By Dimitri Selibas
Imagine this: you are on a national heritage site upon which stands an ammunition warehouse built by British soldiers before the turn of the century.
It is a place where bees make honey from a 150-year-old oak tree. It is a farm where geese, chickens, dwarf goats, an orphaned foal named Skattebol and an adventurous pig named Makwassie live alongside mongooses, Cape Eagle-Owls, rare black lizards and gently croaking indigenous grass frogs.
If it wasn’t for Table Mountain looming large in the background, you might be forgiven for thinking you’re in a country setting far from the highways, roads and buildings of the city.
Erf 81, fondly known as Tamboerskloof farm by those who have had the opportunity to explore it, is not only about history and heritage, but also the stories of those who have found shelter and lived there, attended workshops and theatre productions, gone to its market or played with the farm animals.
Along with suburbs like Oranjezicht and Rondebosch, Tamboerskloof was one of the original farms surrounding Cape Town. As the population grew and pressure for more housing mounted, the farm was broken into pieces.
The Erf 81 portion was on the border of the original Tamboerskloof farm and was used mostly for livestock grazing. In 1891 British soldiers built the Tamboerskloof Ammunition Magazine on the site. This was to supply the Lion Artillery Battery at the top of Signal Hill. The magazine is a national heritage site and the city’s famous noon-day gunshot comes from the Lion Battery.
In the 1920s, the property, along with others like Fort Vanguard in Green Point, was transferred to the Union Defence Force via the Defence Endowment Act. The military, now the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), maintained a presence on the property until it abandoned it in the 1980s.
After years of neglect, the property and the buildings were falling into disrepair. In January 1995 Andre Laubscher, an artist and farmer, offered the Department of Public Works to move in as the caretaker for the property.
Almost 20 years later Laubscher is still taking care of the property, although now as a rent-payer to public works. Thickly bearded and firmly footed like his free burgher forefathers, Laubscher’s persona and creative talents add to the mystique of Erf 81. Along with taking care of the property, he has also taken on the role of foster father to a number of children and adults looking for a place of safety.
In 2002 the SA National Parks (SANParks) commissioned a development framework for the Signal Hill, Kloof Nek and Tafelberg portions of the Cape Peninsula National Park.
This plan included Erf 81 as a valuable part of an envisioned Signal Hill precinct. The report identified that the magazine site could accommodate a variety of uses including “an historic interpretation/education component, lodge accommodation, tea room, and the headquarters for military regiments – such as the Cape Corps”.
The report further noted: “The development and alternative use of the magazine site is currently impaired by this unresolved ownership and management issue” between SANParks and public works.
The site is still owned by the SANDF but is administered by public works. Last year proposals were brought forward by the SANDF to build amenities such as a conference centre, luxury guesthouse and ex-military veteran’s residence on the site. These were withdrawn without any explanation.
Once again Erf 81 is at the centre of a debate that threatens its existence as a green space in Cape Town. According to a Cape Argus report, some residents believe the farm has become “derelict, unsafe and a haven for criminals” – some going so far as to say that it is a “den of iniquity”, filthy and covered in animal excrement.
Local ward councillor David Bryant echoed these sentiments in a Cape Talk radio interview. Other residents argue that these statements are not representative of the farm as a whole, indicating that the current use and potential of the site needs to be looked at holistically.
Internationally, the value of green spaces in urban centres is being rethought.
In New York, urban farms are sprouting on the roofs of Brooklyn and an old railway track has been turned into the internationally renowned High Line urban park.
There is a growing consensus that public spaces and green spaces in cities have a greater value for society and the environment than the property’s simple monetary value. With increasing fuel prices that have a knock-on effect of increasing food prices, the need for food produced closer to home also becomes more important.
Cities around the world are trying to preserve natural spaces within the urban jungle because these spaces not only create green havens for citizens to enjoy, but they can also provide a platform for creating jobs. If nurtured and developed correctly, this can have a huge impact in a country like South Africa where one in four people is unemployed.
In 2007 the City of Cape Town implemented an urban agriculture policy. If the strategic development plan of the policy is anything to go by, the city has identified urban agriculture as a major opportunity to provide household food security to the poor, create jobs and provide skills development – especially to the youth.
The city has identified that the poorest of the poor have the most to benefit from urban agriculture. Additionally, improved regulation for the keeping of livestock is in the pipeline that could see animals on Erf 81 becoming an asset rather than a smelly point.
Erf 81 also stands as a buffer zone between the trendy, predominantly white middle-class suburb of Tamboerskloof and the historical, predominantly working-class Cape Malay suburb of Bo-Kaap. There are those who believe the area presents an ideal opportunity to integrate the communities better, and to offer them a shared space in which they can spend time together and engage with each other.
The stepping stones for community involvement already exist. There are flourishing vegetable gardens set up by an organisation called Tyisa Nabanye.
John Nankin will be hosting a production at a theatre venue on the property that will be part of the upcoming Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts’ Live Art Festival – Cape Town’s young version of the Grahamstown Arts Festival.
There are beehives producing honey for markets around Cape Town. BoKaap children from Vista High School and St Pauls used to play sport on the lower fields before they were gravelled.
Some residents bring in their kitchen waste in exchange for compost and also grow food in designated allotments. There is also a weekly market that sells fresh produce and vintage clothing, and a hall that can be booked for meetings and workshops like the Green Clusters forum hosted earlier in the year by the Cape Town Partnership.
These initiatives create an ideal framework for surrounding communities to get involved. The hands-on education of children lies at the heart of the work done at Erf 81. While spending an afternoon with Laubscher, I saw a mother wander in with an infant on one arm and a toddler following behind. The toddler watched in awe as the goats, geese and horse were fed within hands reach.
While Laubscher and I walked through the property, some of the children he cares for trekked around the property with us, climbing hills, riding Skattebol the horse, picking gooseberries and looking intently at tadpoles in one of Laubscher’s breeding tanks.
I asked 5-year-old Katya Morris what she liked best about the farm. “The swings,” she said. Her cousins Natalie and Natan Manzana chipped in: “And the ponds and the tadpoles and frogs and climbing the horse!”
These moments were a glimpse of the delight brought to children as they come face to face with animals and nature in this open-air sanctuary in the heart of the city.
But it is not just children that find delight at Erf 81. On the same afternoon, I met two friends, Capetonian Antonia Cronje and Londoner Jeremy Smith, who were exploring Erf 81 after a hike up Table Mountain. Jeremy had recently hitch-hiked from London to Cape Town and said he had never before experienced a place like Erf 81. Antonia said she often visited and valued the easy, informal interaction with nature and her surroundings.
The buildings and roads are battered and there is some animal dung lying around. A building on the adjacent property is being occupied by squatters. Or perhaps they’re unfortunate victims of a stagnant economy that can hardly keep up with the level of low-cost housing that needs to be provided? But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture and what the potential of this natural space is.
There are examples of other projects like Oranjezicht City Farm and Oude Molen, where government land was transformed into an urban farm and a micro-enterprise eco-village. Rather than turning these properties into single-use residential or commercial property, they have become hubs for the community, for education and simultaneously for providing jobs.
Erf 81 stands ideally placed to showcase what a more sustainable, inclusive and green Cape Town can look like. A Cape Town where job opportunities can literally spring from the ground up. A Cape Town where cultural and environmental heritage is available to be celebrated by all. A Cape Town where children can learn where food comes from and what nature sounds like.
Erf 81 is alive with activity and the magic of it is ready to be shared with locals and tourists alike. What it needs now is the Department of Public Works to commit to a process that fixes the roads, repairs the roofs and brings all relevant stakeholders to the table.
Join the historical walking tour happening this Saturday!
Selibas has a fascination with biodiversity, cultural diversity, good food, public spaces, people and how they all intermingle. Among other things, he is volunteering at City of Eden, an NGO that aims in the long term to make Cape Town an edible city. In the interim it is creating a network of urban food gardens, providing tours and re-imagining urban spaces with creative sprout-ups.
This article was originally published in Cape Times on 28 July, 2014.