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  • Writer's pictureJulian Raxworthy

WRITING: The Best Garden in ‘Europe’: Tracing Provenance in South Africa

Updated: Mar 3, 2019

The first article published on the "Gardens of Europe" collaborative research project undertaken by Amy Thompson (drawings), Jared Coetzee (photography), Thozama Mputa (art) and Michael Brown (plants), published in LA+Identity.


In the post-colonial world, provenance is a focus of discussion about who, and what, belongs where. Land causes trouble; or rather, people cause each other trouble over land. Migrants, marauders, and refugees leave their homelands to enter places that others feel is ‘theirs.’ With or without human help, plants and animals do a similar thing. Botanists and landscape architects argue about whether something is indigenous, endemic, or exotic – a language that also permeates the discourse of decolonisation in post-liberation countries in Africa.

Provenance is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the place of origin or earliest known history of something.” However, in reference to works of art the term is used to refer to a record of ownership. Recalling the Latin root provenire, from ‘pro’ (forth) and ‘venire’ (come), this definition suggests not that one is working backward to an original, but moving forward, understanding the story of belonging over time. For Frantz Fanon, theorist of African decolonisation, colonial identity is not about place but rather “the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race, a given species” which “parcels out the world to begin with.”[i] In contrast, “for a colonized people… is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”[ii] After Dutch colonisation in the 17th century and then English in the 19th, the 1955 African National Congress (ANC) “Freedom Charter” and then the new Constitution of South Africa set in motion a process for land restitution. Contemporary political discourse in South Africa is very much about who belongs and who doesn’t, and who has rights to land and who has not. But it is not a question of who belongs where, it is a question of who belongs when.

This discussion about belonging, ownership and provenance in South Africa can be contradictory, fluctuating from the rhetorical to the specific, deferring from one place to another, and can see even at the level of the garden. Illustrated by a photograph of roses in a streetscape, one public commentator on Twitter noted “the history of colonial conquest can be read in [the] landscape. We don’t REQUIRE statues & monuments.” In this comment the rose is not simply a symbol but also a literal invader replacing the original plants of the Western Cape, known also by their colonial name, fynbos, recognised as a unique eco-region by the inscription of the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2004 However, if we think of the rose for a moment rather than what it replaced, we see that its provenance is also ambiguous. Coming from China originally, taken to England where it was bred to create a new cultivar, unknown in nature, it ends up in a former English colony in Africa.

Since, the process of decolonization is not simply about an emptying out of the colonists from the land and their replacement with descendants of its original owners, but “epistemic decolonization”, [iii] the creation of new epistemologies based on the specific geo and body politic location, inthis essay I will explore the idea of provenance in relation to both people and plants. Using a garden in the informal settlement of ‘Europe’ as a case study I will ultimately show that regardless of provenance, living things, people and plants, make do with what is at hand, as best they can. Or in the case of gardening, better, where interesting hybrids and innovative practices emerge as people modify their new homes to suit themselves.

With employment rates of 47% in Cape Town compared to 20% in the Eastern Cape approximately 1,000 km away, the “the key demographic flow” into Cape Town has been the Eastern Cape’s Xhosa people, [iv] the largest black ethnic group in Cape Town.[v] While the original inhabitants of Cape Town are semi-nomadic Khoi Khoi cattle herders whose descendants are the Cape’s “coloured” people, , “decolonization unifies… people… on a national, sometimes a racial, basis.,[vi] so that Cape Town is affected by discussions around the rights of black people to land, and their demands to remove colonial icons like the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. Despite allusions to black, or pan-Africanist unity, for the last 10 years, owners of shops in South African townships from African countries like Somalia have been the target of xenophobic attacks and looting, accused of taking jobs from black South Africans, causing the exodus of an estimated 30,000 migrants from Cape Town alone in 2008.[vii]

A garden in an informal settlement near the Cape Town airport known as ‘Europe’ provides an interesting case study in relation to questions of provenance for both plants and people. Prior to the democratic elections of 1994,, ‘Europe’ grew on a former tip site when the Group Areas Act of 1950 was rescinded in 1991. It was probably so named because many of its mostly Xhosa residents work at the nearby airport which receives many planes from Europe. The name of the informal settlement is also a kind of reverse colonisation, a re-appropriation of the coloniser.

Forty-seven-year-old Xhosa resident Sakhile modestly claims to have “the best garden in Europe.” Sakhile has worked as a gardener for the last four years and identifies himself by the title “garden boy,” a moniker that continues to be used by white employers to describe garden workers who are black, regardless of age. This reflects a class difference between white garden owners and black laborers, such that it is difficult for a garden worker to ever receive professional horticultural training. Yet, in a “rainbow nation” story that would make Nelson Mandela proud, exchange of plants and expertise between two very different parts of South African society resulted in Sakhile’s garden.

Kept separate by apartheid but spaced so that one services the other, ‘Europe’—the poor informal settlement where Sakhile lives—and Pinelands—the wealthy garden city suburb in which he works 10 km away—are located on what is known as the “Cape Flats,” a huge sand plain between Table Bay and False Bay, with mountains on two sides. Comprised of sand, it is notoriously difficult to grow plants on the Flats, since winter rains cause it to flood and hot summers keep it dry, even more so since Europe is on top of a land-fill site, with rubbish coming to the surface, which the City of Cape Town has said is too poor to allow anything to grow, yet Sahkile, and other gardeners in Europe, have. When asked about how he learned to garden, Sakhile credits his white clients in Pinelands, who taught him how to make compost with paper and leaves, a technique that he used to convert the barren sand of ‘Europe’ into his lush garden. It is from his client that the cuttings, which Sakhile propagated and which form the basis of his garden, also came. Since most of the plants are either weeds, not nescesarily exotic but unwelcome, or vigorously growing species that would require heavy control, one imagines that the plant material Sakhile imported from Pinelands to ‘Europe’ would have otherwise ended up in the rubbish.

Despite being an informal settlement, each shack in ‘Europe’ is part of an informal real estate system based on a number spray painted on the shack (a process of ‘enumeration’ by NGO’s and council) and Sakhile bought his shack and lot from someone who had originally squatted on the site in the 1990’s. The lot has a shack and a container that create an L, edging a fenced courtyard like space, as well as an appropriated public toilet, that he has locked up. Infrastructure is a fundamental dimension to Sakhile’s garden, since its existence is only possible because he has immediate access to free water, a tap located three meters from his front door, though he notes that the tap gets much traffic in the morning and he is not able to water before he goes to work. Describing his morning ritual of watering his garden, Sakhile says that he first gives the plants water and then he gets a glass of water for himself and drinks it while the plants are drinking theirs, a moment of vegetal-human synchronicity. He likes the smell of the wet soil in the morning when he waters his garden.

The garden has a pot in the centre with a path that gives it a cottage garden feel, though, despite this “English” feel, many of the plants in the garden are discards from gardens created in the 1970’s, speaking of the influence of things like the Sunset garden books and Brazilian Modernism, succulents notable for their ‘sculptural’ qualities. These plants are tough and have become ubiquitous precisely because they can maintain this quality despite scarcity of water and in poor soil, attributes that help them succeed in ‘Europe’

Almost none of the plants in Sakhile’s garden are endemic, with only 1% of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos remaining in Cape Town due to urbanization and informal development, as well as weed infestation. Two invasive trees, both from Australia (the authors home country) a Eucalyptus spp and the wattle Acacia cyclops, known as “rooikrans” or “red Garland” in Afrikaans provide a canopy over Sakhile’s garden. Though hated by white conservationists, wattle provides constant wood both for cooking for the poor and for the national obsession the “braai” or barbecue. Despite looking “exotic”, on researching them some plants are surprisingly ‘African’, such as Mother-in-laws tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) often claimed as indigenous but actually from tropical West Africa and Nigeria. Numerous Aloe spp appear in Sakhile’s garden, some originating from 300km north of Cape Town in a semi-arid biome called the Succulent “Karoo”, named from the Khoi-Khoi word “garo”, which means desert. The plant with provenance closest to the site is Plectranthus nicholii, which originates, like Sakhile, in the Eastern Cape. While not endemic, their familiarity of form and similarity in dealing with conditions makes them siblings of sorts, perhaps like the liberation struggle in Africa made the ANC brothers with SWAPO in Namibia (the origin of some Aloes and MPLA in Angola (where the tropical plants might come from). Here identity is a provenance of struggle, a sharing of experience.

Sakhile’s garden intrigues other Xhosa residents of Europe, who cant quite understand why he has made it. He is often asked by local people walking past the garden whether he is a sangoma, a witch doctor, or rather an inyanga, a male herbalist, to which he replies, “no, this is a garden.”,[viii] which is also his response to enquiries about whether he grows vegetables. For Sakhile, the fact that the garden is comprised of plants that are from a garden provenance rather than the indigenous landscape is a symbol of pride, as is the fact that the garden is not functional but ornamental. In garden research, Sakhile’s garden would be called “vernacular.”[ix] Most Xhosa gardens in the Eastern Cape are for growing vegetables, which are called isitiya, and there is no ornamental garden tradition apart from when children grow flowers. Correspondingly an ornamental garden is called iGarden, where the “i” denotes that a word appropriated from another language, in this case English, coca cola called, for example iCoke. Since the ornamental garden is not a type that traditionally exists in Xhosa culture, the gardens of ‘Europe’ are actually the innovations of displaced people adapting Western garden tropes to their informal setting.

In the context of South Africa’s current struggle with identity, Sakhile’s garden contains potent metaphors that demonstrate dialectical relationships between places and identity: a Xhosa man displaced 1,000 km to a tip site made of rubbish from other places chooses to make a European garden in a thoroughly un-European place called ‘Europe’ with unfashionable South African plants rejected from a western garden 10 km away. At their base however, questions of provenance are less important than having a home, which is ultimately the root for the struggle for land in South Africa, since this desire unites everyone. The process of making a garden is not just a metaphor for taking root, but a practice of making a home shared with other organisms, plants, whose simultaneous growth with the gardener demonstrates a truth of belonging beyond the legality of land tenure.


[i] Frantz Fanon, "Concerning Violence," in The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 40.

[ii] Ibid., 44.

[iii] Walter D. Mignolo, "Delinking the Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of De-Coloniality," Cultural Studies 21, no. 2/3 (2007): 500.

[iv] Ana Deumert, Brett Inder, and Pushkar Maitra, "Language, Informal Networks and Social Protection Evidence from a Sample of Migrants in Cape Town, South Africa," Global Social Policy 5, no. 3 (2005): 307.

[v] S.B Bekker, "Migration Study in the Western Cape," (Cape Town: Provincial government of the Western Cape, 2002), 24.

[vi] Fanon, "Concerning Violence," 46.

[vii] Neocosmos, From ‘Foreign Natives’to ‘Native Foreigners’ Explaining Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Citizenship and Nationalism, Identity and Politics, 120. A recent book by Jonny Steinberg describes the experiences of a Somalian refugee in Cape Town: Jonny Steinberg, A Man of Good Hope (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2015).

[viii] Gitte Postel, "Media, Mediums and Metaphors: The Modern South African Sangoma in Various Texts," Current Writing: 22, no. 1 (2010): 109.

[ix] Todd Longstaffe-Gowan quoted in Clarissa T Kimber, "Gardens and Dwelling: People in Vernacular Gardens," Geographical Review 94, no. 3 (2004): 264.

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