Growing hope from an Elsies River vegetable garden

Young volunteers cleared a dumping site and converted it into a garden that is now nourishing the community by providing fresh food, work and hope.

Geronimo de Klerk, with the help of young volunteers in Elsies River, Cape Town, converted what used to be a dumping site and an escape route for criminals into fertile ground to grow carrots, green peppers, tomatoes and strawberries. 

The garden, located in Trinity Place, sustains feeding schemes in the area that have suffered from a lack of funding because of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. “When you stand up in the morning you have two choices: either to sleep on or stand up and catch your dream. Stand up and catch your dream,” says De Klerk, 18. 

“It was a bit of a challenge, Covid. Nobody could move like they used to or work like they used to work. Starting it during the lockdown, witnessing that our feeding scheme was running out of funds and our people were not employed anymore, a lot of retrenchment happened. No one actually knew what to do in terms of a source of income.”

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Getting something like this up and running in Elsies River was no easy feat. On top of the challenges that came with lockdown, there were other problems in the area such as gang violence, uncollected rubbish, no lights and general lack of maintenance, high levels of unemployment and a chronic shortage of food. 

When the South African National Defence Force was deployed to some areas of the Cape Flats in 2019, Elsies River was among them. That year, there were 90 murders in Elsies River and in 2020 it was among the top 30 precincts with the highest murder rate in the country. 

“Starting this garden was challenging for us because we were vulnerable and we didn’t know what to expect at all within the lockdown,” says De Klerk. “That’s why we wanted a long-term programme in terms of sustaining the feeding schemes and soup kitchen. But it was also a method for us to create employment out of this programme. Agriculture is big and you can get access to food and then there is the educational aspect.”

22 April 2021: Several youth activists in Elsies River have transformed dilapidated parts of their area into thriving food gardens to help feed and train their community.

He, along with other young people, including his older brother Valentino, 21, have been activists in the community for the past few years. They put pressure on the local council to have better lighting in Trinity Place, which, according to the community, has led to a decrease in crime in the area. They have also got the wall that borders the garden and the main road built up. Last year they started a non-profit organisation called Feed the Future. 

His activism and community work led to De Klerk’s friends calling him Madiba. He is always the first to raise his hand when there’s a task at hand, but he also says that between him and his brother he grew up the naughty one. De Klerk was suspended from school before eventually dropping out. 

He credits his parents for his love of community work. “We grew up in a positive household but we always saw the pain of our friends. I remember growing up, you didn’t have stress and there was less gang violence. But now the gang violence is increasing.” 

Valentino de Klerk says, “Where our garden is, it used to be a hotspot for smash [and] grabs. It was a short cut for them to run through and hide themselves. 

“We started this initiative because we knew that it could reduce crime. Then we saw the unemployment rate. There are a lot of young people who are not working. They don’t have places to go, and they stand on corners. We knew that this initiative could change their mind. 

“People feel safer inside Trinity Place and they can look after it. Before, they didn’t want to be outside because they were scared. The small changes that have happened are positive. We have to be examples as activists and they can see what we are busy doing here, looking after the community. We have planted in them that they need to take ownership of their own environment. Now they also look up to us. Those changes have been good changes. It made us feel much safer and the community is being uplifted. It’s slow progress but we are going to get there.” 

Feeding the community

In April, the member of the executive council of agriculture in the Western Cape, Ivan Meyer, visited the garden for the first time. He said that over the next financial year the department was planning to implement 1 800 household gardens in impoverished communities across the province to enhance household food shortages.

The department now also supports the Elsies River project. It gave them a 10 000 litre water tank and supplies gardening equipment including seeds, fertiliser, wheelbarrows and compost.

On the day Meyer visited, he made three commitments to the young volunteers that work in the Elsies River garden. Meyer invited them to Elsenburg in Stellenbosch for a tour of their agriculture programme. He also invited them to the provincial parliament when it was safe to do so and said they would feature in the next edition of Agripro, the province’s agriculture magazine.  

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Mavis Smith, who volunteers at the feeding scheme at Edwards Primary School where there is also a small community vegetable patch, says she and the community as a whole have benefitted from the garden. “I worked the whole lockdown from the beginning when I was feeding the community. The people were hungry.”

Smith, who lives close to Trinity Place, adds that the Feed the Future volunteers are now role models for younger children in the community. “They are now very nice kids and they enjoy what they are doing. I benefitted a lot because they gave me spinach. All the older people are encouraging them as well. It’s teamwork,” Smith says. 

“These children don’t want to gang up with the other kids. This garden is keeping them busy. I really think that they must get jobs from this. I’d like these gardens to expand. It’s really keeping them off the streets. I can see on their faces that they are proud of this garden and I can see how they have changed.”

22 April 2021: A thriving sunflower plant in a community garden in Elsies River, Cape Town.

Dailen Jacobs, from the non-governmental organisation RLabs, says of his first meeting with the brothers and other young volunteers, “I had the privilege of meeting them about two months ago for the first time, and we were just blown away with the work that they’ve been doing. We wanted to come [alongside] and help them.” 

The volunteers in the Trinity Place vegetable garden have been added to the Zlto digital rewards platform. It is an Rlabs initiative that aims to encourage community and volunteer work. The platform allows volunteers to log the hours they work in exchange for goods such as electricity and grocery vouchers.  

“The journey continues and from here we can only become stronger in what we do. We can grow better and bigger. As you plant the seed, you need to nurture it until the point where it’s harvesting time. This is what these young people did. They are currently nurturing that seed, and they are transferring their knowledge. We are really excited for what is going to happen moving forward,” Jacobs says.

De Klerk says, “I didn’t know that we as the youth could achieve so much in one year without support from the government. Being an activist is always about the love of our community and people. We are more than 15 youth members working on this on a daily basis. There are also individuals supporting us through our BackaBuddy campaign. We hope after … the minister’s visit that more changes will come.”

Their long-term goal is to convert more open spaces in Elsies River and beyond into gardens that can sustain communities and create job opportunities. “We have a passion for this. We can see the potential for this. We can grow food and grow communities. To see it expanding, it’s great. We love the fact that we are being examples to a lot of communities. We love to empower communities,” says Valentino de Klerk. 

De Klerk adds: “Achieving something like this will make you feel much better and it will make you a better person. Someone just said to me that planting your own food is like printing your own money. Who doesn’t want to print their own money? Take ownership, inspire, mobilise. Make the world a better place; make the world a greener place. Take ownership in open spaces in your communities. Nothing is impossible when you stand together and as the youth, you can make a change.” 

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