How has a Cape Town project manager conquered her traumatic past to find happiness and restore hope to a group of hurting people? ROSE COHEN met JULIA SEPTEMBER of Claremont’s Living Roots Nursery, and her formerly homeless trainees, ZONKE BANINZI and CLEMENT MAMPANA

‘Our pain doesn’t have to be all that we are,’ says Julia, the inspiration behind Claremont’s Living Roots Nursery. ‘My path had pain but it’s produced fruit that people are eating, and in turn they’ll produce fruit for other people. It’s a journey of hope’ | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers 

Julia (38), the daughter of a teacher and a carpenter, grew up in safe houses all over Cape Town. After school, she studied nature conservation and worked for a number of organisations including the World Wildlife Fund and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. She’s married to Athol, an insurance underwriter, and they live in Southfield with their three young sons

‘As I child, I was exposed to violence and adults battling addiction. I was kidnapped from my mother, went to many different schools and had very painful feelings of abandonment. At seven, I was raped by the dad of some friends.

When I needed peace, I walked into the nearest garden I could see and I found it there. One birthday, my mom took me to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens where I remember seeing the dell, a haven of tall trees, cool shade and a mountain stream. It’s one of the most beautiful memories I have. I became passionate about Cape Town plant life, there’s such an explosion of colour and diversity here, in fact there are more species on Table Mountain than in the whole of the UK! They’re all so masterfully designed and interconnected.

‘We upskill and nurture formerly homeless people while providing a service to the community of Claremont and beyond,’ says Julia | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

I saw first-hand how my mom prayed and read the Bible in her darkest times, and for years I prayed about the trauma I went through as a child. What was it all for? I wanted to find meaning in my life and sought to bear good fruit. My teacher said I’d never be a leader but I thought, ‘I’ll show you!’ I became a prefect and got 96% for maths in Matric.

I met my husband Athol through my housemate while interning at Kirstenbosch. It was pretty much love at first sight, and nothing but good came of it.


Once I started working, I felt the need to work towards something which had more value than just lining my pockets. I started coming into contact with U-turn Homeless Ministries, and felt that just as I had found healing in nature, maybe some of the homeless people it supported could, too. I thought that in the therapeutic work of urban greening and ecological restoration, they too might find a way to restore their lives and heal their hearts.

‘There are more species on Table Mountain than in the whole of the UK,’ says Julia. ‘They’re all so masterfully designed and interconnected.’ 

I proposed the concept of a nursery to U-turn, to be manned by its ‘Champs’. These are previously homeless people longing for a new beginning who’ve already been through U-turn’s rehab programme, and are now becoming work-ready. U-turn thought it was a good idea. We pinpointed a derelict bowling club, a disused piece of suburban land in Claremont. After an intensive seven months of planning, we opened Living Roots there a few months ago with eight Champs working on site. We posted on Facebook’s Marketplace that we were selling water-wise, indigenous plants, and people started coming. We can’t fill the nursery fast enough!

Living Roots is a skills programme, a waterwise nursery and a gardening service all in one. We offer a long-term gardening service to anyone with a garden or green space, including corporates, and started with the Africa Padel tennis land right next door to us in Claremont. Many people come undone with waterwise gardening because they don’t realise waterwise plants need water until the garden becomes established, and that you can’t combine waterwise plants with thirstier plants. Patience pays off. At home I have an established waterwise garden that’s beautiful all year round, and hardly have to water it.

Soon after we launched Living Roots, I realised my prayers to wrestle meaning from my story had been answered. The Champs tell me that they’re recovering from childhood pain, abuse, rejection, loneliness and homelessness. To see them grabbing at their new lives with both hands makes me very emotional.

‘The Living Roots Champs have already done the amazing work of unpacking and cleaning the ‘soil’ of their hearts through U-turn’s programmes,’ says Julia, who herself found healing in nature during stressful times in her childhood. ‘Now they’re taking the next step into the working world. To see them grabbing at their new lives with both hands makes me very emotional.’

I also realised that God had carried me through the tough times. I’d always longed for a dad to put me on his shoulders like my friends’ dads did, but God had me on His shoulders all along. I’m convinced Living Roots wouldn’t have happened without Him.

I also couldn’t have been involved with Living Roots without Athol, an incredible dad who stood in the gap for me with the kids, encouraged me and let me walk away from a reliable job to do this. Or, of course, without U-turn, which funded a lot of the capital cost.

‘I couldn’t have been involved with Living Roots without Athol, an incredible dad,’ says Julia

We now have a committed German funder and over the next three years we’re planning to build a learning centre, where we’ll offer the local community workshops and talks on subjects such as aquaponics and food. I have a big, exciting vision for this space: botanical art exhibitions, a tea garden, group therapy and poetry sessions, and organic waste drop-off zones.

Because of God’s kindness to me, I’m not bitter or angry about the crazy stuff that happened to me. I don’t lay suffering at the door of my Creator. We live in a world where there is hurt, anxiety, sickness and confusion. It’s my belief that God didn’t want painful things for me, but He can still work all things together for good. Today, I’m able to come alongside young women and encourage them with my story. I have walked a similar journey to theirs, so I can stand by them and tell them that Jesus is real. I see them realise there is hope. Good fruit does come in life, but our timing is not God’s timing. You usually have to praise God in the hard times and wait a while. It’s not easy!

‘I have a big, exciting vision for this space: botanical art exhibitions, group therapy sessions, organic waste drop off zones, as well as a tea garden,’ says Julia | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

My path had pain but it’s produced fruit that people are eating, and in turn they will produce fruit for other people. It’s a journey of hope. Our pain doesn’t have to be all that we are.

I encourage everyone to take their pain to God. People think they need to pray the right prayer, say the right things. But God’s not scared of your pain or your anger. Even if you feel you’ve disappointed God, why not start right there? Come just as you are!’

‘I always enjoyed looking at gardening magazines, and working with plants gives me peace, helps me overcome my anger and teaches me things. Plants give me oxygen, physically and emotionally,’ says Zonke | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

ZONKE BANINZI (27) was orphaned in the Eastern Cape when she was very young. She went to live with her aunt but was not happy and ran away to Cape Town at the age of 11. She has worked for Living Roots for seven months and lives in U-turn transitional housing in Observatory

‘When I got to Cape Town, I lived on the streets where I learnt to smoke marijuana and sniff glue with the other street children. The city at night is a really dangerous place for a young girl. There’s nowhere to hide, and I ended up sleeping in front of the police station for safety and shelter, but I still got abused. Then I stayed in a shack with a guy, but he beat me a lot.

Eventually, I decided that this was not how my life was going to end! I left the city centre and moved to Claremont. One day, when I was begging at the robots for food, someone gave me a voucher for U-turn Homeless Ministries. I went to the address shown on the voucher for help and never looked back.

change is possible

I’ve been working at Living Roots for over seven months. I clean the grounds, care for the plants and make coffee for everyone. I always enjoyed looking at gardening magazines, and working with plants gives me peace, helps me overcome my anger and teaches me things. Plants give me oxygen, physically and emotionally.

Working at Living Roots has restored my trust in men, too: I’ve learnt that not every man is the same. I’m learning how to handle my money and I’m preparing for the next stage of independence in my life, which I hope will be studying hospitality and living independently. I want others on the street to know my story and to be encouraged by it. Change is possible!’

‘I was disheartened and dirty but U-turn welcomed me and now I work at Living Roots watering the plants, cleaning the grounds and am learning how to nurture fynbos. I feel my contribution’s important,’ says Clement | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

CLEMENT MAMPANA (39) was born in Limpopo and raised by his mother and grandmother. Money was tight and he began stealing and behaving self-destructively. He lives in U-turn transitional accommodation in Kenilworth 

‘I was super-naïve about drugs and started using to take the edge off. I ended up on the street, addicted to cocaine and bankrupt. The drugs took my sanity, my dignity, and my mind. I was stuck. I slept under bridges where it’s unsafe, scary and cold, especially in the wind and rain. You can easily die.

A friend told me about the U-turn programme, where they help homeless people get back on their feet. I didn’t believe him but had nothing to lose, so I took a train to Claremont. I was sheepish, disheartened, dirty and smelly, but U-turn welcomed me and helped me.

Counselling and the grace of God have led me to where I am now, working at Living Roots like a botanist. I water the plants, clean the grounds and am learning how to nurture and prune fynbos. I feel my contribution’s important, it’s as if I’m a support pillar for Living Roots. I’m part of a team and we’re an ecosystem together with the plants!

‘My tank was empty and now it’s full. My mind is free thanks to Living Roots,’ says Clement | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

We give plants carbon dioxide, and they give us food and medicine and life. They’re essential to our lives, and this journey with Living Roots has been essential to mine. I’m earning money, have found accommodation, reconnected with my two siblings, and upskilled myself. I even have a first-aid certificate.

My tank was empty and now it’s full. My mind is free thanks to Living Roots. It has shown me that Jesus values, forgives and treasures me. I believe he sent his angels to rescue me!’

Address: Herschel Close, Claremont, open Mon – Fri, 9am to 4pm
Buy some plants or use its gardening service at your own home or company. All profits from Living Roots are ploughed back into work opportunities or used to help U-turn Homeless Ministries transform the lives of homeless people
Find out more
Contact details or sign up for Living Roots’ educational newsletter here
Another reason to visit Living Roots: organic fruit and veg supplied by INSeason Mobile Market. Trading hours: Mon-Fri, 9-5 and Sat, 9-2
Share with Friend
print this page 
Welcome to Thislife Online, you lovely person



PS: Email with any subscription issues. Gmailers, add us to your contacts so we don't get diverted to your spam :)