By Steven Robins. First published on the Daily Maverick on 22 February 2021.

What began as a hyperlocal movement to protect the interests of emerging and commercial farmers, farmworkers and informal settlement residents in Cape Town’s Philippi Horticultural Area has become a much bigger campaign.

In recent years, the Philippi Horticultural Area Food and Farming Campaign has been in the news because of its legal challenges to the plans of property developers to convert parts of the Philippi Horticultural Area into housing and commercial development. Together with Stellenbosch University doctoral student Matthew Wingfield, who is doing research on the Philippi Horticultural Area, I recently met the Philippi Horticultural Area Food and Farming Campaign’s founder, Nazeer Sonday, in an empty field next to a primary school in Grassy Park, where he grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. We wanted to know more about his upbringing and whether this had influenced his vocation as an environmental activist and organic farmer.

Born in 1961, Sonday grew up on his grandfather’s rented plot in the Philippi Horticultural Area. The large extended family kept chickens, goats and a cow in the backyard and planted crops such as cabbage and cauliflower. Sonday’s father was a sales rep for Cadbury and later bought a general store in Elsies River. Then came the apartheid forced removals in the late 1960s, followed by the rapid encroachment of new housing projects and “urban sprawl” in what had been a largely agricultural area.

In 1991, Sonday returned to the Philippi Horticultural Area. He bought a smallholding on Schaapkraal Road, which is now his family home and serves as the campaign offices and its peri-urban farming project. Sonday told us he returned to the area because “the place was just in my psyche”. His mother had once told him that his deep attachment to the place was because his umbilical cord was buried there.

Before becoming involved in the campaign, Sonday owned a couple of bakeries, which he later sold and used the money to buy a farmstall. He then began the slow and steady process of becoming a peri-urban farmer. First, he started growing crops in the yard and keeping chickens, much like his family had done decades earlier. Then, in 2006, he received a government grant to establish a greenhouse with irrigation infrastructure, which he used to grow tomatoes on his 1 hectare plot.

But before long, Sonday found himself struggling to make a profit. Even when he was selling a ton of tomatoes a week to Pick n Pay in Plumstead, he still lost money. As he recalled: “It failed because the value chain that small-scale farmers are encouraged to enter actually extracts money from them. If my production costs are R6 per kilo and they give you R6 per kilo, you aren’t making any profit. Another reason [it collapsed] was because the hydroponic system is very resource-intensive, so we have to buy lots of fertiliser and pesticides to keep the system going.”

In 2008, at the height of the global financial crash, the cost of farming inputs such as potassium nitrate fertiliser trebled, from R100 per bag to R300. While established commercial farmers were able to survive, it put smaller-scale farmers like Sonday out of business. Talking to local farmers who came to his farmstall, Sonday became even more aware of the wide range of problems faced by small-scale farmers in the Philippi Horticultural Area: “Those conversations led me to believe that we needed some kind of organised voice in the area besides the white farmers. Because we had problems with flooding in winter, problems with housing in informal settlements and lack of other services. From then onwards we developed a civic.”

The Schaapkraal Civic and Environmental Association (Scea) was established in 2008 to protect the interests of emerging and commercial farmers, farmworkers and informal settlement residents in the Philippi Horticultural Area. The association engaged with local and provincial government on a wide range of issues, including sloot (furrow) maintenance, illegal dumping and spatial planning for the area. It also opposed property developers who wanted to turn the farmland into housing and commercial development. “But then we ran up against a brick wall with the City and the province because they wanted to develop the area, and they weren’t interested in sorting out our problems.”

By 2013, the Scea civic had collapsed. “It died a slow death. People didn’t turn up for meetings,” Sonday recalled. It had become clear that the then-mayor, Patricia de Lille, had her own plans for the Philippi Horticultural Area. She openly supported housing development in the area, including the massive Oaklands City development involving housing for 15,000 families, schools and commercial and industrial buildings – developments enabled by shifting the urban edge in 2011.

This was a turning point: “People became disillusioned with how the system of democracy worked. We had worked the system from the councillor to the subcouncil and all the way up, but nobody was really interested in what we had to say because we couldn’t amass 20,000 people in the streets.” It was then that Sonday realised he had to become involved in activism and community organising: “We thought we now needed to go out to the communities and tell them who we were and what our story was. We tried to build solidarity with other groups.”

One of those groups was the Princess Vlei Civic Association, which was also opposing development: “It was through this that we started broadening our voice, and we learnt how to play the political game. I didn’t have a struggle background history. I didn’t know anything about that.”

By 2015, activism in the Philippi Horticultural Area seemed to have ground to a halt: “I was the sole man standing actually. The turnaround really came when I met Susanna [Coleman]. She came up with a different kind of thinking on how to approach the thing.”

Coleman suggested they use the Promotion of Access to Information Act to force local and provincial government officials to release all the documents related to the Oaklands City development. This was the start of the Philippi Horticultural Area Food and Farming Campaign’s tactical use of appeals and litigation to challenge the plans of property developers and the rezoning processes of local and provincial government. At the same time they were organising among commercial and emerging farmers and trying to promote more environmentally sustainable agriculture in the area.

What soon became clear, however, was that property developers and local and provincial government had limitless resources when it came to litigation. By contrast, the campaign relied on small amounts of donor funding, pro bono legal work and Coleman’s paralegal-like skills. Sonday’s earlier approach had been to use the democratic process and state institutions to influence policy decisions. When this failed to stop De Lille from embarking on megadevelopment in the Philippi Horticultural Area, the campaign had no option but to use litigation: “My disappointment was in the democratic process. We didn’t want to go to court, but this is what the City and the people in power push for. They have more power and money than you.”

This was very evident in the recent legal challenge by the Philippi Horticultural Area Food and Farming Campaign to the Oaklands City development when the developers, the City and the province walked into the courtroom with eight highly paid advocates. “What saved us was our environmental lawyer. It was because of his argument that we got the judgment about the aquifer and climate change.”

On 18 February 2020, following years of legal battles to protect the Philippi Horticultural Area from urban development, Judge Kate Savage decided in favour of the campaign, ruling that the City of Cape Town, provincial government and the Oakland City developers had not adequately taken into account the impact the development in the area could have on the Cape Flats Aquifer, especially in a time of water scarcity and climate change. Savage also found that decision makers had relied on dated scientific reports on the state of the aquifer.

The funny thing was, we were again worried. Now the City has discovered the aquifer and now they are just going to take all the bloody water out of the aquifer. So, they came for our land, now they are coming for our water!

It seemed the aquifer had suddenly become the key actor in a courtroom drama that ultimately vindicated the campaign’s efforts to promote food security and protect the farmlands from job losses by preventing ecological damage to a water resource that had come to be seen as increasingly vital for Cape Town’s resilience in the aftermath of the 2018 Day Zero crisis. Sonday and Coleman, along with their lawyers, scientists, and fellow activists, seemed to have become the “voices” of the Cape Flats Aquifer – a water resource most Capetonians knew little about before Day Zero.

This court case has some similarities with a recent case in Costa Rica, which Rice University anthropologist Andrea Ballestero writes about, where activists and residents challenged attempts by developers to secure water-use permits to extract water from an aquifer for a major coastal tourism development. To win the case, scientists, lawyers, activists, residents and developers had to find ways to conceptualise and represent what the aquifer was.

But, as Ballestero observes, aquifers are exceptionally complex and elusive underground entities that defy easy description. They are usually defined in functional terms as tank-like entities that store water that exists solely for agricultural and household consumption. But it was precisely the failure to provide accurate and updated scientific evidence that the environmental integrity of the aquifer would not be compromised by housing development that informed Savage’s landmark ruling.

In recent years it has become increasingly common for environmental activists, lawyers and scholars to insist that material things – including rivers, wetlands and mountains – not only have rights but agency too, rather than simply being passive recipients of human categories, meanings and values. There is in fact an emerging international movement to grant rivers and nature rights in countries from New Zealand to Columbia. While Savage’s ruling may not have recognised the rights of the Cape Flats Aquifer, her judgment and the legal arguments in the case did contribute towards giving it greater public visibility and protection.

While officials and politicians, and many Capetonians, have only recently begun to acknowledge how vital the Cape Flats Aquifer is for food and water security in an age of climate change, Sonday recalled a workshop as far back as 2013 when University of the Western Cape scientist Yongxin Xu made this point. Sonday said it was the Day Zero crisis that really changed people’s perceptions of the value of the Philippi Horticultural Area for food and water. As he recalls: “It was during the drought that De Lille, who we had told about the aquifer so many years before, suddenly ‘discovered’ the aquifer.”

But the story of the aquifer did not stop here. The Philippi Horticultural Area Food and Farming Campaign activists and scientists realised that simply extracting the water could become a problem. “The funny thing was, we were again worried. Now the City has discovered the aquifer and now they are just going to take all the bloody water out of the aquifer. So, they came for our land, now they are coming for our water!” 

Fortunately, to get a water-use licence required putting an aquifer recharge plan in place, which now includes cleaning wastewater from the treatment plants in the Philippi Horticultural Area and injecting it into the aquifer at strategic points.

Meanwhile, researchers such as Dr Benjamin Mauck have shown in recent studies that implementing managed aquifer recharge could be a useful strategy for providing an additional source of water supply for Cape Town as well as reducing groundwater-related flooding on the Cape Flats. Their findings demonstrate that the Cape Flats Aquifer can contribute towards sustainable urban water management through the application of water-sensitive urban design principles. The aquifer can also help ensure that peri-urban food production, upon which the city relies, is relatively drought-proof.

The campaign has also become involved in promoting organic farming and agroecology methods, including soil-regeneration experiments such as composting food waste to enrich the soil and produce carbon sequestration, while protecting the aquifer from contamination by fertilisers and insecticides. Sonday said that in Munich, plans to protect the city’s groundwater from fertiliser and pesticide contamination led to financial support and state subsidisation for a major shift to purely organic agriculture.

And the campaign is involved in promoting organic food gardens in informal settlements as well as efforts to encourage commercial farmers to shift away from agro-industrial methods of production.

While these plans for the Philippi Horticultural Area are embryonic, they suggest a pathway to more sustainable forms of aquifer management and agroecology. But it remains to be seen whether the state will provide financial support for such shifts to sustainable peri-urban agriculture.

While Sonday and Coleman continue to fight for land reform and social justice, their most significant recent victory was the February 2020 judgment which compelled the developers to commission a new report on the impact of the development on the aquifer.

For now, the jury is still out on who will win the latest skirmish in this ongoing David-and-Goliath battle for a more sustainable future for the Philippi Horticultural Area in an age of climate crisis and water scarcity. It also remains to be seen whether commercial farmers and local and provincial government will take heed of these small-scale experiments in sustainable agroecology and water security in the area. DM

Professor Steven Robins is with the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch.

Image credit: Carrots, not sticks: Nazeer Sonday. (Photo: Matthew Wingfield)