the Working for Water/Wetland. In collaboration with local and national authorities, the project “Dressing of the Princess” managed to access machines and low-paid workers for landscaping, removing of “alien” species, and planting indigenous fynbos species (Turpie et al. 2008, Ernstson in review-a). School classes were also involved, “adopting a plot”. The practice aimed to articulate the Princess Vlei as a suitable space for biological rehabilitation; that fynbos could grow and be protected also at ‘non-protected’ and ‘degraded’ sites in historically marginalized areas of Cape Town (Ernstson 2011).

Just as in the Stockholm case, culture, history and narrative proved to be of crucial importance. An old myth about the aboriginal Khoi people started to circulate, arguably told by slaves since the arrival of the Dutch to the Cape in 1652. Among those most active in the project, and who referred to themselves as being “Coloureds” (some claiming Khoi descent), held that the story had always been around. The legend tells of how European sailors had raped and killed a “Khoi Princess” over 500 years ago up in the Elephant’s Eye Cave, and that her tears had flowed down the mountain to fill up the Princess Vlei.Through circulating this legend—soon to be taken up in both local and national press (Groenewald 2009, Pitt and Boulle 2009, Kotze 2011)—the growing fynbos, and the project’s name, the “dressing of the Princess”, received a layered meaning with emotive powers to mobilize people and organizations far beyond Grassy Park. Indeed, protest lists in 2009 gathered 2200 signatures, and an objection letter day in 2010 had up to 24 different postal addresses, most from areas previously classified as “Coloured”, but also from previously white areas.

The practice of arranging “objection letter days” at the Vlei worked furthermore as a vehicle for articulating the significance of Princess Vlei. Visitors expressed in writing how Princess Vlei was a cherished recreational place during apartheid for many ‘Coloureds’, one reason for this being that most coastal beaches had been classified for ‘White’ people, making youth and families gather for barbeques and celebrations at the shore of the Vlei. With the objection letters and intensifying resistance, a wider scale of the articulation process was in the making, and after two years, a partnership of civic organizations had been consolidated. The result was evident in November 2011 when a City committee on spatial planning, which three years earlier had arrived at supporting the building of the shopping center, now made a U-turn, urging the City not to support the development. In their public report (Spelum, 2011), which was referenced in the press and on civic associations’ websites, many of the arguments were those that had been relationally stabilized over time, in and through Princess Vlei, its plants, and its supporters. Khoi heritage had entered their reasoning, alongside the possibility to ecologically rehabilitate fynbos and wetland ecological functions."

However, this decision was overturned by the Province in March/April 2012 that decided to go ahead with the development of the shopping centre. 

To further understand some of the dimensions in play in and through Princess Vlei I have the following excerpt on the civic-led ecological rehabiltation project that started at Bottom Road in Grassy Park, and that preceded the project at Princess Vlei:

The politics of knowing and being - Bottom Road where it started
From Ernstson (2011)

"But even more is in the making. Referring to Kirstenbosch means to point out that there is geography of difference in Cape Town due to its apartheid past. A past when persons were divided and forcefully moved to certain confined spaces because of how the state classified the colour of their skin. Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden figures frequently in conversations at Bottom Road and Princess Vlei. This world-renowned garden, figures on one hand as the antithesis of what they desire. And on the other, as the ersatz:

[O]ur people can’t afford to go to Kirstenbosch. [...] No, and why should they, is the question mark I ask. I’ve always said to them we need to create more Kirstenbosches. Don’t come tell me there’s Kirstenbosch. [...] We need to bring that people or the reserves closer to the people. Let them interact and let them find that peace and tranquillity. You know, that has been my fight. Has been from the day we started at... Bottom Road, like I’ve always said to you, it’s only the alpha; it’s not the omega of things.

The current order, the dominating logic of engaging and talking about Capetonian urban nature is not addressing the “imbalance” after apartheid, and some Capetonians do not realize that urban nature, and fynbos, also belong to them, because the ontological politics of the dominating view—what urban nature is—do not accept that Nature is mixed up with an apartheid history, but instead kept at safe distance from Culture and people, within nature reserves, studied through computers, and scientific methods.

While the Bottom Road project was on one hand about getting fynbos plants in the soil in spaces where they would otherwise never had landed—an exercise that depended on ‘black boxes’ like Working for Wetlands and Rondevlei Nature Reserve, but also on white paper agreements and resident’s own money and time—the Bottom Road was also the testing ground for how to fill the project with a political substance; to infuse the plants—the celebrated and world-renowned ‘biodiversity’ and fynbos— with the memories, screams, and scars of oppression that continuous to walk around, be heard, and be felt in Cape Town. While the material dimension of empowerment in this case study is quite clear—resources have travelled differently—the symbolic reordering is more in-the-making, less stabilized. The result could however be, if the “blueprint” of Bottom Road continues to sustain its many relations, and its ability to travel to other spaces, that also ‘non-experts’ can claim speech in relation to Capetonian urban nature, and that ‘urban nature’ can be re-translated as a substance for addressing injustices in an apartheid and postcolonial city."


Ernstson, H., 2011. Re-translating nature in post-apartheid Cape Town: The material semiotics of people and plants at Bottom Road. In: Heeks, R., (Ed.) Conference on "Understanding Development Through Actor-Network Theory" [Selected for a special issue in World Development], London School of Economics, 30 June, London, pp. URL:

Ernstson, H., Sörlin, S., 2012. Articulating values in urban nature: ecosystem services as technology of globalization. Ecological Economics. [accepted with minor revisions].

Other texts on Princess Vlei and Bottom Road

1) Making Capetonian urban nature public March2 42.pdf 
This is a quick read and presents some of the things I have learnt through working with people in Grassy Park. 
Short link:

2) Another piece on the organizations involved up until a year ago (not there is more) 
Short link is:


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