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Monday May 18, 2015

Cape Town's Princess Vlei set for natural makeover

In Khoi folklore there is a Gorachoqua princess who lived in a cave at Elephants Eye above Constantia. According to the oral tradition passed down through the ages, she too travelled with her people and their livestock down Kasteel stream to bathe in what was then a pristine lake within a wetland system.

Cape Town's Princess Vlei.

Now, a new project aimed at reclaiming this wetland's natural beauty could finally bring glory to the princess, who, legend has it, was abducted from there five centuries ago.

Princess Vlei, one of Cape Town's iconic wetlands, between the suburbs of Grassy Park and Retreat, could soon become a popular destination if a grassroots plan to preserve its ancient heritage, create a sustainable craft and fresh produce market and protect and celebrate and develop its ecological treasures becomes a reality.

One of the project's progenitors is award-winning environmental and heritage campaigner Kelvin Cochrane. He makes the point that "when the full potential of the "people's plan is realised, the restoration of the princess after whom the waterway is named will also be realised."

He says one of his greatest inspirations for pressing ahead, despite many challenges, is the desire to celebrate the legacy of this woman of indigenous royalty, and thereby unifying all Khoisan descendants.

This motivation is woven into the introduction to the project narrative: "It is said that the profile of the face of the princess lies in the shape of the outline of the vlei's waters edge, looking toward Elephant's Eye cave, where she lived. May she rest in peace and bless the vlei forevermore."

The Dressing the Princess project plan, due to be unveiled in early June, is the brainchild of environmental and heritage activists and the City of Cape Town's award-winning Caring and Managing Public Spaces (Camps), which is focused on the restoration of ecologically sensitive spaces.

This "vision for the future of Princess Vlei" includes a memorial and visitor centre, a craft and fresh produce market village, a sunset concert park and amphitheatre, a Khoisan heritage village, a princess tea room, a restaurant, a Vlei walkway, an upgraded braai area, a children's play park, upgraded ablution facilities and a properly resourced first aid centre. The project plans also include viewing decks positioned at strategic points around the waterway and an inter-active aviary.

Cochrane says the plan is crafted to ensure minimal disturbance to the sensitive ecobalance of the wetland. Unique elements of the plan include self-sustainable ablution facilities that would not be linked to municipal sewerage systems, no use of concrete for construction of any structures and a solar electricity supply system.

Cochrane explained that the dressing of the Princess Vlei project began almost by chance, when he read a news report of plans to build a shopping mall at Princess Vlei.

"At first I could not believe that any official authority would even consider a proposition to build a shopping mall on an area that has such a critical ecosystem," said Cochrane.

After gathering as much information about the proposed developments as he could, he set about working with several other residents to build a broad-based coalition comprised of artists, heritage experts, environmentalists, teachers, students and nature enthusiasts to challenge the development.

In the process he and others such as environmentalist Dr Graham Noble were able to compile a dossier on the decision-making process, from the late 1990s when the then-South Peninsula Municipality first green lit the development proposal, through the engagements with the City Council and the provincial authorities.

They had to challenge every decision that opened the way for a decision in favour of Insight Property Development building a shopping centre on the site.

This included challenging the affidavit of the consultant associated with the environmental impact assessment. At each point along the way, he says, "we had to put up an intense fight."

Within five years, and with the threat of prosecution by the Hawks of consultants and government officials, this unusual group has emerged victorious, effectively ending plans to build a mall on the land between Prince George Drive and the sensitive wetland.

Cochrane, who has been heralded for his pioneering of the nearby Zeekoevlei, where he is resident, said that his deep interest in "protecting as much of the city's sensitive ecology that has not yet been destroyed by development" that spurred him and others into action.

Cochrane said that the fight to save Princess Vlei was also a labour of love, of working with many volunteers, to clean up and rehabilitate the area. "We first had to develop an understanding of how this space could best be used in the interests of the people, and actually physically moving tons of soil, removing alien vegetation and planting 15 000 plants and 300 indigenous trees," he noted.

He believes that the Khoisan must be central to all that happens at Princess Vlei, because through this initiative there can be restoration and healing for the first nation descendants.

With the plans for the shopping centre all but stalled Cochrane believes it is now time to "realise people's plan, and the dream of a Princess Vlei that belongs to the people, that benefits people and that is protected and preserved for future generations by the people."

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)


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