Selling Off The Family Jewels

The Princess Vlei shopping centre controversy

Local legend has it that Princess Vlei was named for a Khoe princess who lived in Elephant Eye cave on Constantiaberg. Her people, the Gorachoqua, used Princess Vlei for initiations and other rituals. In 1510, while the princess was swimming in the vlei, she was abducted by Portuguese sailors from Francesco d’Almeida’s ship. She was either murdered or taken to Portugal. According to local tradition, her tears formed Little Princess Vlei and one person drowns each year in Princess Vlei in retribution.

During the apartheid era, the dispossessed people of the Cape Flats were not allowed to use many of Cape Town’s recreational areas. They nicknamed the northern shore of Princess Vlei ‘Claremont Beach’ and the area was a popular site for outdoor recreation, religious worship and baptism.

The City neglected the area over the years and sand, rubble and silt was dumped on the site and alien vegetation was allowed to overrun the Cape Flats Dune Strandveld vegetation (listed nationally as Endangered) and Cape Flats Sand Fynbos vegetation (listed nationally as Critically Endangered).

Then, in 1998, Neville Thornton of Insight Property Developers made an unsolicited bid to the City of Cape Town, which owns the land, to develop a 3.2ha portion of the 8.3ha public open space containing Princess Vlei and Little Princess Vlei. The proposed development comprises a 9 090m² shopping centre and a 100m² taxi rank. The critically endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos will be destroyed by the shopping centre. A 2000 baseline study concluded that although the vleis were of high conservation value because of their ecological function, both the vleis and the surrounding vegetation were highly degraded and the vegetation was “not worthwhile rehabilitating”.

Pincess Vlei Protest, Kids with Placards on 13-09-2009

Pincess Vlei Protest, Kids with Placards


.Because the proposal entailed the sale of public land to a private developer, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had to be done. A positive Record of Decision (ROD) from the provincial Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEA&DP) gave permission for the development in 2005. The RoD described the vlei as “not of particular botanical importance but . . . of high conservation worthiness as they performed an important ecological function”. The Wildlife Society of South Africa’s appeal against the decision was unsuccessful.

Then, in July 2008, the City was approached by Calvin Cochran (Cape Flats Wetlands  Forum) and an NGO called Biowatch with a proposal to rehabilitate the area to the south-east of Princessvlei. The following month, the City signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Biowatch and the South African National Botanical Institute (SANBI). The Dressing the Princess project has seen schools, local residents and other volunteers and Working For Wetlands planting indigenous vegetation, building pathways and other facilities. The long-term vision includes a memorial and a hiking trail up to the Tokai Manor House and the Elephant Eye Cave. On 1 December 2008, the City’s Biodiversity Management Branch included the Princess Vlei site in the City’s Biodiversity Network.

Nonetheless, on 3 February 2009 the City Environmental Management Services recommended that the subdivision proceed in spite of the inclusion of the site in the Biodiversity Network, provided the RoD be fully implemented, the developer pay initially R150,000 and then R80,000/month into a Princess Vlei Environmental Fund.

Mayor Dan Plato visited the site at the beginning of October 2009 and said that the city had inherited the proposed development from the City’s previous administration. While he thought the process had been fair, he promised the City would take into account the issues raised by some 120 concerned civic associations and environmental groups.

Civic associations contend that the site has cultural significance, recreational and biodiversity value and that the public participation process was inadequate. Selling off public land also sets a poor precedent for urban planning in the city.  On 18 July 2009, the Friends of Princess Vlei organised a ‘petition day’ that gathered more than 1 500 signatures of locals opposed to the development. Of the 215 people living adjacent to the vlei, 213 signed their names.

This_Vlei belongs to our Kids (13-09-2009)


Philip Bam of LOGRA (Lotus River, Ottery, Grassy Park Residents Association) maintains that a memory park, small tea room and tourist attractions would be a better use of the land. He wants to preserve the green belt for future generations. Endorsing this approach, a recent Dutch scientific study has shown that green spaces in a city are beneficial to residents’ mental and physical health. While supporters of the development maintain that the shopping centre will reduce crime and create jobs, there is concern about the economic impact on small business owners in the area. Why is another shopping centre needed when there is a Woolworths just down the road, after all?

The ROD lapses on 29 November this year and the sale of the land has not yet gone through. The City is planning to apply for an extension. If an extension is not granted, the developer will have to being the process again. Watch this space…