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Confronting the City of Cape Town’s PHA myths

There is currently a legal battle over the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA). File picture - Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

There is currently a legal battle over the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA). File picture - Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Nov 17, 2019


Last month the Western Cape High Court heard argument in a dispute over the future of 472ha of land located in the southern portion of Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA).

The City of Cape Town’s case against the PHA Food and Farming Campaign (PHA Campaign), made by advocate Ron Paschke, laid out a series of so-called “myths” he contended were the case against urbanisation of the Oakland City site.

All these assertions are rebuttable, but the following ones in particular (slightly rearranged) reveal fundamental misconceptions regarding the essence of the campaign’s arguments.

* The Oakland City site is part of the PHA: Incredibly, the City argued in court that the Oakland City site is not actually part of the PHA. The City hangs its hat primarily on a change to the City’s Municipal Spatial Development Framework in 2012, presaged by a similar 2011 decision by the province, that shifted the “urban edge” of the city to include the Oakland City site, thereby “severing” it from the PHA territory.

The campaign has complained, both in court and out of it, of the highly irregular process for this change, given that a full City Council turned it down publicly in 2009.

This is akin to renaming District Six.

The City cannot so easily erase the site’s historical and physical, not to mention legal, connection to the PHA. The Oakland City site is by no extent of the imagination urban; rather its use and features follow the trajectory of the rest of the PHA, although this trajectory has been interrupted by the City’s annexation.

* The Oakland City site is farmland that provides food for Cape Town: The City and province argued that none of the Oakland City site has been farmed.

One reason the land isn’t being farmed right now is that the owner - the developer - will not permit it. This is in contrast to farmed areas on adjacent land also owned by a different developer.

What the City and province did not note was that a significant portion of the site has been mined and then neglected, rather than rehabilitated to productive farmland as required under the law.

The Oakland City site shares the same general physical, hydrological, and climatic features as the rest of the PHA, farmed for well over 100 years. Why should its misuse for inappropriate urban development excuse its elimination from contributing to this role?

* Farming is beneficial for the aquifer: The City argued that farming the Oakland City site would pollute the aquifer with fertiliser and chemical run-off. There is evidence that the aquifer is impacted by ecologically damaging farming practices.

This is not a reason to stop farming, but instead to shift our farming practices to more sustainable means. Such a shift in farming practices is possible.

For example, in Munich, city officials have engaged in a decades-long project to protect their aquifer and source of water through sustainable farming practices above its recharge zone.

* Development is undesirable and will endanger the aquifer: The City’s counsel made much of the benefit that the development proposal’s 15000 homes would bring to the city. But are these homes for the poor? Will they house the thousands of people living in informal settlements within and around the PHA? Are they located near existing infrastructure?

In fact, development of this gated, upper-class estate will require completely new, specialised infrastructure to deal with the high water table, from water and sewage pipes to roads to electrical lines. One need only read the chapter on this very proposal in Crispian Olver’s new book on corruption in Cape Town to get a sense of the fishiness of the Oakland City project proposal.

* The high court can decide to protect the PHA: Finally, the City’s counsel also argued that the judge hearing the case was not empowered to question the City’s policy decision with respect to the designation of the Oakland City site as “urban”. But the current Municipal Spatial Development Framework essentially defers to the court, stating that if the court rules in the campaign’s favour, the site would be considered again to be part of the PHA. More broadly, the City and the province have committed in writing to protecting and investing in the PHA. The City’s arguments in court suggest otherwise.

Critics of the campaign complain that it doesn’t represent all farming interest in the PHA.

They are correct on that point. The PHA Campaign isn’t interested in making the same mistakes of the past, either with respect to the City’s urban development or destructive farming practices.

What the PHA Campaign does embody is a vision for the PHA as supporting Cape Town at the vanguard of sustainable, food-secure, socially just cities.

* Alexander is a US-trained lawyer and urban planner and is on the PHA Campaign planning committee. The full version of this piece can be read at

** The view expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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