When people care about something, by nature, they will look after it. They don’t need reasons and facts, they don’t need ‘most endangered’ lists or statistics on how threatened something is, they need to have a relationship with that ‘thing’, it needs to be a part of their lives in a tangible and meaningful way. It was this type of relationship between a community and a part of their place that sparked the re-imagining of an old neglected bowling green and adjacent historic homestead park in the suburb of Oranjezicht, Cape Town. And it was this type of relationship that I witnessed when I visited the Oranjezicht City Farm on a sweltering hot summers day. The farmers and volunteers, people from different backgrounds, colours and creeds digging in, getting their hands and feet dirty, preparing for the Wednesday afternoon Pick Your Own Harvest which is enthusiastically attended by locals, tourists, families, couples, mothers and brothers; clearing precious fertile beds for the new generation of delicate heirloom seedlings.
Set up against the slopes of Table Mountain, overlooking the bay, the historic farm Oranje Zigt was established in 1709. Fed by a cluster of springs that provided perennial fresh water to Khoekhoen pastoralists as well as the Company’s Gardens from the 17th century, the farm supplied fresh fruit and vegetables to the growing settlement and passing fleets. It became, at one point, the largest farm in the Upper Table Valley. “On sale days the bell sounded and a flag was hoisted, the signal for ships’ officers, burghers, and their wives and children to visit the estate to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables. Produce was brought to a tree in the cobbled yard where it was weighed on a scale hanging from an oak tree. The original hooks for this scale are still present and visible, embedded in the tree standing in what is now Homestead Park.” (www.ozcf.co.za) The homestead itself demolished by the City Council in 1957 and the farm swallowed by residential development, the history of this landscape and its instrumental part in the origins of Cape Town was all but evaporated in the public’s memory. The blood, sweat, illness and death, the colourful harvests and pride in success, the often unrecognised relationships and interdependencies between people from various walks of life and class, the truth about who really made Cape Town what it is today dissipating, remaining unrecognised, unappreciated.
Until a community decided otherwise. Identified by the local neighbourhood watch, OH Watch (Oranjezicht Higgovale Neighbourhood Watch), as a valuable public asset and heritage site, members of the community began to re-create the space, bringing to light it’s fertile potential. The small park and adjacent disused bowling green, barely used, mostly frequented by vagrants and drug dealers, underwent an active metamorphosis into what is now the Oranjezicht City Farm (OZCF) non-profit project; a small urban food garden that maintains principles of heirloom and organic farming and the weekly Saturday market, an outlet for the farm’s produce. Paying tribute to its historic role, the space is again being used for the cultivation of fresh produce and new trade relationships, but this time with the additional purposes of education and social cohesion. A small project with a big mission, the OZCF tackles issues of urban greening, waste reduction, environmental impact of industrialised commercial agriculture, the need people have in understanding what food they buy and eat, to name but a few, all in the context of a wonderful time spent chilling outdoors in nature with neighbours, friends or family.
These ideas and ideals are exactly what I experienced on my visit to the OZCF Market on a sunny Saturday morning. (The market has been moved to the ‘Zilla Villa’, the Cape Town Premier’s residence Leeuwenhof. After some bureaucratic complications with local and provincial authorities the market needed a new temporary home to host the weekly event and the Premier invited the OZCF to use her private residence just a few blocks from the original site.) Sprawled out on the lawns are hundreds of people. It looks like one big family picnic, with adults chatting over glasses of local wine or iced buchu water, kiddies nibbling on fresh wholegrain bread smeared with handmade baba ganoush and topped with organically grown cherry tomatoes from the OZCF farm. There are friends swimming in the Premier’s pool; a Lifeguard called in for the additional new visitors. Under the nomad-style tent, a colourful and mouth watering display of the freshest, plumpest, juiciest fruit and vegetables all newly harvested and waiting to be picked and weighed by the next enthusiastic market goer.
Traditionally, conservation of any kind, of historical places especially, our environment and health, often, was considered the domain of specialists, the keepers of knowledge, those who ‘know’. And therein lies the beauty of the OZCF initiative for me. Through no explicit effort aimed at conservation of our heritage, recognition of the role of those who worked this land before us, sweated in the heat like us, knicked their fingers on sharp implements like us, got dark fertile soil embedded in their toe and fingernails like us, nurtured a seedling like us, haggled over a fair price for a fistful of spinach leaves like us, is offered. Not through words that are fleeting, articles that are filed or monuments than stand lifeless but through action, inter-action, between people and their environment, friends and strangers, vendors and shoppers, farmers and volunteers, locals and tourists, people and their ancestors. A story of our past, a story of who we are and how we got here, of what we were and how far we’ve come, a story of our city is told by the Oranjezicht City Farm, it’s market and all those that take part in it.
Through telling this story, a living heritage has undeniably been created, a living, breathing memorial to the people who built Cape Town and to their descendants that are still here, loving this place, working this space, together. Not in any way diminishing the importance of conserving, as well, our significant built heritage, but rather as an opportunity to acknowledge the incredible potential for conservation in uniting the two, the tangible and intangible, the OZCF has offered an opportunity to remember, to learn and to care and through that, conserve. An inspirational and effective initiative in food security, environmental education, and social capital building, that on those merits alone deserves to be applauded and promoted for repetition in other communities; but an initiative that acknowledges and responds to a much more implicit and essential need that we have as a country, the need to recognise and celebrate, not hide from or be ashamed of, where we come from, the roles we all played and how we have always been inextricably dependent on each other whether we like to admit it or not. I for one, a life-long Capetonian, am ecstatic at the opportunity to grow and be a part of a healthy, colourful, juicy, honest community where people care about themselves, each other and the earth they work, are proud of who they are, their history and how we are all a part of what makes this place we call home so utterly remarkable.
Words and pictures: Emmylou Bailey
(Opening panorama: Dirk Visser)