Taking into account histories, livelihoods and likely climate change impacts to support forgotten communities in Elandskloof

“Heritage is fluid and complex, it is political in every sense. The work of heritage allows difficult conversations to take place in imaginative ways, allowing for history to be understood as being in the present”  -Prof Siona O’Connell, International Co-investigator, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

In South Africa, the scars of inequality and social engineering that characterised the apartheid system persist despite nearly three decades of democracy.

Injustice through forced land ownership changes, brought violent race-based removal of settlements across the Cape Flats. The legacy of historical injustice still affects today as Elandskloof is impoverished in lacking infrastructure, including little formal housing.

The study of vulnerable and forgotten communities – single sites in particular – is therefore utterly crucial. Forgotten communities require context-specific approaches to support them taking into account histories, livelihood portfolios, and likely climate change impact.

About Elandskloof

Established as a mission station by the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in 1861, families from the surrounding area were attracted to settle by the dream of autonomy and dignity – title to a small plot of land, the right to graze your cattle in the surrounding veld, and a community of faith gathered under the wing of the church.

Elandsklowers harvested buchu (Agathosma betulina), kept vegetable gardens, grazed cattle, and worked as seasonal laborers on the surrounding farms. The betrayal, when it came, was dramatic, unexpected, and intimate. In 1961 the DRC sold the land out from underneath them. Residents who were children at the time tell of going to school in the. morning, and returning to find the bulldozers at work on their homes.

Then, like the estimated 3.5 million people in South Africa who suffered forced removal under apartheid, they drifted into the surrounding towns and the dystopian dormitory settlements of the Cape Flats.

In 1996, Elandskloof hit news headlines as the first successful land claim in a newly democratic South Africa. Seventy-six families returned to Elandskloof.

However, over the coming decades, the contradictions in a deeply flawed restitution process came to the fore: land without the capital to develop it, and a group of claimants many decades removed from a meaningful relationship with the business of rural livelihoods, carrying the scars of the struggle for survival under apartheid. In 2005, the Elandskloof Communal Property Association was placed under administration. Today, Elandskloof is an impoverished rural ghetto without infrastructure, and with little formal housing.

Layered onto these traumatic events as an unanticipated and largely indecipherable process has been the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Southern Africa, and the Western Cape, in particular, has been described as a climate change hot-spot, with evidence of warming above the global average.

A rapidly changing climate

The annual average temperature across South Africa in 2019 was around 1.1°C warmer than the average for the period of 1981-2010.

There has also been an increasing trend in extreme temperatures (maximum temperatures) by 0.1-0.3°C a decade across the Western Cape between 1931 and 2020 (South Africa Weather Service, 2020).

There is medium confidence that there has been a long-term decline in soil moisture (increase in aridity) throughout the twenty-first century in west-southern Africa as a result of decreasing precipitation and increased temperatures.

In South Africa the number of droughts have increased by 220% between 1961 and 2016, as a result of anthropogenic forcing (IPCC- AR6).

Food Heritage and Sense of Place

This study foregrounds the importance of culture as central to understanding ways of being.

Cultural scholars and practitioners respond and intervene in creative and productive ways to social contexts and social realities, drawing attention to the lived, material, and embodied realities and crises of the contemporary moment. In the global south and Africa, cultural studies that focus on understanding the human and colonial afterlives provide a framework that allows a critical, immediate and urgent analysis of the world. A focus on food heritage in Elandskloof explores the intimately embodied and everyday aspects of some dauntingly high-level concerns – ideas around culture, identity, history, descendancy, and production in the face of climate change.

We are what we eat goes the platitude. Food plays a central role in all our lives, what we grow, eat and share forms a bond to the land and each other. In rural settlements reliant on agriculture food is a central pillar to the community.

Preparing and sharing food is a ritual through which we build and repair relationships, and nurture those that we care for. Food heritage is interesting because it takes us to such an intimately embodied and everyday aspect of some dauntingly high-level concerns – ideas around culture, identity, history, descendency, and genealogy.

The tangled food heritages of the Cape reference indigenous foodways, the slave diaspora established by the Dutch, missionary proselytization, British colonialism, apartheid segregation and forced removals, and the ambiguities of post-apartheid reconciliation and restitution.

But in Elandskloof food heritage provides a narrative of both hope and loss.

Rebuilding traditional knowledge

The forced removal of the residents during apartheid had a devastating impact on the intergenerational knowledge system in this community. This traumatic dispossession allowed for some practices which took place before the forced removals to disappear. This loss of knowledge is evident from the conversations with the community members. More specifically, Elandsklowers could live sustainably from homegrown crops before the forced removals. This dependency on homegrown crops becomes significant in understanding how other knowledges were created such as recipes. This community currently remains vulnerable as these knowledges and practices seem to disappear with the older generation.

Hybrid knowledge

Can a community recreate lost indigenous knowledge and incorporate new information?

Although Elandskloof is struggling, there is evidence that local and shared knowledge played an important role in adapting to the changing climate but at a very minimal level. Residents recognised that the drought has become an ideal climate in which Buchu and other crops could flourish however, this process is once again hindered by deep divisions within the community. The community has also recognised that they require further knowledge around soil quality and climatic changes to fully benefit from the available land that is still accessible to them.

Questions around heritage surfaces within this community in various ways. The preservation of their tangible heritage has become a point of concern for some residents. At the heart of the community lies the remnants of two-valued buildings, the church, and the community hall or school building.  which was part of the original construction when the Elandskloof as a missionary town was established. These buildings are recognised by the community as valuable sites in which learning and worship still take place. These buildings also serve as an important space where residents can find common ground through shared practices such as worship, the hosting of bazaars, and, more importantly, a place for commemorating the past (events are often held by local community leaders in which they try and prompt dialogue on Elandskloof’s history).

What became more prominent, however, is the loss of intangible heritage. Interviews with residents revealed that there is a great loss of intergenerational knowledge due to forced removals. The violent separation of this community has interrupted important practices which depended on generational knowledge passed from father to son or from mother to daughter. One example of these practices includes the importance of food heritage. Residents corresponded that they try and live from what they grow in their gardens, this practice is now only seasonal and stands in stark contrast to before the forced removals (this is confirmed through archive research conducted in the Dutch Reformed Church archives). Most of the recipes that were collected through each visit existed only through memory and were all handed down from mother to daughter. These recipes were designed to be accommodating to the type of crops cultivated in the Elandskloof community.

Many of the residents expressed the need for valuable helpful data on climate and agriculture.

While Elandskloof is still under administration which prohibits the cultivation of the existing orchard, some community members have collectively planned new areas for harvesting on the land for Elandskloof

It is evident from visits that the community would benefit from access to climactic information, including this information with some of the indigenous knowledges would be beneficial and could promote a new sense of cohesion in the community. Currently the question of land is still a contentious point within the community.

The Future

The future of Elandskloof remains uncertain for the residents. While some responded hopeful with renewed efforts around agricultural cultivation, there was a sincere concern toward the future of Elandskloof. Most residents expressed that the future of Elandskloof is reliant on the new generation who, according to older residents, show little interest in the legacy of Elandskloof. Residents in Elandskloof prioritise day-to-day planning rather than long term planning however there is a concern for climactic threats in the future.

Currently the residents have remarked some drastic seasonal changes such as re-occurring veld fires as well as higher snow-fall in winter months.

The residents however have not yet adapted to these changes. In some instances it was remarked that the out of the ordinary dry seasons have had some benefit in the cultivation of Buchu and that this specific indigenous crop thrives in these conditions. Current community driven projects have been focused on the planning of new crop cultivation which includes the planting of Rooibos Tea, watermelon, green beans and protea (also known as “tolbos”). They are still unsure which crops the soil will support. The new crops will have a direct effect on food heritage and offer an opportunity to rebuild lost food knowledges. The intention of the planting of these new crops is aimed at uplifting the current state of Elandskloof in hopes of returning to a new self-sustaining community. Some of the community plans include the use of some of the natural water sources in the area, the main source being a river which currently runs through Elandskloof.

Study Recommendations

Policy makers such as Cape Nature are urged to approach members of this community for more inclusive decision making, specifically on the decisions which apply to the Cederberg Nature Reserve. While Elandskloof has attempted to independently manage some of the available opportunities such as the implementation of new small-scale farms on available plots of land, this process has been hindered by the lack of funds and inter-community disputes on decision making. This community will benefit from any assistance which could be provided on any environmental changes. This will assist with the community’s strategy to currently complete agricultural projects which will have a beneficial impact on Elandskloof not only in returning to self-sustainability but also towards the recovering and creation of indigenous knowledges.

Click here to explore more about Elandskloof: A Chronology of Loss

This is one of the ArcGIS story map series from the CRITICAL project. Dr Rowan Jackson set up the story map from the South Africa case study provided by Prof Siona O’Connell and Dominique Wnuczek-Lobaczewski  (nee Niemand).