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The Guerrilla Gardeners

Published Aug 29, 2014

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Dimitri Selibas

Guerrilla gardeners in the heart of Cape Town are fighting a war of survival. One of these groups, registered NPO Tyisa Nabanye, which has been growing vegetables on a piece of abandoned military land for a year, is in danger of losing this land and hence their means of sustenance.

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The term Guerrilla Gardener is given to someone who gardens on land which they do not have legal rights to use.

Tyisa Nabanye’s occupied land, in Tamboerskloof, was once used by the army, and is now referred to as Erf 81. The land is owned by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and administered by the Department of Public Works.

At the moment, neither department has a clear plan for the property and as a result they have not granted Tyisa Nabanye official tenure, although tacitly the department acknowledges their presence.

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Tyisa Nabanye means “feed the others” in Xhosa. Speaking to a member of Tyisa Nabanye, Mzukisi Zele, known by all as Mzu, he says: “It is not just about food but to go further by feeding people with knowledge, skills and to raise awareness about issues of sustainability, nutrition and healthy living.”

The organisation was formed in August last year by Mzu, Lumko Ningi and a group of four friends. Since then it has grown enough food to support six members, sell any surplus to surrounding neighbours at its monthly market, has hosted a Cape Town Partnership workshop on Youth and Urban Agricultures and a 1 000 Drawings doodle session partnered with Slow Food Youth Network South Africa.

The Erf 81 property is on the extremely rare Renosterveld habitat of the Cape Floral Kingdom.

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This habitat is characterised by clay-rich fertile soils which boasts the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world and is home to many of South Africa’s indigenous medical plants.

There are already moves by Tyisa Nabanye to start growing more medicinal plants.

But with no legal tenure, the organisation’s fixed position is unsure. The greatest transferable assets that the organisation has are the skills and knowledge of its people.

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Lumko Ningi, now 37, has a story that is not uncommon in Cape Town. In 1995 he finished school in Mdanstane, just outside East London and one of the oldest townships in South Africa.

He left his family and home in the Eastern Cape and came to look for work in Cape Town.

In 1996 he started working at a canning factory to raise money to study further. The next few years were spent working and saving and in 2000 he enrolled to study food technology at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Lumko did not have sufficient funding to complete his diploma but he had creative finesse that led to him receiving a two-year graphic design learnership from the now defunct Arts and Media Access Centre.

Between 2003 and 2010 Lumko completed his two-year learnership and began working in the advertising industry. During this time he was staying in Marcus Garvey, a Rasta community in the Philippi township in Cape Town.

Philippi is well known for its horticultural area that provides the city of Cape Town with arguably almost half of its fresh vegetables. Ironically, with all this abundance of greenery, the nearby township is like most others in Cape Town – socially, ecologically and economically impoverished.

Lumko says: “The kind of lifestyle you were living there did not prolong vitality. The whole way of life was suffocation, no trees. It’s bare. It’s rare to find trees… and through observing you notice most people are suffering from respiratory-related diseases, there are sewages overflowing, napkins just thrown in a corner, just a system that is slowly killing because people are rushing to go off to work.

“They don’t care about other stuff and I got tired of that and decided that: no – there is a better life.”

In 2010 he resigned from his job and went back to his home town of Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape.

Back at home his kitchen door faced a lush forest and he was quickly reconnected with nature, often foraging for indigenous food plants from the rich natural landscape.

Two years later, Lumko was back in Cape Town and continued his work in advertising. Lumko has fond memories of when he was a child and his grandfather would be working every day in the family vegetable garden.

With this experience he started his own garden at Luzuko Park, Philippi, and was later helped by another Tyisa Nabanye member, Masixole Lelengwana.

In a township where very few people grew plants, his vegetables flourished. Looking back, Lumko laughs, saying “some people couldn’t understand it, they thought we were crazy. But we thought of ourselves as green rebels.”

He then joined Unathi Dyantyi and Mzu, friends from his days at Marcus Garvey, and they were offered the opportunity to start a garden for a crèche in Khayelitsha.

The Cape Town-born Mzu, now working at Greenpop, was a trained permaculturist and was a major force in starting the garden at the crèche.

After finishing school, Mzu received a scholarship to study Permaculture at Seed, an NGO based in Mitchells Plain which teaches sustainability courses and has a highly successful permaculture garden that provides food at a school in Rocklands, Mitchells Plain.

Unathi, who also hails from the Eastern Cape, started out selling the Big Issue magazine on the streets of Cape Town for two years.

The crèche garden proved to be a success and in April last year the opportunity to start a garden outside of the sandy townships and in the heart of Cape Town arose. An advertising colleague introduced Lumko and the guys to the empty space at the military ground of Erf 81.

They got permission from Andre Laubscher, the de facto caretaker of the property, to start growing some vegetables and moved into an uninhabited military storehouse on the property. And so Tyisa Nabanye was formed.

On the other side of the City Bowl, the Oranjezicht City Farm was already becoming a success.

Founded last year, the farm converted a neglected bowling green in the affluent suburb of Oranjezicht into a community garden.

Lizza Littlewort was a part of the organisation from its inception and after hearing about the work of Tyisa Nabanye from friends she offered to share her experiences.

A few months later, Lizza recruited Urban Planning Masters student, Catherine Nicks, to join Tyisa Nabanye. Like Lizza, Catherine also felt that the farm was sufficiently well-resourced and was excited by the challenge of acting as a link between the foodies, the urban agriculturalists and the Tyisa Nabanye.

One of the major drivers to the success of the garden at the Oranjezicht farm is the thriving weekly market which popularised the project and helped raise awareness of it.

A hall space was organised at Erf 81 which has become a venue for workshops and monthly markets.

In the following months, Lizza and Catherine worked on the organisational aspects to procure paint, seeds and tools and to register Tyisa Nabanye as an NPO. They also provided administrative support with business plans and connected the organisation with graphic designers to create a crisp logo and branding.

The organisation has been a starting point for members to thrive. Unathi received a theatre scholarship through the New Africa Theatre Company and he is now featured on a series on SABC 1.

He hopes to combine his first love of theatre with greening to raise awareness about nutrition and the environment, especially in township schools.

He says: “The main problem in townships is that people can’t sustain themselves. I want to teach the youth. I want to make gardening cool; it’s not about being a garden boy.”

Mzu will be going to Italy later in the year to join Slow Food at its international conference: Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre. The other members of Tyisa Nabanye – Vuyo Hoboshe, Masixole Lelengwana and Chuma Mgcoyi – also have their own stories of success since the gruelling days of starting up the organisation.

Mgcoyi has found work in film production and finished a course in permaculture at Seed. Vuyo has a scholarship to study two courses, one in entrepreneurship and digital technology, the other in community development.

But even with all of the benefits that the organisation has created, and all the structures in place, the issue of their legal status is still a grey cloud above their heads. For one, it makes organisations and individuals hesitant to donate. And Catherine says that with the money they do receive, it all has to be very strategically invested in items that can be easily disassembled if they do eventually get evicted from the ground.

Technically, Tyisa Nabanye is squatting illegally. They are occupying the property illegally.

But they are doing this to grow food to survive and teach others to be self-reliant, and ultimately turn Tyisa Nabanye into a model for sustainable living – a model that connects the dots of people, food and nature.

In the meantime they are fighting for their right to food, accommodation and a better life in the big city.

l Selibas has a fascination with biodiversity, cultural diversity, good food, public spaces, people and how they all interconnect. Among other things, he is currently volunteering at City of Eden, an NGO that has as its long-term goal to make Cape Town an edible city. In the interim it is creating a network of urban food gardens, re-imagining urban spaces with creative sprout-ups and providing urban agriculture tours including Tyisa Nabanye at Erf 81.

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