Land

Kim Gurney

The Conservationist

Luzann Isaacs manages a wetland park in Philippi. The park is home to a rare water fern and small endemic frogs. An environmental park in a low-income urban area might be a luxury. But, through Luzann’s outreach, this park is shifting the racial and class connotations still attached to conservation.

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PART 1

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.

A view towards Table Mountain across the detention pond at Edith Stephens Wetland Park. The pond is accessible on weekdays, and is a convenient spot for fishermen. Wedged between two highways, the park shares the Cape Flats wetland with residential neighbours of Hanover Park, Manenberg, Gugulethu, Nyanga and Philippi. Edith has limited perimeter fencing. Free access is one of the reserve's striking features and is symbolic of its management ethos.

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.

PART 2

Before Cape Town expanded and developed, with apartheid’s zoning laws exacerbating urban sprawl and fragmentation, many parts of the low-lying area southeast of the city towards False Bay were covered with temporary wetlands that appeared in winter months. Apartheid spatial planners earmarked these precarious sites for the construction of racially proscribed communities with cheaply-built subsidised housing and new low-income suburbs. “But obviously the water gets displaced,” says Luzann of the infilling this process required. “And in some of the places, a lot of the houses have huge cracks because the water is pulling up into the walls so there is a lot of structural impact as well as displaced water.” She says Edith is an example of what was there before the development.

It is also a handy gauge against which to measure the impact of new developments. Take for instance the nearby Vangate Mall, opened in 2005, just off the major N2 highway. Adjacent homeowners recently found themselves with a weird problem: hundreds of frogs were literally jumping into their houses at nightfall, after a good soak on freshly watered lawns. The person who often ends up fielding this kind of community distress call is Luzann. Since it falls outside of Edith, she sends community partner Dale Isaacs to assist. 

We are standing in the carpark of a fast-food chain adjacent the mall. Palm trees across the way stand out against a rectilinear, squat building. There was a school here before the mall emerged. To the other side, in a seasonal wetland adjacent, there was a river, which was reportedly severed in two. That disconnect has become a problem for some Bridgetown residents living in a strip of houses that face this open piece of veld. Clicking Stream frogs living in this wetland are unable to follow the disrupted course to join the Vygieskraal river on the far side of the mall, which is part of the Black River system. When the seasonal wetland dries, they become trapped and are attracted to nearby waterlogged gardens. They head for the houses—and right inside.

That is more or less the assessment of Dale, who set about finding a solution. “All these tiny frogs came into the people’s houses. Two years ago, we had quite a huge percentage of rainfall so they started breeding again. They went up the stairs and into the bedrooms in the double-storey. [Residents] blocked up the bottom of their doors but nothing stopped them.” The plan is to make the wetland more habitable so the frogs don’t pester the homeowners in future, and add activities for the community. We walk down the affected street. To the left, Quinton Body Works is busy fixing cars. Power lines loom overhead. Opposite is a government building with manicured lawns. Adjacent is a mixed-income residential building with washing hanging off balconies that forms part of the broader mall development, Vangate City.

Among the diversity of visitors to the park are schoolchildren. Isaacs and her team run a two-week holiday programme in which children learn about indigenous methods of nature conservation through interactive games.

The mall dates back to the late 1990s when the Athlone Business Syndicate proposed developing the Athlone Golf Course, previously situated on the other side of the mall. Vangates Investments was formed and successfully bid to purchase and develop land from the City of Cape Town. A R350 million mixed-use complex opened in September 2005. The mall is today owned by the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), the asset manager for the country’s public sector, which also manages 30 retail shopping centres in townships. It did not respond to requests for comment.

Dale thinks that the biodiversity of the Cape Flats is not considered highly enough in developments of this nature. She underscores the value of genuine community participation in general: “It’s also about speaking my language—speaking to me, not over me.” Dale’s words chime with the neighbourhood engagement of Edith. “You speak to the people who are living there. They will be part of the solution. They grew up with those things as well.”

We ring the doorbell of the double-storey to speak about the Clicking Stream Frog invasion but the owner is out. To complete the circle that the frogs cannot, we drive around the back of Vangate Mall to see where the rivers would have reconnected. The intersect is plainly visible. The mall looks more sprawling from this angle, with three large buttresses atop. The stream of the Vygieskraal runs clear, its belly is visible from the grassy slopes and some indigenous arum lilies grow on the verge. 

Geographer Karen Till argues for a politics of care that acknowledges among other things that urban space is more than property. At a 2014 UCT seminar around the notion of wounded cities, quoting an example of a disappeared river, Till remarked: “We need to think about time, resilience and inhabiting the city differently. One possibility is about ways of taking care of place, which might help us to learn to take care of each other ... to think differently about political imaginaries and understandings of the city, an ethics of place-based social responsibility.”

Many of the children on the holiday programme struggle with violence-related trauma in their own lives. According to Luzann, the programme is designed to provide a safe and supportive space but there is also a potential need for other kinds of help that speaks to children not only about the environment but about their inner strength.

PART 3

People can visit Edith freely during the week—and they do—although the security guard keeps a register for people who enter the gate and fish that leave. About 2400 people officially visited Edith in the first quarter of 2014, excluding weekends. Free access, together with a virtual lack of perimeter fencing, is in fact one of the reserve’s striking features and symbolic of its management ethos. “I get to work and I see it in my way,” says Luzann. “But then I work with people who see it differently.” They need to understand the park in their own language, she says, to feel part of it, “to feel this is common, this is ours as much as Luzann’s, as much as the person living on the other side”.

Luzann extends this analogy: “I may see a bird and see something scientific in an ecosystem whereas another person sees a bird and thinks it is so beautiful just to look at it and what it is doing ... It’s important for people to see it through their own eyes.” She tells me in a later interview, seated on a bench at the park, that science is the pursuit of truth, but not the truth—scientists are skilled observers but there is a person making that observation, with subjective ideas. “Sometimes as scientists we tend to forget that this [observational] skill, we use in life in general—when we are with our families. We separate science from the world when actually the two are quite linked.”

Ismail Jacobs is standing at the edge of the detention pond wearing a black jumper with white grid pattern and his jeans tucked into his socks. “It’s very good fishing here,” he says in a soft voice. He is preparing to cast his line, a white scarf with yellow patterning wrapped around his head, his fishing rod resting up against a perfectly forked branch as makeshift stand. His friend is seated alongside. “It’s nice and quiet, still, relaxing and there are birds and other animals,” he says. Ismail singles out the fish eagles that watch how you take the fish out the water. He catches mostly trout for eating rather than selling. He likes the fact that the park has no fence and is accessible on weekdays. It also means if they are fishing on the far side of the pond, they are more vulnerable to opportunistic passersby (“guys that are rude to us,” he says).

URBAN GROWTH

Land prices are one of the most profound structuring elements of residential and social segregation between the poor, middle-classes and the wealthy. Apart from exceptional cases of proximity such as Hout Bay, Hangberg and Imizama Yethu, the city remains in the grip of class-based divisions, overlaid by racialised income inequality.
(Source:City of Cape Town)

VIEW MAP

The fishermen are fairly new to the park but their pragmatic management is an example of how it is run. Instead of unilaterally imposing rules upon their catches, Luzann describes how they are actively enrolled to understand the rationale for co-existence, that breeding birds for instance also need a particular sized fish for their own catch. The approach also helps fishermen self-regulate. A team of four others assists Luzann, who has worked at Edith for ten years, in managing this urban haven on behalf of the City of Cape Town. They are not alone: there are over 7000 wetlands, mostly outside the city boundary, and more than 50 wetland types, according to a five-year-old city wetlands map. A 2006 UCT report cites major threats as coming from alien vegetation followed by physical modification, crops, urban development and water abstraction.

"There is a preconceived idea of what a nature reserve must be and Edith doesn't fit into that box," says Isaacs by way of introduction. As part of the Edith Stephens Wetland Park management ethos, open access from neighbouring residential communities to the park is key. Demarcation of the park's boundaries are kept porous be the lack of walls and fencing.

The Edith offices are an old German homestead, built in the 1800s, its walls now painted with wetland vegetation and its defunct swimming pool literally sprouting the same. Edith has over 100 plant types including the endemic fern. Its birds include the biggest inland breeding population of white-breasted cormorants and African snipe has been spotted—an apparent first for the Flats. Its five amphibian species include a threatened local spotted toad. For one breeding week in August, youths undertake a scientific census of the mating calls. “It gives us this one opportunity where we are collecting data but the communities also get the experience of being out in nature on the Flats and seeing the really special natural part that is left,” Luzann says.

We are together on the lookout deck when a silky black rabbit with long attentive ears and nervous eyes stops in a grass pathway across our field of vision, halting us both midstream. Human visitors to the park include church and mosque groups, NGOs and angler—and in the future, counsellors may seek out neutral territory for sessions. “Edith has this possibility of being open to people and to a variety of people, not just this kind of dominant user type,” Luzann says. 

This seems key to Edith’s survival strategy. Its human ecosystem comprises its neighbours and its management ethos is wound into this reality. The park creates what it calls a network of ‘partnerships’. I return another day to see one in action. 

PART 4

Tasriek Williams has turned a large black refuse bin into a drum. He beats out the rhythm of the children’s song, ‘If you’re happy and you know it’. He is standing in the amphitheatre at Edith, formerly a dumping site and now transformed into a natural stage. Tasriek wears a dark sweater and grey track pants, and is surrounded by a group of schoolchildren, mostly aged between six to ten years, who have just arrived from adjacent Hanover Park. While some are kitted out for the two-week holiday project at the park, one child wears a pair of thin pink pyjamas and striped cloth slippers. A few younger late arrivals shyly join in the group’s icebreaker call and response, with the improvised drum at its heart. By the time it comes to partnering up to sing in Afrikaans ‘Apples on my head!’, they are definitely looking happier than on arrival.

Luzann walks through the park on one of it's busier days during a schools holiday programme. She came to love working with nature at an early age, gardening with her grandmother, "holding a bulb and putting my hands in the soil... I used to love that - and sometimes the fact that you don't have control over everything. Nature teaches us that so often" she says

“Alright?” shouts out Tasriek. 

“OK!” sings back a high-pitched chorus. 

“OK?” calls back Tasriek. 

“Alriiiight!”

That improved sense of wellbeing is just part of the impact bringing kids into nature can have. Erica Kessie is a group facilitator, hosting this school holiday programme after receiving training from Luzann and her team as part of an effort to spread knowledge and capacity. “It’s about the learning,” says Luzann later. “It’s easier to run something and give to people and dictate to them. It is harder to walk with them ... but the result is much more amazing and the impact is much broader. They also add dimensions to the work that we would never be able to do.” In an earlier meeting with Luzann, she said you have to let go for co-operation to work. “I’ve had to learn in my mind to make room for other people’s pictures as well. It’s not personal.”

Erica belongs to an NGO, the Hanover Park Advice Office and Youth Centre. She says children from the area struggle with violence and gang-related trauma, a hardship compounded by the fact that they are often looked after by grandparents who cannot cope. She describes how one child attending the Simonstown Navy Festival flinched because of the gun salutes. “I had to explain they were firing blanks,” she says. “Our kids are so traumatised by violence and gunshots.” This prompted her to concentrate her NGO’s activities on working with children at their foundation phase (6-10 years). 

Luzann describes it this way: “We sometimes don’t understand the value of a space like this. The value of a safe space, the value of space with beauty on it, the experience within this space.” She muses on other kinds of potential help for kids on the holiday project, who are clearly dealing with many issues they bring from home. “There’s a kind of support they need that talks to them as people—not only about the environment and the short experience we give them but something that talks about their inner strength and how do they go back? Because this is a once-off experience. The circumstances haven’t changed. When they leave here, they still have to go back and face those same things." 

The children divide into groups and Erica leads ours to the medicinal garden. Indigenous knowledge systems are conveyed through this section of the park. Traditional plant names and remedies are carried with each plant species. It could be viewed as part of a larger effort to reclaim flora from western systems of categorisation and to privilege local voices that often carry informal and consequently less visible knowledge forms. Luzann recounts for instance a recent park visit from Philippi elders to teach them about the Edith plants; the staff themselves ended up picking up new knowledge. The garden concept also has to do with language. “People value things but don’t necessary use the same words we use in our sector. They don’t have a scientific connection,” she says. Henrik Ernston explores this aspect of the politics of urban ecologies with regards a comparable wetland in Cape Town, called the Bottom Road Sanctuary, in a paper demonstrating how plants participated in giving voice to memories of oppression while undermining expert-based practices that separate nature and culture (2012).

This brings us to the larger take-home point about Edith: the scientific concept of “ecosystem services” tries to find a way to price natural capital. Edith seems to be a transformer that recalibrates this value in a variety of ways—to a brickmaker, a passerby, or a school learner. And its key metaphor is an indigenous garden. “Who has a garden at home?” asks one facilitator. A child replies: “My ouma—but she’s very old. She’s 79!”. And that cues an explanation of how he could be helping his grandmother, now that he knows how to plant and care for growing things himself. Erica bends down to snap off a stem of a sour fig (or umGongozi) and wipes it over her lips. She explains to several sets of large eyes its medicinal properties and how it can cure a sore throat. You don’t have to spend money or time at the day hospital, nature has the answer. “We have got it on our doorstep!” she adds. The same plants are tied into a potted cultural history too.

She asks her young audience: “Who was first here?” 

“Adam and Eve!” a quick study retorts.

But Erica was aiming for the Khoi, herders who inhabited the Cape as long as 2000 years ago, and San gatherers before them. She explains how the Khoi watched to see what plants the animals ate, knowing they would be safe for humans too. Teaching children about their heritage is important, thinks Erica. “The kids need to understand and know where they come from,” she says. 

Edith teaches children about their forefathers and their methods through indigenous games, for instance, that reconnect them to culture, says Tasriek, who attended Edith’s youth programme in 2007 before setting out to start his own. “We teach them about the value of the wetland.” A resident of Hanover Park, Tasriek thinks it is also important that the park is fenceless. “People must feel free to explore,” he says. “They know it’s a wetland, but it’s another thing to teach people.” The visit to Edith is ultimately an experiential one, he adds. “You can listen to the story of a young boy or girl who came but it’s a journey for yourself.” That journey includes ideas like “solo time”—introspection about larger questions in their life. Nature is one of the places to bring this out. “Our young people need to know the value of ... Mother Nature to respect it to the fullest,” says Tasriek. “Stories are being told here, like in the olden days around the fire,” he offers.

On the final day of the Edith holiday project, the same children gather at the Hanover Park Community Centre. It is Mandela Day (18 July) and they are warming up to head outside for 67 minutes of picking up litter in honour of the 67 years Nelson Mandela spent in public service. Ryan van Louw, a facilitator from the Hanover Park Youth Forum, is in the centre of a circle of about 50 children, again of varied ages. Ryan, dressed in a grey hooded sweater and dark sneakers, describes their home environment. Some of the learners are from homes where drug abuse is prevalent, others from environments where drugs and gang culture overlap. “So what we are doing is keeping them away from it and teaching them valuable attitudes to be dedicated, goal-driven and motivated, and afterwards they can help improve other people as well,” explains Ryan. 

The inside of the hall has fluorescent lighting, stacked plastic chairs and a few trestle tables. There is a cellphone hooked up to some speakers for music. Adjacent is a kitchen and more rooms. Outside, the hall’s stark presence is less hospitable with all the windows barred with steel grates. It sits opposite the New Apostolic Church; on the other side are residences and the Golden Factory Shop with bright sandwich boards advertising its wares. The children don surgical gloves and head into the streets to collect litter, which they deposit in black refuse bags. One blows the fingers into rooster manes and another dangles his glove like an earring. On the streets, they are enthusiastic litter gatherers and do not flinch at the muckiest locations. 

We start at an open common before passing through a narrow street with loudly barking dogs and curious onlookers. After a turn at The Takal Tuck Shop, the children rush upon an impressive homemade communal garden outside an apartment block, Pelican Court. Brightly painted half-cut tyres mark its boundary, but the soil is covered in copious litter and their refuse bags are soon full. They spend a lot of time transforming the garden into a litter-free zone before dragging and hoisting the rubbish back along a circular route to the hall where lunch awaits.

Tasriek is today wearing a T-shirt bearing Nelson Mandela’s visage. His drum on this occasion is the real deal, with a taut skin surface. Voices quickly soar and temperatures rise inside the hall with his interactive musical repertoire. He has written a poem for the occasion, which he reads to the schoolchildren. A former resident from Hanover Park, a strikingly tall man in a dapper suit, has evidently made it in the wider world and pops in to give the kids a motivational talk. One song in their repertoire has a slight inflection today: “If you’re happy and you know it, say Mandelaaa!”

Luzann at home with her daughter. When Luzann and her husband got married nine years ago, they were both career-driven and ambitious. She says having children of their own has taught them "a lot of lessons about not moving fast but moving deep." The relationship she has with her family determines the balance in the other aspects of her life.
PART 5

Luzann came to love plants as a child while gardening with her grandmother Suzanne in Athlone. She enjoyed digging her hands in the soil, planting a bulb, and watching it grow. For a long time this was her first concept of nature. Of her grandmother, Luzann says: “She is creative also, sews with her hands and makes her own things like knitted blankets. I can do a bit of that but I’m not very good at it so I could never relate to that part of her. But when it came to the plants and working outside, I loved that and we connected on that sort of level.” Even now, they still talk plants—only it’s her grandmother asking Luzann which plant is which. “Holding a bulb and putting my hands in the soil ... I used to love that—and the fact that sometimes you don’t have control over everything. Nature teaches us that so often.” Luzann relates this garden experience back to Edith: it is local and self-contained. It also lends itself to the concept of “home”. 

Her own family home is in the coastal town of Muizenberg, a suburb on the well-known tourist route towards Simonstown and Cape Point. It’s a haven for surfers and more recently new immigrants to the city too. She lives there with her husband Nathan and their three young children—two boys and a girl—in a warm yellow-painted house with a fence and yard out front. Luzann explains how they first came to Muizenberg, house-sitting for a friend in the neighbourhood in lieu of a honeymoon. The close proximity of amenities, like the beach and swimming, were the drawcards. The area is far away from work, however, so the family are early risers.

Nathan, a foreman in the construction industry, must travel each day to Malmesbury where he is busy building an educational administration block. He is a tall man who softens an imposing first impression with gentle gestures. Nathan describes their home neighbourhood: “It’s got a different culture to it,” summing up what he means with a single word—diversity. “We like that. We want our children to grow up in an environment where they can recognise diversity and be part of it. I think they have a very laid back culture and we like laid back. We don’t want to live in a world where everything is a rat race. There is more than just work.” 

When they first married, says Luzann, they were both driven and ambitious. “But I think life has taught us a lot of lessons about not moving fast but moving deep. And having good roots and foundations.” Having children of their own has also taught them to think beyond their own generation and its concerns. “It no longer becomes only about us but more than us, and how their lives will influence their children’s lives,” says Luzann.

The Isaacs family lives in the coastal area of Muizenberg, is a hamlet on the well-known tourist route towards Simonstown and Cape Point. It is a haven for surfers and more recently a strong immigrant community too. Luzann's husband, Nathan, says the diversity of cultures present is something they value within their neighbourhood environment.

When she talks about family or issues relating to children, Luzann is often at her most animated, whether perceptively describing the personality attributes of her own kids or picking up on the emotional needs of those visiting the park. “For me, my home is my anchor,” she says. “If this is fine, it’s easy for me and I’m more balanced in the rest of my life. For us, family is very important and having relationships with people.” If everything is going right in this world, she can “fight the good fight and come back home”. She calls on her husband to double-check how long they have been married. Almost nine years, he says. Propped against the wall in the kitchen are two certificates, one of which declares “Married for Life” and records both their names.

Luzann's husband and daughter at home . She has two sons and a daughter. "For me, home is my anchor," she says.

Athlone is more or less the ambit of Luzann’s childhood world: she was born and lived the first two years of her life there and then grew up in Montana, further east along the N2 and not far from Edith. Her mother was forcibly relocated from Claremont to Athlone as a result of the Group Areas Act of 1950. Luzann has two siblings—two brothers, one is 14 years younger. Her parents still play a very active role in her family life. “I was a very quiet person,” she says. “I liked being at home with my mom until I became a teenager.” She laughs when she recalls her more rebellious teenage years. Her laugh is one of her most distinctive characteristics, a ricochet of girlish delight. Even through these independent phases, Luzann says, “I always knew where home was—that’s how we grew up.” 

She studied nature conservation at Cape Peninsula Technikon, initially applying without her parents’ knowledge. They had their own ideas about nature conservation, she told me earlier, and financial reservations too. Table Mountain was her main nature reserve reference at the time. “As I learnt, my parents learnt with me.” Her studies included a formative time at Casablanca, a community in Somerset West, for practical experience on a nature reserve. “They had that sense of having old connections: the people have been around and the stories they tell of generations of being in Cape Town,” she says. “I think I learnt a lot about the natural environment through the eyes of the community and I liked the feeling of wisdom.” This included indigenous knowledge of the plants and a different perspective of the land that connected it to community, something she feels is under-appreciated.

PART 6

Luzann’s father was a teacher at Manenberg High School for 37 years and her mother still teaches. Her parents were youth leaders in the church and often led hikes. This instilled a more expansive notion of nature and built on her love of gardening with her grandmother. Her parental family home was a protective environment, a Christian home that offered values and principles she carries forward into the rest of her life. “Understanding people and where they are coming from is something that I have learned from the Bible. You have to put away yourself for a second. That helps quite a bit when you are moving in between different spaces with different kinds of people,” she says. It is not about influencing a person so much as understanding where they are coming from. “With that kind of attitude, I find I can learn from a lot of people, even people that you sometimes tend not to like. I find I can still learn from them because understanding is very important.”

She continues to attend regular Christian meetings with a dozen or so like-minded people. At one of these meetings, she reads a text that connects to land. During the same meeting, the host—a man named Reggie—quotes a piece of scripture, “A man without discipline is like a city without walls.” Luzann recites it softly in tandem.

The park attracts a wide range of users from throughout the communities it serves. The detention pond is frequented by fisherman who, according to Isaacs, the self-regulate their activity in a way that is understanding of the rationale for co-existence between people and nature.

I try to reconcile these words with Luzann’s park management ethos and recall a conversation in her office. A colleague of hers remarked that Edith didn’t believe in fencing; you need to have a boundary that talks to people. There are other ways to demarcate, added Luzann. Perhaps Edith does have a wall after all—a talking wall, and the discipline for Luzann is the politics of dialogue.

LAND USE & NEW DEVELOPMENT: 2002 - 2007

The long-term history of land dispossession continues to stalk South African cities. As a consequence, access to land remains profoundly distorted by this history with no obvious remedy on the horizon. The formal land restitution programme is limited. Real estate dynamics have essentially exacerbated the racialised and exclusionary dynamics in the city. 

VIEW GRAPH

South African apartheid stands as metaphor of some forms of contemporary domination, writes Spanish philosopher Josep Ramoneda in a prologue for the 2008 exhibition ‘Apartheid: The South African Mirror’, curated by writer and philosopher Pep Subiros. There are increasingly few people who have everything and more who have nothing, Ramoneda writes, noting too how Europe is erecting fences “to prevent those coming from the South from reaching the continent, while in contrast it builds motorways for those coming from the North”. In such a global reality, an urban common without a fence may offer a new kind of post-apartheid mirror.

NB: Luzann Isaacs, who works for the City of Cape Town, participates in this profile in her personal capacity. All views expressed are her own.

Children run through the visitor centre at Edith Stephens Wetland Park

OTHER VOICES

Land: School garden (Rocklands, Mitchells Plain)

CREDITS

Editor: Sean O'Toole & Tau Tavengwa

Copy Editor: Janine Stephen

Photography: Sydelle Willow Smith

Film: Periphery Films

Infographics: Blain van Rooyen

Digital Design: Pixel Project