About 12 years of hard work culminated in the placement of an official heritage plaque at the Princess Vlei, declaring it a provincial heritage site (PHS), on Tuesday 12 October.
The Princess Vlei, situated off the M5 between Grassy Park and Retreat, has long been a topic of contention in the community, with local residents considering it a place of historical importance while developers have continued to eye it for its development potential.
According to Bridgett Pitt, secretary of the Princess Vlei Forum, the recognition of the vlei as a PHS will “protect it from the wrong development and attract right investment.
“We’ve been reflecting on this milestone, and realised we first started talking about it in 2008 or 2009, when we were opposing the shopping mall development and started collecting evidence to show the cultural value of the vlei. We started working on it in a more concentrated way in 2018-’19. So it’s certainly been in the pipeline for a long time.”
Oral histories and evidence of the rich biodiversity are some of the aspects that have led to the official recognition of the vlei as a heritage site.
According to Pitt, baptisms have been taking place there for as long as one can recall. “No-one knows when they started – it could have been decades or centuries – but a huge percentage of Pentecostal churches do their baptisms there,” she said.
“Quite a number of the local residents were also baptised there themselves. It still attracts huge crowds, especially over Easter.”
The vlei is also important in Khoi history.
“Its name comes from the legend of the Khoi princess who was allegedly abducted by Portuguese sailors. While we don’t know what really happened, there was the skirmish with Portuguese sailors in 1960 and it is said her tears created the Little Princess Vlei. So it is regarded by local Khois as a site of significance.”
In more recent history, Pitt adds, the vlei was one location not reserved for whites only under the Group Areas Act, and so it became a popular meeting spot for people across the southern suburbs.
“People even from Hanover Park and Mitchell’s Plain will have memories about the vlei,” she said.
And then, equally as important, is the vlei’s natural heritage.
“It’s got a lot of crossover between the Cape Flats Sand Fynbos and Dune Strandveld, a crossover that creates very unique vegetation,” Pitt said.
“This is one of the few places where certain plants can flourish. As the forum we’re working on a restoration plan to bring back the plants to the area.”
Provincial Minister of Cultural Affairs and Sport Anroux Marais delivered the keynote address at the unveiling of the plaque and said in many instances such sites held narratives detailing the resilient spirit of the people of the greater City of Cape Town, the province and country at large.
It is for this reason that protecting the historical and culturally significant sites for the community is important, he added.
Also at the unveiling was Ward 72 councillor Kevin Southgate who has invested a generous portion of his ward allocation budgets over the years in the site.
He said: “As a resident of the area for six decades, reading the application (for heritage site status) rekindled memories of my childhood days growing up in the area. The stories told about Princess Vlei, the historical, cultural, recreational and spiritual significance is something well worth preserving for generations to come.”
Southgate added that his association with the campaign to save the Vlei dates back to around 2008 or 2009, when it was first proposed that the area be converted into a “concrete jungle by developing a mall” at the site.
“This was met with great resistance from the community and heralded the beginning of a new season where the community rallied together to create an alternative, a new vision for the future of Princess Vlei. It gave birth to the concept of the Peoples Plan for Princess Vlei, which included transforming the space into a heritage park for all to enjoy.”
The improvements to the vlei have included the installation of a play park, braai facilities, new parking area and a boardwalk around the vlei which will begin soon.
The forum has also been hard at work planting indigenous plants and continuing to restore the nature area to its former glory.