Last week I tagged along on a tour of the township Vryground with six Connecticut College professors who are in Cape Town learning about environmental justice. The tour was led by Lief Petersen of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF), a non-profit organization that works to eliminate poverty by conducting research on the challenges of informal trade in the townships. In order to best interact with the owners of the informal businesses, such as shebeens (bars), spaza shops (small grocers), and traditional healers, it was best to use bicycles as our means of getting around because we were much more approachable. As we rode through the formal township of Capricorn, people greeted us on the streets with smiles and waves. We stopped at a large opening where someone in the foreground was burning trash and in the background we could see a large hill where one of Cape Town’s largest rubbish piles exists, the Coastal Landfill. Many of the inhabitants of the township go there to make a risky living called “skarreling” by sifting through the trash for scrap. Everyday around 250 people from the township go to the dump to make a living. We then visited one of the traditional healers that SLF has been interviewing. His name is Mr. GoBurn and he is from Malawi. Many black South Africans go to traditional healers to retrieve medicine for stress-related problems that Westerners would seek a psychologist for, such as a man whose girlfriend doesn’t love him anymore.
As we continued onward we entered the slum of Overview Heights where shacks are abundant, formal eletricity does not exist, and porta-toilets have been installed. There is one gravel road going through the middle of the slum. When we came out on the other side we were in the formal settlement of Seawinds where a rastafarian named Neville lives. Neville has established a large, beautiful garden on his property and is growing herbs to sell to people as medicine. Him and Lief are working together to create a community garden for the residents. Many rastafarians go to the mountain to pick wild herbs that can be sold as traditional medicines. However, the mountain is part of the national park and is therefore protected. The illegal harvesting of wild plants is a concern to conservationists because many of the natural plants are endangered or vulnerable. However, the sale of these herbs provides a living for many rastafarians who are kept out of the formal economy. It is a goal of the SLF to establish indigenous nurseries on non-protected land that can serve the economic and traditional needs of the rastafarians.