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Hope springs for Bishopscourt land claimants

Jun 21 2016 08:58
Matthew le Cordeur

Cape Town – Standing next to a fresh-water spring beneath Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Cedric van Dieman has tears in his eyes.

It’s been 21 years since 132 families won the right to return to their ancestral land, and yet reality has dealt the dream a hard wake-up call.

While that dream was kickstarted this weekend with the signing of a development agreement with Bethel Property, the reality remains that Van Dieman and his community will only return home after 2020. 

“The very first time I came back here, I didn’t feel like going home,” Van Dieman told Fin24. “I feel like our community has been hard done by and we just need to get back and just rebuild our lives.”

In a heartbreaking tour of the vacant Protea Village in 2015, Van Dieman showed Fin24 the lush land that his coloured family and community were kicked off in 1966.

The sound of the soul-quenching spring sparked Van Dieman’s sadness. Instead of living on land with spring water, trees and fertile land, the members of his community live apart from each other in Cape Flats areas like Manenberg, Lotus River, Grassy Park and Lansdowne.

“This spring has been flowing as long as I can remember,” said Van Dieman, who recounted his childhood when he was responsible for fetching buckets of water for his family. “This was the lifeline to our community,” he said. 

VIDEO FEATURE: The spring of Protea Village


Breakthrough reached with signing of agreement

The community settled on the land in 1834 and was responsible for the establishment of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, which they worked on from 1913.

Now, 50 years after the apartheid government acted on the Group Areas Act and forcibly removed 132 families from the upmarket Bishopscourt area, 86 land claimants signed a development management agreement with Bethel Property.

The Commission on Restitution of Land Rights has been working with the Protea Village Committee since 1995, when the land claim was first lodged.

In 2006, when the restitution deal was settled, 46 of the 132 families opted out of returning to the land and received financial compensation of R17 500 each.

The 86 families - who formed the Protea Village Committee - received the land, but it remained under the custody of the City of Cape Town, while the committee worked with the claims commission to find a way to develop the land for them to return to.

In 2009 lawyer William Booth, whose then residence bordered the green zone, tried unsuccessfully to nullify the land claim deal.

That legal process delayed the process to kickstart development of the land.

“(The process to develop the land) was very stagnant because of the fact that there was this court case,” Michael Worsnip, chief director for the Western Cape Land Claims Commissioner in 2015, explained last year.

“It is impossible to put it completely right, but this is one thing that we can do where people lost land and that land is still available, we can give them that land back,” he said. “It’s a symbolically (and) psychologically critically important contribution to reconciliation and peace in the country. 

“(Working with) the Protea Village claimant community has been a wonderful experience,” he said. “They are extraordinarily gentle, real(ly) decent human beings, very focused, they know what they want, they have a huge history, and they want to come back.

“Here you’ve got wealthy Cape Town, but with a history of people who were disposed of that wealth. Now we have an opportunity to actually bring those people back and reinstate them. Not to the position they could have been had they lived here all those years ago – because you’ll never be able to do that – but you’re at least changing the racial profile of the city, and significantly so in the very heart of the whitest part of it,” said Worsnip. “You’re making it a city for everyone.”

The countdown begins

Now that the Protea Village Committee has signed a deal with Bethel Property, the countdown can officially begin for their return.

Van Dieman told Fin24 on Monday that they will work with Bethel Property to develop a business plan, which will then need to be signed off by the minister of rural development and land reform.

“Bethel Property have been doing work since November,” he said. “Their professionals have been drawing up plans and presenting it to the committee and we liked what they showed us.

“Now everything needs to be refined,” he said. “There is still a lot of work on the plans and they need to bring it to the point where we finalise it.”

Richard Glass of Bethel Property said they’re excited to work with the community, but that it’s a long road ahead.

“Whilst it has been 21 years for the community thus far, the beginning of the development process has now started,” he told Fin24 on Monday.

“We now need to meet the community’s needs and create a responsible and sustainable project that works for both the community and the social, urban and environmental context of the property.

“When the business plan has been developed, and approved by the Protea Village Community, we will formally engage with the surrounding communities through an inclusive and comprehensive public participation process.

“There is good synergy between the Protea Village Community, Bethel Property and the government,” he said. “The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, the Department of Public Works and the City of Cape Town have been and continue to be professional towards and supportive of the Protea Village Community land claim.

“There are dedicated, hard-working and passionate people within these spheres of government that are making a tangible difference to the lives of communities. It’s so exciting when communities, government and business work together to build that community and restore dignity. Together we can solve problems, bring justice and create and build our cities to be inclusive, commercially viable and sustainable.”

Bethel Property is also partnering with the Richmond Park Community, Atterbury and Qubic to develop Richmond Park, another land claims project, that will see the creation of an 83.5 hectare mixed use industrial, retail and commercial business park along the N7, near Milnerton.

'Magic' found for sustainable business plan

“The Protea Village development will be planned and implemented responsibly,” said Glass. “We believe that we have found some 'magic' for a viable and sustainable business plan and we plan to create a special and meaningful place that is desirable for families to make their home.

“We are sensitive and aware of the surrounding communities,” he said. “Anything we create has a financial and commercial reality and we want to enhance the sense of place and create a development that considers the value of the properties in the surrounding area. The wealth restoration of the claimants requires this of us and our professionals.

“We will plan and design suitably and responsibly so that we can create homes and generational wealth for the returning community,” he said. “There are imposed restrictions in terms of the restitution award, in that the land claimants won’t be able to sell their houses immediately, so we are developing the property, together with the community, for the long term.

"We need to ensure that when the claimants are able to sell and or rent their properties, that they will achieve market prices that are meaningful and fitting for the area.

“What I love about restitution in action is that, besides the restoration of their land and their homes, the community’s freedom to make their own decisions regarding their birthright has been restored.”

Daniel Filippi, co-founder of and partner in Bethel Property, said getting to know the claimants on a personal basis has been rewarding.

“When you hear their individual stories you begin to understand their past suffering and the pain they have endured," he said. "I can’t imagine what it would be like to come home from work one day to find that your wife, your children, your belongings and your home have all been forcibly removed and you don’t know where your family are.

"And yet, in spite of what was done to them, the Protea Village community is gentle, kind, loving, compassionate and forgiving. To work with the community to restore their lost land, their homes, their dignity and their wealth is such a privilege for us.”  

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