‘Understand the issues, don’t get emotional’

In the current debate over the state of Zandlvlei, Marina resident David Rogers stands out as a man worth listening to. A respected author, photographer, educator, and conservation activist, he combines passion and astute insights with hands-on action. We recently asked him for his personal opinions on how to resolve a crisis that affects all of us. His answers make for a substantial read – and it’s well worth the time.

We recently came across some back copies of the Marina News from the late 1990s. They feature articles with headlines such as Where, Oh Where, Has Our Kingfisher Gone?!  (February 1998) and Our Sad Waterways (March/April 1999). So, one might argue that crises such as the one we are currently experiencing are cyclical and there’s always an upturn. On the other hand, others argue that the situation on our waterways is now reaching the downward point of no return. What is your assessment?

My feeling is that the council is hamstrung by inefficiency and by infighting. Keeping the Kingfisher going is not rocket science and any good engineer could have it repaired in days. The problems are compounded by other issues which are affecting the quality of the waterways including sewerage leaks and inadequate management of the mouth. It’s one small thing in a whole chain of issues that makes it appear that our neighbourhood is not being managed. This affects the values of our properties. The whole Kingfisher fiasco should be picked apart as it’s a real SNAFU of bad management that should not happen again.

What does your list of the most urgent priorities look like? Diverting the Sand River? Deploying a new Kingfisher? Dredging the vlei mouth? 

For me they are all important. What matters to me most is that we are kept abreast of
developments. We need a Dream of Zandvlei communication that can keep the hope alive that issues are being managed. People are playing stuff too close to their chests. We need timelines to be in place and accountability. I was pleased to hear that R32 million is being budgeted for sewerage repairs and that finding funds for fixing our pipes is being allocated. Let’s hope that the work is being done well and the money has been properly spent. The new pump station, the recycling plant at Parklands are all extremely positive. There are massive numbers of people moving into Cape Town and the way they are getting rid of their litter is affecting us hugely. The city cannot cope with the
influx. Each one of these issues needs to be attended to. It’s a hugely expensive exercise but cannot be ignored. 

Like it or not, the City of Cape Town (CoCT) will be part of any viable solution to Zandvlei’s current crisis. So, like it or not, we must learn to handle the sometimes paralysing bureaucracy this will inevitably expose us to. What buttons do you think ordinary residents can push to ensure that our concerns do not simply disappear into a tangle of red tape?

I have travelled all over Africa and seen very poorly run government conservation entities propped up by private concerns. We need to empower and support but also realise that, ultimately, we need to take control of the situation if we want first world service. In the same way that medical, education, security are now all being run in South Africa by private entities, the same is true of conservation. We cannot rely on government to address our issues when they have so many other issues. So we need to survive in spite of them. I believe that CoCT is, in the most part, keen to do the right thing. But it’s a bureaucracy where things move slowly and get bogged down in bottleneck areas. They need us — private people — to give them a good shake up every now and again.

One reality we have to factor in is that CoCT is extremely concerned with achieving clean audits. This can result in the type of frustrating delays we recently experienced with repairs to the current Kingfisher. Do you have a message for the politicians when it comes to balancing clean audits with efficient action?

I get this. It’s probably the same reason we are taking so long to get our COVID-19 vaccines sorted. Ultimately, pollution needs to become a government priority. There is no visible education of kids, street signs, politicians backing clean-ups. Perhaps we can start with the willingness of councillors to put their necks out. I liked the idea of getting the Mayor to set a target to come and swim in the Marina. 

Partnerships are equally important to finding viable solutions. Where do you see potential for local alliances?

I thought that Kevin Winter from UCT would be a good guy to bring in. He has science to back him up and also is good at getting funding and people to work together. Also, well-qualified science can get us international funding. There are great opportunities to work together. A well structured committee, without egos, with science behind it and really good administrators is essential to management. There is so much at stake. 

How do you see local structures such as the Zandvlei Protected Areas Advisory Committee (ZPAAC) fitting in here?

This must be a very important body to bring together all stakeholders and put pressure on the council in the best way possible. It has been dormant for too long. There are too many people and organisations, myself included, that are operating in isolation. The problem is that ZPAAC has gone dormant in recent years and also needs an injection of new blood to get things going. It has been talking about the same things for years. 

Of course, many of our residents and neighbours want to make a personal contribution towards protecting our environment. What advice would you give to people who want to do their bit?

Firstly, we all need to understand the issues and try not to be emotional. The ZPAAC is an important body to help drive these initiatives. We need to report sewerage leaks through the proper channels, Lise Carswell, the MDGA’ ExCom’s Environment portfolio holder, and also be practical. It’s very important that we communicate better, to residents, between various groups and between all these stakeholders and council. Much good work is going on and news is going through.

You are actively involved in mobilising residents through your Facebook group Friends of Zandvlei & Litter Clean ups. Can you give us some background to your aims and initiatives and how people can join you?

My thought was to get people to help with clean ups and I have posted information about facts and tried to get beyond perceptions. I am not an activist per se but I wanted to get communications out there about action. There are some really good people out there doing things individually who want to help. We need to work together. I have a background in news and journalism and think communication is really important. I like the way that MDGA has really improved its communications in recent months. We cannot do enough.

I was involved with a magazine from Finland that did a feature on Litter traps in South Africa. This Litter Nets organisation is now actively involved in Marina, I believe, and I introduced the magazine to Mike Ryder, who has been doing this work for a long time. He has done more on his own than any other person. 

He is an activist and, like other activists, he is going to make people uncomfortable and that is great. We can’t carry on thinking that everything is OK. Its hugely frustrating for him when the nets are not cleaned by contractors, which happened last year while they were waiting to appoint a team to do the work. Again, the council’s frustrating need for clean audits is creating terrible delays. We need to get teams that can be on standby — a sort of NSRI for the Marina. We need leggings, boots, full kit for people wanting to do this terrible clean-up work. 

You have also been involved in community education on litter. Are you aware of any work that is currently happening in this area?

No, I am not aware of any community education on litter.  I brought this up at the recent meeting with the council and was told “they tried this, it did not work”. This should be the job of local nature conservation and ZPAAC. There are groups such that are keen to get involved. For example, I have recently made contact with a local group of young activists – CAN, Climate Action Now – who are keen to get stuck in.

Schools, churches, mosques, please of worship, parents all need to get together. As Kyran Wright, who manages the Zandvlei Estuary Nature Reserve (ZENR), put it so well at a recent meeting: Marina da Gama is inheriting the problems of our catchment. Our failure to take responsibility for litter must have wider significance to people. Marina residents care about our neighbourhood dearly but we need to spread the net. I have visited places in the townships where people are living in rivers of sewerage. We are pretty fortunate that there is still something to save. We need to show people that by polluting, they are killing our wetlands and our seas and, ultimately, this will kill us all. It’s that simple. You can’t just chuck stuff over your shoulder into the street as we are going to eat that litter. 

We need also to be sensitive that it’s not just us. People in Cape Town have terrible litter issues.

We have a really great facility at Marina run by Cape Nature and it has been closed to education throughout the pandemic. We need to have more visible stuff going on. Get schools visiting, launch education initiatives. But they need to be fun. Soccer braais. Getting communities to work together.

There is also a brand new recycling facility at Parkland. That is huge. If people can get remunerated for picking up litter that is extremely important. These people are our heroes. Hundreds of people in Vrygrond could be put to work picking up litter.

There also needs to be a message from the top — from Ramaphosa, if need be. If we throw away litter we are killing our country. Law enforcement needs to be active too. If you litter you are fined. Why do our councillors not get more active in promoting litter clean-ups? They need to be there.  In Rwanda, every Sunday the entire population of this small country are obliged to clean up the streets outside their houses. The president included. We should have a regular litter day once a week when kids, parents, families, councillors and presidents all clean up the streets while being seen to do so. It would make such a difference to our society. If you throw stuff out your car, out your window, people should be in big trouble.

If you had a magic wand, what single change would you make to the way Zandvlei is managed?

We need to work together and not against one another. Lots of people doing lots of great work. Friends of Park Island, MDGA have done great work. Keep hope alive and communicate! Do not be petty and bitter, especially about what other people are doing. We need to get everyone on the same agenda working hard to keep things moving. 

Finally, do you have any good news about the vlei?

I love living in the Marina. We are really lucky to live where we do. I am seeing more birds than I have in the past two years, although 10 years ago there were a lot more. The water is cleaner and I do think that the vlei is recovering from the past two years. E-coli is way down, salinity is up and pondweed is growing. CoCT is dealing with leaks fast and we need to inform them in the correct way and quickly. The winter rains are coming, though, and we are going to need to be alert to storms bringing in litter and arrange clean-ups.

I think that Kyran is on the right track. But, like the Kingfisher repair, progress is frustratingly slow. We need to communicate the good news, set targets and move towards them. We need to support our council, find ways to work together, and get funding and effort to back-up what is happening.

Personal attacks are not going to help. We must keep hope and keep active. As Kevin Winter said, 20 years ago the canals in Amsterdam were in a shocking state. Now you can swim in them. Zandvlei is not a natural system and the canals must be rewilded soon so that the reeds are able to work as natural filters. Diverting the sand river, turning the canals into a system where nature can be allowed to use its natural cleaning processes is hugely important in this process.

With so many challenges ahead, perhaps it’s worth remembering the words of the social anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who once said: “Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”