The History of the Princess:

A Quintessentially South African Story…

by Princess Vlei Forum

‘Princess Vlei, Cape’ painted by WG Bevington ARCA (1881–1953). Private Collection, Johannesburg, South Africa.

The story of Princess Vlei, one of the wetlands that makes up our Ramsar Wetlands City, is a quintessentially South African story, encompassing violence and dispossession as well as hope, healing and harmony… and some very feisty women.

Before the arrival of European settlers, the vlei was a watering ground for early Khoe herders. The first encounter between these herders and Europeans was in a battle against Fransisco D’Almeida, which has been linked to the legend of the Princess, a Khoe woman said to have lived in a cave near the top of Princeskasteel (the mountain known to settlers as Constantiaberg), who was attacked by invading sailors, and whose tears formed the Vlei.

In the five hundred years that followed, descendants of this Princess, too, were enslaved, raped, exiled and killed.  However, in the early 20th Century, the Princess seemed to enter into a period of relative harmony, with residents of all races dwelling on or near its banks. One of the most colourful of these was Edith Mary Woods, who bought 30 acres of land, comprising the entire vlei and about 10 acres of water.

According to Kelvin Cochrane, Woods, who later became the first female journalist at the Cape Argus and the first woman to fly an aeroplane over Kenilworth Race Course, fought for the emancipation of women and refused to pay taxes.

She lived on the south side of the vlei, where Sassmere Estate is today. “Woods later brought over a French woman, Susan Perrode, and a Dutchman, Wouter Sass. Perrode and Sass married, although they later divorced, and Perrode opened the Jolly Carp Restaurant at the vlei.

The name ‘Sassmere’ was derived from the surname of Sass and ‘mere’ from the vlei.  The Jolly Carp became a famous restaurant in the Cape, renowned among French sailors and the military for, among others, its fantastic Sunday afternoon teas. The military would march from Military Road to the restaurant. This is also how Military Road got its name.

The Jolly Carp was renowned for its afternoon teas (thanks to Clive Delbridge for the photo)

In 1945, Woods sold the land and moved to Camps Bay. “This was when the owner, believed to be Mr Perks, opened a riding school at the vlei, with stables and a wooden and iron house, which can still be seen,” Cochrane says.

On the other side of the vlei lived the Jacobs and Adriaanse families. After World War II, the father of the Jacobs family was given the land on the Eastern side to open a fruit and vegetable stall as compensation after losing an eye in the war. The Jacobs’s farm stall  flourished for several decades and became a well known and much loved landmark, and was taken over by Mr Jacob’s son. In the fifties the council took the land back from Mr Jacobs, but allowed him to continue running the stall until the seventies, when the land was taken to enable the widening of Prince George’s Drive.

The Nationalist victory brought changes to the area. The Government began a process of ruthlessly forcing coloured and black people from their homes in Cape Town, forcibly resettling them in  bleak council tenements on the Cape Flats. White families who lived around Princess Vlei were also removed to make way for the housing estates of Grassy Park, Lavender Hill, Lotus River, Steenberg and Retreat.

The government of the day designated most attractive natural areas as Whites Only. But Princess Vlei posed a curious dilemma for apartheid planners. Its beauty and natural assets meant that, under apartheid logic, it should be retained exclusively for white use. But, as one of the few recreational spaces with borders abutting both “white” and “coloured’ group areas, it was seen as lying too close to the “coloured” Cape Flats to be used safely by whites, and so became one of the very few natural recreational spaces open to  people of colour.

For the families traumatised by forced removal, Princess Vlei provided a welcome respite from the desolate wasteland in which they found themselves. It was a place where they could escape the growing problems of gangsterism and crime, reunite as families, and experience some of the tranquility of nature.

During these years, Princess Vlei grew to acquire a significance in the hearts of community members quite disproportionate to its physical size. Deprived of access to most of Cape Town’s recreational beaches and scenic areas, coloured people from miles around adopted Princess Vlei as their own.  It was nicknamed ‘Claremont Beach’, and the area around the small vlei was called ‘Gala land’.

However, it was neglected by the authorities, and became run down and degraded. When Prince George’s Drive was widened in the late seventies, there was dumping on the vlei, and the neglect worsened. The road also served to separate the people from the vlei. 

Then, in around 2008, the City suddenly announced that it planned to “develop” the Vlei by building a large shopping mall on its shores. Led by Kelvin Cochrane, the surrounding community fought back for five long years, finally achieving success in 2014, when the Deputy Mayor formally announced that the plan had been scrapped. The threat posed by the mall had reminded residents of the value the vlei brought to their lives, galvanising the community to reclaim it and create a new vision for the future of Princess Vlei.

The community victory to prevent the mall development marked the beginning of a new chapter in the Vlei’s history. Today, the same community who fought for it to be saved are an active part of transforming this beautiful space into a richly diverse nature and heritage park for all.