Farmers operating in the Philippi Horticultural Area say their farms have been turned into war zones by criminals. Tracey Adams African News Agency (ANA)
The article published in the Weekend Argus on October 20, “Philippi farming activist Nazeer Sonday doesn’t represent commercial farmers”, made for interesting reading.

While it is easy to disprove the article’s basic claim that Mr Sonday has assumed a spokesman role for the whole of the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA), we would like to offer a larger framing for the questions the article inadvertently poses.

We do so to start a conversation with residents of Cape Town about food sovereignty and how we can increase food security for all, both now and in the future, under the difficult conditions predicted by climate science.

These two issues correlate with the violence in our city.

The basis of the complaint raised in the article is one we find unfounded. We are aware of no evidence for the assertion that Mr Sonday claims to represent all Philippi farmers.

On the contrary: Mr Sonday has been clear from the start of his decade-long campaign that he speaks for landless people who want to grow food at a small-yet-viable commercial scale.

He is open about the experimental nature of his Vegkop farm: it is a place where the current approaches to small-scale agro-ecological farming, on land up to two hectares in size, beginning with soils that were severely degraded, can be tested in the PHA’s unique growing conditions.

It is the basis for an entirely new urban agricultural model for our water- and land-scarce city, and repairing its damaged and depleted soils at the lowest possible cost to farmers and consumers.

As such, it demands a way of thinking about our city’s development politics that is so different from today’s approach that we are unsurprised about the dissent the campaign is generating.

In short, the PHA Campaign is not about farming business-as-usual. It is not about arguing with established, larger-scale farmers. We recognise how much they struggle as they try to stick faithfully to the farming methods they have been taught, and which have been subsidised by national and provincial Departments of Agriculture.

We recognise too the immense difficulty of dealing with violence and crop theft, and the enormous challenge of farming profitably when selling to supermarket chains.

It is the methods and the food system, not the farmers, that are outmoded and unhelpful.

The PHA, as an urban environment in a deeply divided city, presents a particular set of challenges that constitute the underlying cause of the violence identified by Gunther Engelke, chairperson of the Cape Flats Farmers' Association.

We know that PHA farmers are slowly becoming acclimatised to new, ecologically-based farming approaches that are vastly different from the poison-based ones they now use. The evidence of this is in the collaboration neighbouring farmers offer to the single large organic farm currently operating on the PHA.

They understand that their neighbour is farming from a different approach and they do their best to enable that farmer to thrive in his work.

Our hope is that through continued dialogue and learning, this attitude will be extended to the new generation of small-scale farmers who are poised to open up the one-third of the PHA that currently lies fallow.

Over time, the campaign also hopes to see the city leading the way in new thinking about the one-third of the PHA currently held by private developers.

We recognise that the working farmers of the PHA know how bad things have become; we can assure Philippi’s farmers Mr Sonday is perfectly aware of the violence and theft that plague Philippi.

This is precisely why he and the campaign are undertaking significant research, experimentation, and field-based testing of affordable, restorative and redistributive food production.

Mr Sonday and the PHA Campaign’s voluntary team have always said that we speak for farmers who are not yet farming at scale.

The court case we were subjected to last week, at the City of Cape Town’s insistence and taxpayers’ cost, came about precisely because we object to the fact that aspirant new farmers are being prevented from achieving the dream of growing food by economic policies that look and behave like a new form of apartheid.

At the PHA Food and Farming Campaign we believe we can both heal our soils and our souls; and we hope everyone in our city will join in the important conversations the campaign is leading.

* Farr and Green write on behalf of the PHA Food & Farming Campaign