The Conservationist

Words by Kim Gurney & Photography by Sydelle Willow Smith

Good walls make good neighbours, the saying goes, but that is not the case at a nature reserve on the Cape Flats. In fact, on the one occasion a fence went up at the Edith Stephens Wetland Park (hereafter Edith), it was stolen; some poles still stand as memento mori. There is a stretch of fence at the entrance gate running adjacent to a highway but the remainder is gone. Arguably, it is porous boundaries that are making good neighbours but it takes a lot of dialogue to keep it that way.

The woman at the helm of this urban experiment is Luzann Isaacs (32), who works for the City of Cape Town, managing the park in its Biodiversity Network. She might have studied to become a psychologist if she had not picked nature conservation instead, and she often needs to act like one. As manager, Luzann shape shifts across different worlds to explain to each the value of keeping over 39ha of urban land aside to preserve threatened fauna and flora. Cape Town has the highest number of threatened plant species in the world, according to the City’s Biodiversity Network website, and half the country’s critically endangered vegetation types are found in Cape Town.

This kind of rationale is not self-evident in a post-apartheid society with competing ideas about the value of land. Luzann thinks a balance should be struck between animals, plants and people. Her audience at Edith ranges from visiting fishermen to scientists intrigued by a case study, from schoolchildren learning about indigenous gardening to a passerby provoked by the land’s possibility for housing, which she says is a valid concern. “To have a house is important—everybody thinks that,” says Luzann, dressed in her usual outdoor gear with the feminine touch of a ponytail. Her personal adornment is a wedding band and neighbouring ring on an index finger. “If you’ve never had your own space, you would know how important it is.”

Recent protests and land invasions in the greater Cape Town area highlight that fact, as urbanisation pressures mount. Cape Town is part of the African urbanisation trend: every year, 14 million more sub-Saharan Africans become urbanised, according to UN-Habitat (2010), and 70% of them in informal conditions. According to the City of Cape Town, 78% of households live in formal dwellings, 14% in informal dwellings, with backyarders increasing significantly. The country is still shaped by the legacies of the Natives Land Act of 1913 that effectively allocated 87% of land to the minority white population. Land ownership is a pressing issue and in June 2014, the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill was signed into law, allowing the land claims process to re-open for five years.

These realities are literally on Edith’s doorstep. Its immediate neighbours are an informal settlement split into an electrified and non-electrified section, a brick-making factory, a chicken farm and a scrap dealer. Its residential neighbours are Hanover Park, Manenberg, Gugulethu and Nyanga to the one side and Philippi to the other. These are working-class communities with “food on the table” issues, as Luzann describes them. “There is a preconceived idea of what a nature reserve must be and Edith doesn’t fit into that box,” she says by way of introduction. This includes the prejudicial notion that conservation must happen where people “understand and accept it”—but this neighbourhood includes gangs, crime and poverty. “When you are dealing with those hard issues, conservationists don’t think it will survive.”

Yet here we are, over half a century since botanist Edith Stephens donated a 3.7 hectare plot of land to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens (now managed by the South African National Biodiversity Institute) in 1955 to protect the rare water fern isoetes capensis that grows here and nowhere else. Today, the reserve is over ten times bigger, an approximate triangle wedged between two major highways. It is easily dismissed in the side window of passing vehicles as just a large piece of bush. A faded bus stop decorated with wetland vegetation is the only external marker. The approach road along Robert Sobukwe Drive is lined with residential blocks and the landmark of GF Jooste Hospital, large discount stores and building warehouses, small informal traders, and the bustling Nyanga junction. Turning right into Govan Mbeki Drive, it feels improbable that amid an industrial landscape with electricity pylons looming, an eco-sensitive wetland with bird hide and educational centre will soon be in view. But just past Duine Scrap and Ace Transport businesses, a gate appears amid a stretch of open land.

In the heart of the Cape Flats, a low-lying area southeast of the CBD, freely entering what is effectively a natural urban commons feels like a provocative act, partly because of apartheid’s spatial legacies. In Cape Town, who accesses and uses what landscapes remain largely racially informed, writes Pippin Anderson, an urban ecologist who lectures at the University of Cape Town. She points out in a book chapter contribution to Urban Forests, Trees and Greenspace (2014) that historically white and wealthier suburbs cluster around the lower slopes of Table Mountain and the seaboard areas, the most environmentally aesthetic. Historically black and so-called coloured areas are found on the lowlands, “characterized by mobile sands and seasonal inundation in winter due to an exceptionally high water table”. Further, Anderson writes that social perceptions around nature in the city are “hugely variable” and compounded by inequitable access to green space and nature more generally.

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