The story of a South African farm. Once separated by apartheid politics, two men from very different backgrounds – Nazeer Sonday and David Leslie – have united to push back at developers  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott
There’s a passionate battle between farmers and developers going on in Cape Town’s Philippi farmlands – and it’s reached the lofty interior of the Cape High Court. A heated and emotive affair, it could be called a microcosm of global issues. But it’s also a uniquely South African story, uniting two men from very different backgrounds. ALI MCALPIN found out what drives each of them, and how they connected


Farmer Nazeer Sonday, 57, is married to Qaanita, and they have six children and five grandchildren. He was educated at Livingstone High School in Cape Town. He lives on his farm, Vegkop, in the Philippi farmlands, 20 minutes from Cape Town. He is chairperson of the Philippi Horticultural Area Food and Farming Campaign  
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‘I was 30 when I bought Vegkop, a one-hectare farm in the Philippi farmlands. It was 1991, and under apartheid laws I was not allowed to own land in the area as it was reserved for white farmers. Some of my white neighbours refused to sign a piece of paper that ‘allowed’ me to live among them. My bank, Barclays, red-lined the area and wouldn’t give me a bond. But I was determined to return to the area where I was born and where my grandparents had lived.

‘My family was forced off our land in the 1970s. Now I stand to lose my land for the second time, while local people stand to lose their jobs and food security,’ says farmer Nazeer Sonday who has taken his battle to the Cape High Court  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott

Because of our race, we had been forced off the same land in 1973 when I was very young. But I have clear memories of farm life and living within a thriving extended family. All of this was lost. We moved many times and I went to seven different schools. We were more fortunate than many because my grandparents were traders as well as farmers, so we could rebuild our lives.

As a young adult, I completed a confectionary course and opened a bakery in Manenberg. But I longed to live in a less urban environment, and as my mother said at the time, ‘Your navel is buried in the land, you will always belong there!’

‘I’m scared’: if he loses his High Court battle, Nazeer is likely to lose his farm and be liable for the legal costs of the City of Cape Town |  Photo: Nicky Elliott
During a time of water insecurity in Cape Town, the Philippi farmlands have access to the water in a giant aquifer beneath them  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott

The Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) farmlands are a unique area of about 3 000 hectares that have been an integral part of the city’s food system for over 130 years. Today, they supply the city with 50% of its veggies, employ 6 000 workers and are the primary recharge zone of the Cape Flats Aquifer, a giant water aquifer below the ground that is super important for Cape Town’s future water sustainability. The aquifer makes the farmlands drought-proof and can supply the city with up to 30% of its potable water.

Urban development has been eroding the PHA for decades, but the current battle started in 2009 when a 479-hectare private development, Oaklands City, was announced. This threatened the very existence of the farming area, including my farm, and our community formed the Schaapkraal Civic and Environmental Association which, after consultation, unanimously opposed the development.

‘The farmlands are unique and extraordinary, and have been an integral part of the city’s food system for over 130 years,’ says Nazeer. The PHA Food and Farming Campaign says they are the primary recharge zone of the Cape Flats Aquifer, and that there is more suitable land available for housing that already has infrastructure  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott

Some people argue that rezoning the PHA will create more housing but I don’t believe the housing will be for those who need it. There are 11 000 hectares in the city which I believe are more suitable for housing, including the 200 hectares that the City cut out of the PHA in 2009 – but on which it didn’t build a single housing unit. The likelihood is that shopping malls and office blocks will be built on it in the style of Cape Town’s Century City. We’re facing other development proposals, too.

The proposed Oaklands City development was the last straw, and we decided to take the legal route. Everest Umba, a Congolese minister from Wynberg who was ministering to people in the area, asked what he could do to help me and ended up introducing me to an advocate called Murray Bridgman, who’s assisting me with the legal process pro bono. Murray then introduced me to David and Yve Leslie, a couple from Constantia that he knew well.

Linda Matthews, 47, who works on Nazeer’s farm planting and tending to crops. The Philippi farmlands are home to 1 500 families and provide employment for 6 000 workers, says the PHA Food and Farming Campaign  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott

I had spent years campaigning to protect the farmlands rather than developing my farm, and David and Yve generously made a decision to work alongside me and my farm team to regenerate Vegkop, introducing sustainable, organic farming methods and developing a prototype for small-scale farming. They believe the farm is a model for land reform that is badly needed in the country. Without them Vegkop would not be producing food, and without Murray we would not be able to fight this legal battle.

The fact that people like them believe in our struggle and the importance of the farmlands makes me very hopeful and determined, and this is the juice that keeps me going. The solidarity, the community and the love that this campaign has elicited amongst people in the city is really wonderful. Win or lose, that is what will be the most important thing for me.

The irony is that, despite living in a democratic South Africa, I stand to lose my land again if this development goes ahead. Challenging the development makes me feel scared of losing my land and chosen livelihood. All I have is my farm and if we lose this case, I may well lose it and everything I have worked for, due to legal costs. But I’m also hopeful and determined to fight for the land.

‘The fact that people like [David] believe in our struggle and the importance of the farmlands makes me very hopeful and determined,’ says farmer Nazeer |  Photo: Nicky Elliott

Apart from the environmental tragedy, an important issue for me is the 1 500 farmworker families on the land and the 6 000 workers who would lose their jobs. What is the City of Cape Town’s plan for our people once the farmlands are developed? We don’t understand why the City wants to develop the PHA as we believe there are other areas with better infrastructure that could rather be used.

The outcome of our campaign is crucial to the future of the PHA and, indeed, the whole of Cape Town. Will urban development be prioritised over the City’s food security, job creation, protection of our scarce water resources and the environment in general?

I’m a Muslim but have many Christian friends. We have had many church communities visit the farm and I have given talks at some of these churches. I believe things happen at the right time. As Christians say, ‘You will receive when you are ready.’

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Retired asset manager David Leslie, 65, was educated at Bishops College and the University of Cape Town, is married to Yve and they have a son and two grand-daughters in London 
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‘Unlike my wife Yve, who grew up on a farm, I’m not a farmer or gardener. But I feel compelled to stand up for the PHA. It has been the vegetable basket of Cape Town since the 1850s and produces approximately 200 000 tons of veg per annum.

It has the highest agricultural productivity in South Africa: up to five crop cycles per year, and is an extremely valuable ‘recharge zone’ for the vast water aquifer which lies in the soil. In addition, most PHA farms are medium to small scale. Small-scale farms are vital: globally and in Africa, 70% of food comes from small-scale farmers.

Retired asset manager David Leslie is helping Nazeer develop his farm into a small-scale, organic, sustainable prototype that could be used by other famers in the area. ‘This land has the highest agricultural productivity in South Africa,’  he says  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott

Nazeer has not been able to farm effectively due to his involvement in ongoing legal battles with the City of Cape Town. Together, Yve and I have worked with him to redevelop the farm as a prototype for small-scale, sustainable, organic farming based on local and indigenous knowledge and supported by the latest soil science. This model can be replicated elsewhere in the PHA. We provide support in matters such as financing, governance and working with his team of farmers.

I really believe this land is God-given and that the battle against the City of Cape Town represents a microcosm of global issues. Although Nazeer and I don’t share the same faith, we pray to God together and are like-minded. Nazeer sometimes wears a Green Anglican T-shirt! I have faith that God will free up this land and that the legal process currently underway will result in the preservation of this area.

‘I believe this land is God-given and that Nazeer’s battle against the City of Cape Town represents a microcosm of global issues,’ says David  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott

I was a nominal Christian for much of my life, attending school chapel and various traditional services, but this all changed when I met a young minister called Richard Fothergill who invited me on an Alpha Course. I was 45 at the time.

The course, which encourages honest questioning of Christianity, ended up changing the entire perspective with which I look at life. Before, I relied on my own resources. Now, I look to Jesus for guidance, and this is how I came to be involved with Vegkop and several other community projects.

I don’t think any of this was just chance, I really felt led. In fact, I really think the farm is a miracle! In one year, land which was full of weeds and neglect has become a thriving organic farm literally bursting with produce.

The world has always been a difficult place with many challenges. If someone asked me how can I believe in God in this day and age, I would say without hesitation: ‘Easily!’ Perhaps there is more stress in the world today, but I know that being led by Jesus and seeing prayers answered has actually strengthened my belief.’

‘The solidarity, the community and the love that this campaign has elicited amongst people in the city is really wonderful, says Nazeer. ‘Win or lose, that is what will be the most important thing for me’  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott
Unified: Nazeer and David. The results of Nazeer’s High Court challenge will probably only be announced in early 2020  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott
David at Hope Link Children’s Library, an educational project near Nazeer’s farm which he also supports (read our interview with its inspirational founder here)
‘Resistance is fertile’: Nazeer has a lighter land-struggle moment


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