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New Brighton Township Vegetable Garden

It was in late 2008 when I was first introduced to Mama Winnie, a Xhosa Gogo (Grandmother) by Mr. Pandla, a one time member of uMkhonto we Sizwe, “The Spear of the Nation”, the armed wing of the liberation struggle and at that stage a guide at the really good Red Location museum. This was a wonderful project founded by and brought to fruition as a collaboration between the Swedish and South African governments and co-funded by both these countries. 


It was a museum that was built to commemorate, the contribution made by the people, particularly the people from Red Location in New Brighton, a township in Port Elizabeth and therefore the people of Port Elizabeth as a whole, in their struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa.
Unfortunately, the imposing, modern structure now lies in ruin the result of members of the local community who became disgruntled with municipal service delivery and the state funded housing they were benefitting from and they proceeded to close the area and museum down.
What a pity, the museum brought hard won jobs to the community, as well as much needed tourism funds that began to trickle into the area. So instead of joining the movement for a better life they stopped it in its tracks. That was about 4 or 5 years ago, and nothing has changed, they should be ashamed of themselves quite honestly.


Mama Winnie was a one time African National Congress or ANC stalwart, the now ruling party of South Africa and was one of the brave members who were the very first to stand up in a show of defiance against the might of the Apartheid government when they occupied the steps of a nearby railway bridge in a peaceful protest, which like so many facilities had been allocated to be used by “Whites only”. The protesters were collectively arrested and imprisoned for their troubles. 


This was the first act of insurrection in South Africa. Feisty is a good term for Mama Winnie; she fired the ANC when the corruption, the party now stands for, started showing its ugly face and promptly joined the opposition party of her choice. 


After I spoke to Mr. Pandla about setting up vegetable gardens in New Brighton, he mentioned Mama Winnie a close neighbour of his and he took me to meet her at her small but neat house in the middle of this, the oldest township in Port Elizabeth and now a large un-coordinated and rambling township, vibrant and bold in its richness and poverty.


Mama Winnie had worked in the Department of Agriculture in her younger days, her interest and skill as a gardener remained and she had cultivated a small but productive vegetable garden that surrounded her house, squashed as it was between the boundary wall and the house. Boundary walls are important and afford protection to the household and her family from the marauding Tsotsis (gangsters) that roam the streets at night. 


On meeting we had a lighthearted talk, and she expressed an interest in developing a larger piece of vacant land that was surrounded by a high wire fence with double gates and asked me if I was interested in helping. Yes, of course if I could I certainly would, I answered. 


I didn’t want to have to do the actual work as I have a small tour company that is very demanding of ones time but would be more than happy to help where I could with the establishment of the garden. I felt that it had to come from the community and not from some white interloper coming in and pushing everyone around. I didn’t have to worry. Winnie was quite capable and then some, of taking charge of the garden, even at 75 or so years of age.


As I was leaving that first meeting, Winnie asked me if I liked Spring onions, definitely I replied and we went to the back garden and selected out a bunch of the tastiest and tangiest Spring onions, probably the best I have ever had, delicious. It was the start of many years of working together.
Winnie soon called me to ask me if I could come and attend a meeting with the local ANC councilor, who represented the area and I agreed. 


On the day we went off to the council office where we joined a long queue waiting for the councilor who had not pitched up for work yet. We waited and waited until eventually the guy arrived and started seeing the people in front of us, never apologizing or anything for his late arrival. After a few hours of waiting, we finally got our chance and Winnie speaking in a mixture of her home language, isiXhosa and English introduced me and the project we had in mind, explaining about the fenced off area we wanted to put under vegetables. 


Well unsurprisingly the councilor turned the request down for what ever reason I cannot remember but suggested that we approach a local church which had some vacant land to see if they would be open to the idea of us cultivating a piece of their land.


Winnie took off at the councilor, lambasting him for being late, for being lazy, you name it, she told him just where to get off the bus and we marched out of there, Winnie saying that she would take it up with the leadership of the ANC, something I simply could not have done as I would not have been able to get access to anyone at a decision making level.
The next week we had the land.

A few days later Winnie had coerced a local municipal tractor driver to bring his tractor and a plough to the plot of hard, rock, strewn land and we ploughed that land over first from that direction then from this until the entire hectare sized piece of land had been turned over.

What a pleasure. It would have taken us a year to do the job by hand and it cost us nothing to get it done. We of course thanked the tractor driver very much.

Mama Winnie roped in a few of the community members to help work the soil, but this is not an easy thing to do. Not so much in terms of turning the soil but getting people to work that soil. Although there is a desperate lack of job opportunities and resulting poverty in the townships in the Eastern Cape people are still reluctant to do physical work, especially menfolk, and this was to be a labour of love as they were not going to be paid to work. In the Xhosa tribal tradition, it is the women folk who do the hard physical work in the gardens and fields of rural South Africa.

Pressing on family and neighbours alike Winnie was able to get enough hands to work that hard stony, but fertile soil and slowly the garden started to take shape. Beds were laid out using rock that had been sifted from the soil. I planted some small sapling trees in the hope of creating shaded areas as the garden was baked hard in the blistering summer sun and wind swept with the notorious westerlies that blast through the unprotected area in winter, with the south-easterlies doing the same during the hot summer months.

I came across a roadside team trimming off swathes of Spekboom, a hardy, fast growing, indigenous succulent shrub or tree along the freeway and loaded up a trailer with a few loads with the intention of planting it as hedge rows to create a windbreak between the beds.

To my utter dismay some of the more “knowledgeable” ladies from the community with whom we were in constant disagreement, decided that this was a waste of time, growing wild plants in a vegetable patch and pulled all the hard work from the soil and threw them onto a heap in a corner to die off. I was flabbergasted and furious.

Winnie was always arguing and fighting with this group of women who she said had designs of taking over the garden for their own purposes, wanting to sideline Winnie and to a lesser degree myself. We persevered and the ladies left for greener pastures where they would not have to deal with Winnie any longer. They, like so many, had misjudged the diminutive Mama Winnie.

Right from the beginning water was a problem. It was great when the heavens opened up and it rained, but Port Elizabeth is notoriously fickle when it comes to rain. Some years it doesn’t stop while in other years it is intermittent at best, not ideal for thirsty vegetables like Maize, or corn or just plain “Mielies” in South Africa, Pumpkin, Onions, Beetroot, and Swiss Chard or Spinach. Potatoes, Spring onions, Carrots and Beetroot as well as Sweat potatoes were all cultivated in the garden. But they all need a lot of water.

So, my eye started shifting to the next door plot and the building that was on the eastern side of our veggie patch. I couldn’t help noticing an overgrown verdant and lush patch of grass next to the wall of the building and asked Mama what the building was? Oh! that is a municipal hall for community recreation she said. 

I decided to go and inspect the building more closely, climbing through a large hole in the fence and went to inspect the lush green patch of grass next to the wall and there it was a plastic polycop plumbing pipe doubled over and tied off with wire where a tap had been liberated allowing a continuous flow of water to filter out of the broken pipe.

This was an opportunity just too good to miss out on, so we decided to fix the leaking pipe. Off to the plumbing supply store with a sample segment of the broken pipe and we came out of the shop with a few joins and a decent length of the same polycop piping as on the building and a few new metal taps for good measure. Mistake!! The metal ones were no sooner fastened to the end of the pipe than they were liberated, removed as scrap metal or to operate in someone else’s home. The metal ones were soon replaced with plastic taps. Anything made from metal in the township is fair game. Our gate chains and padlocks were stolen a number of times but the vegetables were left well alone for the most part.

After fixing the pipe and joining our extension onto it and it wasn’t long before we had a furrow dug to bury the pipe. At the end of the pipe, we set a strong pole vertically in the ground and fastened the tap with pipe to the pole. Voila, free water for our community veggie garden. 

But it is back breaking work trying to water a vegetable patch of this size by filling a watering can or two from the tap. So, it was not long before I brought an extra length of garden hose that I had at home, joined this to the tap and that is when the veggie patch really started to take off properly, with Winnie and her team merrily spraying the water around the vegetable garden with gay abandon.

The trees and Aloes we planted also started to flourish and it was wonderful to see nature starting to take a tenuous hold again in this once barren wasteland. Sparrows flew in and out of the garden, Common Fiscals found a perch on the young trees and many others started to arrive in this little protected piece of productive land once again.

We cleaned the outside perimeter of plastic bags and other garbage regularly keeping the grass trimmed with our weed eater and we grew vegetables and more vegetables and then some more again.

I had always wanted to make the vegetable garden pretty well independent of my financial input. Whenever I visited the garden, I would give something to Winnie depending how well the business was running or not. But it wasn’t only Winnie, it was also her injured son, Siya. The injury was the result of a motor car accident that smashed his leg causing him to lose his job. He could hardly walk but he could garden on that one good leg. He would use the spade or the fork or whatever tool it was, half to do the work, half as a crutch while turning that soil or weeding or watering the beds. He is a likable, well organised and really productive and deserving guy and as I was the only one with cash in hand, I was obliged to help out with everyone who lent a hand in that veggie patch.

Many was the time that after or before visiting the Red Location museum with our mostly foreign guests we would stop off at the vegetable garden after arranging to meet Winnie there and introduce the guests to her and her garden and most of those kind folks were only too happy to leave some donation towards the continued growth of the garden and this also put some money in their pockets, but it wasn’t enough, it never is. 


Winnie had a vision of creating a soup kitchen from the garden. She wanted to put a small container inside the fence with gas stoves and cook up the vegetables and serve this soup to her impoverished community.

I implored her to sell the vegetables even at a low cost to the community and in this way make the vegetable garden somewhat sustainable, but the idea never took hold like some of my other ideas; it just was not going to work in the European sense of doing things. Winnie has just too much empathy for her community and I guess understanding for the hardship of life in this environment for her to impose a fee on food that should in her mind be free of charge even though she is well over 80 and does most of the hard work herself and keeps herself in that garden producing for the community.

It has been sometime since I last saw or heard from Winnie. The last time I went to visit her was not a pleasant experience.

I went in by the same route as I usually do, the township is always a busy place, people gather in the street, kids walk to and from the small corner shops, carrying goods on their heads as is the way of the AmaXhosa. Groups of youth hang out on the street corners. Nothing unusual, as I made my way passed the veggie garden to take a quick glance at how it is doing, checking on the trees to see if they have grown and then take a right at the T-junction from the rocky gravel onto a smooth section of the newly tarred road. The new tarring of the roads always seems so random, tar here, rocky gravel there, then back onto the tar again then back to dodging, water filled potholes, exposed rocks, and broken bottles.

I went around the playground that was for years locked, fenced off and closed with all the children’s playground equipment safely under lock and key while the kids played in the dusty, stone strewn streets amongst the garbage and dog shit. I wonder if it is the same lazy, late councilor who lost the keys. Then all of a sudden, the playgrounds were open, and the grass trimmed the equipment in full swing, filled with laughing, running, playing children. One cannot help but wonder. 

I turn into Winnies road, hardly a road, more of a rocky, grass bedecked single lane pathway that was once a road of sorts. Here I park in my normal place next to what used to be her garden gate, but the entrance has now moved around the corner. I get out lock the combi and walk around to her front gate, kids and dogs look on, nothing new, most of them have seen me here before.

I am met by Winnie and her grandson or is it her great grandson I am not sure. After a hug and a greeting, I go into the simple but neat house and enquire how things are going, kids are in and out as I take out my wallet and give Winnie the last R 30.00 I have. Winnie accepts the donation, a bit grumpily, always expecting a bit more from her “son”. It is not much but that is all I have. I don’t stay long and soon say cheers with a hug and a promise to come back soon again. Bid farewell to the kids and off I go.

I made it to the door of the Combi which I was about to open when around the front of the vehicle springs a guy with his arm raised high above his head, a huge 20 odd centimeter long blade in his hand, this is not a knife in the conventional sense of a knife, this is more like a short sword. He rushes towards me without a sound, no warning, I instinctively put up my arm and hand to defend myself and as I do, I stumble backwards over the uneven, rocky surface, taken completely by surprise, I feel another set of hands pulling something around my neck, a wire cable is now tightened around my neck, a garrote, as my legs are kicked out from underneath me and I am thrown to the ground.

I struggle to talk with the wire being pulled tighter around my neck, phone, phone someone is shouting, no, I answer, I don’t have my phone I say with difficulty. They turn me over roughly, on to my side, I feel hands on and in my back pocket where my wallet is. They are unable to get the wallet out of the pocket, they are too nervous, fidgety or my jeans fabric is too tight, twisted around me. 

The guy with the sword is dying to use it on something, anything and forces the blade into my pants pocket and with a delft upward slice cuts through the fabric of the pocket rip, out comes the wallet. They look through the wallet but by this time I have found my voice and scream for help, all I can see down this low on ground are the kids, looking curiously on, while the dogs lethargically ignoring the whole incident as I lie spreadeagled on the ground with 6 or 7 youths all tugging and pulling me around on the ground talking at the same time and searching through my wallet and pockets. 

I have a family heirloom on my right hand, a solid gold ring that my Grandfather had made from gold and diamonds that he himself had dug from the soil. The ring is decorated with three serious diamonds set in gold across the top of the ring, diamonds serious enough to cut your hand off to retrieve them. It has become a habit of mine to turn the ring around so that the diamonds are facing into the palm of my hand when entering dodgy areas and this being deemed a dodgy area, I had earlier done this. How these guys missed that ring especially when my hands went up to protect myself from that monster dagger, I don’t know but you can rest assured that I do not wear that ring any longer it is safe and sound and locked away.

Eventually I see Winnie coming around the corner in response to my screams hobbling on her short rheumatic legs, coming towards the scene, shouting and berating the youths or gang members, who knows what they are, but they are not friendly. They look up to see Winnie approaching slowly. They obviously know who she is and with a certain kind of respect for her, they toss the empty wallet down into the overgrown grass in disgust and wander away, slowly, no great alarm, just moving off talking to each other as if nothing had happened at all.

Winnie came over and apologised, I of course was shaken with the realization of just how lucky I really was to be no worse off than a torn pocket and a massively deflated ego.

My car was still intact, my wallet with its bank cards and ID documents and everything else one keeps in a wallet for safe keeping, is intact. I even had my Swiss army knife in its leather holder on my belt still intact. My cellphone was safely tucked into the car door compartment.

I knew immediately that I would not be coming back to see Mama Winnie in a hurry nor to see how the veggie patch is doing any longer. It is just too dangerous for me as a lone white man to be wondering around this tragic place where the rule of law is the rule of the jungle which prevails and rules over this poor community, the kind of community that is in the most-dire need of Mama Winnies empathy, understanding and fresh vegetables.