Fighting Them On The BeachesBy: Kate Burling
THERE’s a fierce fight currently raging on South Africa’s Cape Flats.
It’s not the usual front-page fare of taxi wars and gang violence – but emotions are running high as residents from hard-bitten communities like Grassy Park team up with environmentalists and local historians in the battle for Princess Vlei. They are outraged at high-handed Provincial authorities who sold off sections of this popular recreational area in April, to a shopping-mall developer offering chain stores, shoe shops and fast food courts.
Policy-makers assumed that residents would trade the natural peace of Princess Vlei for strip-lights, piped music, concrete and glass. But their premise was fatally flawed, shot through with the kind of patronising assumptions that characterised Apartheid planning. It failed to imagine that the people who have been fishing and picnicking for decades by the waters and fynbos of Princess Vlei enjoy unwinding in this open-air space just as consciously as more well-heeled Capetonians head for weekends at Paternoster.
The Princess Vlei story has been playing out for months in the South African press: Provincial councillors are under attack and the developer has been sent back to the drawing board. City planners have stalled commercial rezoning plans; Government is cross-checking environmental compliance; and the crippling effect of shopping-mall price-cuts on local business is being weighed against the developer’s trusty trump card of job creation. Those pledged to ‘Save Princess Vlei’ insist that ‘development’ should be driven by the people who live in the area – and their tough civic insistence on consultation and the rule of law, environmental sensitivity and official accountability looks set to prevail.
The tale has a lot in common with that of Vineta Beach in Swakopmund, which also fell prey recently to like-it-or-lump-it teamwork from municipal authorities and a South African shopping mall developer. Both stories began with developers sniffing out cheap, purportedly ‘unused’ recreational land, and both intensified in April when the developers pushed for action. But while Cape Flats residents hit back with political, media and legal campaigns, the less battle-ready Swakopmund townsfolk trusted in ‘proper procedures’ and elected representatives to deal with their polite concerns.
Had it not been for an already-established residents’ group in Vineta, which co-ordinates a community gardens project, huge irregularities in the developer’s speedily-processed plans might never have been spotted. Patient research revealed the absence of a valid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and showed how designs, approved for an earlier development in 2006, had quietly transmogrified into a six-storey, 32 000 square-meter mall with zero recreational content. Also lacking was any meaningful consultation with the wider community which had, until March this year, been using and enjoying the beach for generations.
At first, residents assumed that the Council and the Environmental Commissioner in Windhoek were simply unaware of these irregularities, and that once pointed out, they would be investigated. But after four months of letters, representations, emails and phone calls, underlining the development’s continued environmental and democratic shortcomings, all questions remain unanswered.
A similarly deafening silence has met enquiries about the construction of a sea-wall along one side of the shopping centre, which would privatise the shoreline and appropriate land currently owned by the State. Incredibly, Council’s only response was to grant the developer carte blanche to begin work in April. Advertised as preparatory ‘earthworks’, the move has facilitated sea-wall construction on reclaimed State land, ahead of tide-related August deadlines over which developer Safari Investments (SI) had threatened legal action.
Municipal reticence about the scope of these ‘earthworks’ has, meanwhile, bought time for SI to press on – without permits, EIAs, and even in the face of the Swakopmund Aesthetics Committee, whose lone professional voice has just turned down the developer’s building plans for the third time.
It will be interesting to see how Council contrives to field this particular skew-ball … or the many public
objections made recently to SI’s belated application to increase its ‘Cape Town-style Waterfront’ to a height of 16 meters.
It was, perhaps, the laughable nature of this sales pitch which initially lulled residents into assuming it would never happen. After all, what Council or Government in its right mind would permit the concreting of a popular recreational beach for a glorified shopping mall? Who would swallow the spurious glittering bait of a ‘Swakopmund Waterfront’ attracting thousands upon thousands of shoppers? Who could not foresee empty shops and salt-rotted cement disgracing the once beautiful seashore? Or the careless shrug of the mall-developer who got rich and got out before the recriminations started?
Swakopmunders are currently fighting several David-and-Goliath battles against so-called ‘development’ and ‘progress’ on its beaches – from the Vineta Point debacle to the Sandpiper Phosphate Project; from the Kempinski Hotel mega-bid to the horrific ‘Vision Industrial’ chemical plant planned north of the town. The stakes are frighteningly high and the margin for error is slim. But there are, perhaps, lessons in the street-wise aggression of the Princess Vlei protest for Namibians still attached to the dream of accountable governance and the rule of law. Better, it seems, to attack from the outset, from the moment the first line is crossed. The bully with the bucks is not easily stopped – especially when your so-called municipal minders appear to have crossed the line with him.
* Kate Burling is a former journalist with The Namibian and a resident of Swakopmund. She is pursuing a PhD at the University of Cape Town