The aim of the Friends of the Liesbeek is to create an awareness of the importance of the Liesbeek as a green corridor in an urban setting and to rehabilitate, enhance, and conserve it and its environs.
The Friends of the Liesbeek began in 1991 with a steering committee comprising Edward Tilanus, Dave Wheeler, Benita Bezuidenhout, and Peter Price. Its first activities were river walks and clean-ups, but today, the organisation focuses more broadly on public awareness and education of the river environments.
The success of this volunteer group has been dependent on its mutually beneficial partnership with the City of Cape Town. The FoL has adopted an unflinching, ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ approach to volunteerism that has allowed it to operate effectively on the same level as the government departments with which it deals. FoL’s primary effort, the Liesbeek Maintenance Project – a large-scale river rehabilitation scheme – is reliant on the knowledge and support of the municipality.
The success of FoL makes a strong case for the potential of volunteer organisations and demonstrates that, in partnership with government, much can be accomplished. The key is to stand apart from, but work with government.
History and Background:
The Liesbeek River (also spelt Liesbeeck) is a small river in Cape Town in South Africa. It was the first river in Cape Town named by Jan van Riebeeck. “Beek” is Dutch for stream and “lies” is a reed.
The Liesbeek, which is less than 9 kilometers long, is situated in the oldest urbanized river valley in South Africa and in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The headwaters flow from the eastern slopes of Table Mountain above Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens where the vegetation is largely indigenous.
The slopes of Bishopscourt have large properties, including Jan van Riebeeck’s farm, whose garden was regarded as the best in the British Empire outside Britain. Water abstraction here, often to water residential gardens, has caused the flow to reduce to a trickle during the summer months. From here to the lower section, there is a path known as the Liesbeek River Trail running alongside the river.
In Newlands, there are smaller residential plots. South African Breweries and the Josephine Mill are located here. From Rondebosch, large sections of the river are canalised, and those short sections of the river that are not, are degraded by erosion. Schweppes has a historic pumphouse here.
Below Rosebank and Mowbray, at Observatory (South Africa’s oldest scientific institution), is the confluence of the Liesbeek and Black Rivers. The Two Rivers Urban Park is located on land between the Liesbeek and the Black with heritage sites and designated public open spaces. Raapenberg Bird Sanctuary (a nature reserve), the River Club and the Palotti Wetlands Environmental Centre are located here. From here, the river runs through both industrial areas and railway marshalling yards. The Liesbeek empties into Table Bay at Paarden Island (Island of Horses).
River of Life:
During the pre-colonial era (pre 1652), the Black and Liesbeek Rivers flowed into the Salt River and together with the Diep River from the north, they created an extensive marshland around Paarden Island. The Cape lion hunted here and early travelers also describe hippos, elephants, Cape buffalos, antelopes and zebras grazing along the banks of the Liesbeek River. During pre-colonial times the indigenous people, the Khoikhoi, were dependent on rivers for their survival. Yet the environment of the Liesbeek was virtually undisturbed before the arrival of the Dutch.
The Liesbeek River is home to many species of frog including the Table Mountain Ghost Frog (see below), seen on the east slopes of Table Mountain in dark gorges. The frogs are distinctive for the suckers on their feet and Velcro-like skin that allows them to cling on to the steep rock faces and not to be washed away; the tadpole has a sucker mouth for the same reason. The frog has more than twenty rows of teeth for scraping food. Other frogs include: Micro Frog, one of the smallest in the world; the Cape Rain Frog; the Leopard Toad; the Chirping Frog; and the Cape River Frog – known for its indiscriminate and voracious eating habits, it even eats its own kind.
Cape Galaxia is the indigenous fish. It grows to 7cm long, has no scales and is virtually transparent. Carp, Catfish, Trout and Shrimps can also be found in the Liesbeek.
Indigenous plants include wild almond, geranium (stops ear ache and is used in the European perfume industry), Turkey berry, wild peach, wild garlic (used for fever & colds), wild rosemary & sage, watsonias (the bulbs were eaten by the Khoikhoi), sour figs (for throat & mouth infections) and wild dagga (used for snake bites & stings). Alien plants – those that use too much water and choke or take over native plants – include poplars (used for roofing & matches), oak (for housing materials), Pines, Port Jackson, Lantana (cherry pie), Water lettuce and Water Hyacinth.
Water from the Albion Spring, adjacent to the Liesbeek, was used to supply the residents of Rondebosch and surrounding suburbs with their domestic water supply when the water of the Liesbeek River became too polluted to serve as drinking water in the 1890s. The man who established the Cape Town and District Waterworks Company was Anders Ohlsson, who is better known for his role in the brewing industry. Later the spring was used to augment the water supply for the Cape Town Municipality, while the Steenbras Dam was being built in the 1920s. The spring was also the successful site of a number of mineral water companies, the last of which was Schweppes.
In the twentieth century, residential and industrial expansion was responsible for increased river pollution. By the end of the twentieth century the once extensive wetland was reduced to a few residual reed beds near the Royal Observatory and along the Black River canal. Pollution is generated by the overflow from storm water drains which transported a considerable amount of rubbish and dirt from the streets, gutters and yards in rainy weather. This both pollutes the river and obstructed its flow. Factory effluents also pollute the river.
During the 1990s the public expressed a strong desire to rediscover the past and to conserve the cultural heritage of the Black and Liesbeek Rivers. As a consequence, an eight kilometre riverside trail along the Liesbeek River was developed and Friends of the Liesbeek, a non-Governmental organization, was formed. The Friends generate public awareness and community involvement in the welfare of the river by arranging talks, walks and displays on the river. The Friends also lobby developers and local government to protect and enhance the Liesbeek environment and to allow public access rights to the Liesbeek from its source to the mouth. Some of the group’s projects include hacking, weeding, litter collection etc. The Friends have also raised money to employ workers to remove pollution from the river.
Resourceful River Settlements:
The Khoikhoi (‘men of men’), nomadic pastoralists, had lived in southern Africa since the fifth century AD. They brought their livestock of sheep and cattle to the Cape Peninsula each season. Water was critical for their survival and they built kraals consisting of mat (thatched) houses along the Liesbeek riverbanks. The Khoikhoi moved constantly and dispersed widely in search of fresh pastures for their livestock.
Jan van Riebeeck, an employee of the Dutch East India Company, arrived at the Cape on 6 April 1652 in command of a small detachment. His orders were explicitly not to establish a colony, but only a fortified trading station. He was to sell meat, wine and vegetables and other supplies bartered from the Khoikhoi or produced by him at a company garden. His employers, the Dutch East India Company (VOC), had no desire to pay for the conquest and administration of territory. Their interest was in stopping a British occupation of the Cape and to ensure the provision of vital supplies to their shipping fleets en route to the East.
On arrival, the Dutch found several Khoikhoi tribes living along the Liesbeek River. Van Riebeeck constructed a fort with a moat and earthen walls at the water’s edge and, under the direction of gardener Hendrik Boom, beds were laid out in the Company Garden just beyond the fort. It soon became apparent that the Khoikhoi were unable or unwilling to trade sufficient supplies. In fact, far from being able to supply passing ships, Van Riebeeck’s men found themselves short of food. He petitioned the VOC to release employees from their contracts to become farmers and 20 acre plots were allocated along the Liesbeek River in 1657 for this purpose. These men became the first “free burghers” of the Dutch East India Company.
As a consequence, Rondebosch, Newlands and Bishopscourt had to be cleared for agriculture. The necessity for timber also had a devastating effect on Rondebosch, Newlands and Kirstenbosch. The felling of trees in large numbers stripped the ground of cover and left the forest bare. At this time, alien tree species from Holland were introduced to the Cape. Clearing the forest affected the game – the animals were cut off from grazing areas and hunting territories. These developments also blocked access to water and pastures for the Khoikhoi and they were gradually excluded from grazing their herds along the Liesbeek River. To make matters worse, between 1657 and 1660 a fence was constructed along the Liesbeek River. The wildlife could not survive in these conditions. In the 1670s, the Cape lion and kwagga became extinct. The Khoikhoi were left with no alternative means of survival but to work on Free Burgher farms. By 1700, many but not all Western Cape Khoikhoi had become partially or totally dependent on the colony for their livelihood.
Working River Washerwomen:
Agriculture also brought with it slave labour. Since the Dutch East India Company prohibited the enslavement of the Khoikhoi, slaves were brought from the East and East Africa to work on farms. Company farms employed large numbers of slaves. Several farms were located between the Liesbeek and Black Rivers. Slavery effectively ended in 1838 once the so-called apprenticeship period was over. However, the Vagrancy Acts, which prohibited people without income from wandering around, forced many freed slaves to remain in servitude on farms where they used to work. Consequently, former slaves established dwellings on the outskirts of farms where they used to work. For former slaves the Liesbeek River was essential for their survival, especially the Malay washerwomen, who were dependent on the river to continue their trade – they washed clothes in the river.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries washerwomen were a common sight along the Liesbeek River. They were dependent on the river for their livelihood and, in the days before washing-machines and laundromats, many people depended on them to do their laundry. They provide an interesting example of the effects of different attitudes and perceptions. Some people regarded them as a nuisance and wanted their use of the river to be stopped by the authorities. Others viewed their activities in a far more tolerant light and watched them, painted them, photographed them and wrote about their activities in letters to friends. In 1837 Rondebosch residents complained to the governor, “the Liesbeek River is a source of drinking water, but it cannot function as such because of the practice which occurs all along its banks of washing linen and polluting the waters with soap and filth.”
Increased population growth also resulted in increased commerce and industrialisation along the Liesbeek River. Various industries including a tannery and several milling and brewing companies used the river as a source of fresh water. Increased population growth had a significant impact on the environment. The river became the key source of water for agricultural as well as domestic use. All this contributed to the pollution of the river.
River City Cape Town:
Cape Town is South Africa’s second-largest commercial, financial and industrial centre and a premier destination for tourists, both local and foreign. Capital of the Western Cape province, and legislative capital of the country, it’s one of the southern hemisphere’s premier ports for container shipping and the export of deciduous fruit. Also exported from Table Bay are the Cape’s world-famous South African wines. Skyscrapers and freeways have radically altered the face of Cape Town over the past five decades or so, yet the gracious old buildings, cobbled streets and monuments still provide a fascinating insight into its history and the many cultures that shaped it.
Old Cape Town grew around the Castle of Good Hope, built to protect the early settlement, as well as the Company’s Garden, which was originally laid out for fresh produce. The first streets ran parallel with the shore. This required so many bridges over the streams running north-south from Table Mountain to the sea that the town planners decided, in 1710, to build the main streets parallel to the watercourses.
In beginning of the nineteenth century, industry along the banks of the Liesbeek River was minimal and the landscape was distinctively agricultural. However, population growth necessitated improvements in public transport which transformed villages into suburbs, especially the building of a railway line towards the end of the nineteenth century. Mowbray, Rondebosch and Claremont were built as a result of a new road being built from Cape Town to Simons Town.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, large plots along the rivers were sub- divided to make way for low-density middle class homes. This expansion caused a further increase in the already dense population along the rivers. Population density increased further in the 1930s, together with a consequent increase of riverside land converted for roads and pavements, and this further degraded the Liesbeek environment. The increased urban settlement affected the river catchment area to such an extent that flooding became a serious problem. Continuous flooding resulted in the Black River being canalised in 1941 and the Liesbeek in 1943. Canalisation as a solution to flooding had a devastating impact on the natural environment of these two rivers. After World War II, increased use of private cars led to the building of improved roads. The Liesbeek Parkway, a multi-lane highway in Rosebank and Mowbray, cut off many properties from the river. The situation today is that both rivers are degraded and recent work to alleviate pollution has been partially successful.
In 1948 the National Party came to power and introduced the policy of Apartheid to an already racially segregated society. Under Apartheid, South Africans were legally classified into racial groups: White, Black, Indian and Coloured. In addition the Group Areas Act made provisions for the residential and geographical separation of these groups into racially defined areas.
The Group Areas Act, which was enacted in 1950, came into effect in the 1960s onwards and resulted in the forced removal of many non-white communities along the Liesbeek and Black Rivers. Until then the Liesbeek and Black Rivers played a vital role in these communities, some of which were able to trace their origins to the first slave settlements that came into being after emancipation in 1838. With the implementation of the Group Areas Act in the 1960s, communities situated in close proximity to the Liesbeek and Black Rivers in the areas of Black River, Mowbray, Rondebosch, Claremont and Protea Village were forcibly removed to areas on the Cape Flats and deprived of a valuable resource of recreation and livelihood. Mowbray was proclaimed a white group area in 1961. The Cavendish Square area in Claremont was proclaimed a white group area in 1966.
Protea Village was proclaimed a white group area in 1961. Nestled between these three estates, a community of gardeners, foresters and domestic workers emerged – some of whom had worked for Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and for the seat of the Anglican Archbishop at Bishopscourt for generations. After their forced removal, the stone cottages vacated by families were then occupied by Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens.
Edith Theys lived in Newlands as a child but was moved to Heideveld. The Liesbeek River ran past the back of her house in Palmboom Road. She recalled that, “in our grounds at the back (there were) a lot of fig trees and peach trees and you know you could just go and climb and have whatever, and also having the Liesbeek River at the back it was very exciting, you know, as children, especially to play.” After being moved to the Cape Flats (see left) she describes the area as follows, “no trees, nothing grew. We took plants with us from Newlands: they all died there. The sand was just sand you know and even when I went out I got lost coming back because I couldn’t find my way – you know the doors are the same colours there’s a red door and a green door on every corner and I had a green door on the one corner of this road. It was Rooiburg Crescent in Heideveld and as I say it was absolutely the opposite of Newlands – really the opposite of Newlands.” Interview with Edith Theys, 14 July 2004.
Nowadays, traces of slavery in the Liesbeek River valley have been covered up or lost. Former slave communities living in and having a formative influence on its development have been largely ignored or forgotten. This is due especially to the removal of whole communities under the Group Areas Act in the 1960s, when the houses they lived in were converted into eagerly sought-after “cottages”. But the existence of mosques, such as those in Claremont and Mowbray, are an indication that Muslim communities once lived here. Claremont mosque, which is now surrounded by shops, was built in 1854, only sixteen years after the emancipation of the slaves. Thus the only material remains of the slave communities who laboured in the valley for nearly two hundred years are the gentrified remains of workers’ cottages and the still functioning mosques.