Viewing the Emergent City and Its People

Posts tagged “South Africa

Water-wise Gardening – Where are we?

A great post by

Marijke Honig. Published in The Indigenous Gardener, February 2017



As a landscaper, I feel we pay lip-service to water conservation in the landscape industry. Despite the liberal use of the word ‘water-wise’ on plant labels at nurseries, and during design presentations, the fact is that many gardens and landscapes are watered at least twice a week, and often three times.

While some indigenous and water-wise species are indeed adapted to drought, the way that we water (too frequently, not deeply) prevents them from developing strong, deep root systems. Instead of ‘making rain’ with our irrigation systems – giving a long deep watering – we wet the leaves, mist the atmosphere and moisten the top few centimeters of soil – only to have most of it evaporate soon after. Crazy, isn’t it? When one considers that most gardeners are using treated potable water on their gardens, it becomes even more incomprehensible. Imagine emptying 500 bottles of mineral water in one area of your garden – this is the typical water-use of ONE station of shrub sprayers.

Clearly, it is time for a major rethink.

What is a water-wise garden?

Is a water-wise garden one that is watered once a week, or once a month during the dry season? Or not at all? Or since rainfall varies widely across the country, should it be a relative measure?

There is currently no benchmark in the industry for a ‘water-wise garden.’ It is a vague relative term that implies ‘less than usual.’ Personally, I think this is not good enough! Fourie Petersen suggests water-wise landscaping should be based on a philosophy of sound ‘water management practices’. And ‘management’ requires measurement. Imagine if all landscapers always installed a water meter and rain gauge at each site, and organized weekly data to be collected and submitted to a regional/ national database? If we measure the amount of rain and water applied to landscape, we will have an accurate record and understanding of water-use, and be able to develop a benchmark over time.

Our relationship with water

Is it fair to say that water restrictions help to increase general awareness and appreciation for water? I think so. Switching off automated watering systems has brought us closer to our gardens: we are now tuning into plants and their needs and having to make tough decisions which ones are going to receive the grey water. My pots have never looked better since I’ve put a plastic basin in the kitchen sink for rinse water – it provides a few liters several times a day. In the days when I still had a bath with my young son, and it took me ten full buckets to empty it, I realized that even a shallow bath used a hundred liters. Needless to say, we have been showering since!

Saving and storing water

As landscapers in the Cape, we are often faced with the question of whether to install water storage tanks. This has led to healthy debate when one considers the following:

  • The Western Cape experiences a long dry season – often 4-5 months with no rainfall

  • One irrigation cycle can require 5000 -10 000 liters for a medium to large garden, so one can empty a full tank in one watering cycle

  • Tanks require space and have a visual impact

  • Water is pressurized with a booster pump, so electricity is used

  • Tanks are made of plastic, which has a significant environmental footprint

Looking at the above, it would suggest the value of storage tanks is questionable in the Cape. However, it is predicted that as a consequence of climate change, rainfall will be more erratic and less sharply seasonal. This summer in Cape Town seems to be a case in point: we received a big rainfall event in December and another downpour a month later – very unusual for January.  If gardens were properly zoned into water-use zones, a full tank could last much longer, when used judiciously for selected high and medium water-use areas. Watering will make the difference between Scadoxusflowering, for example, or barely surviving during a long dry summer.


Storing rain water has another less tangible benefit: it brings us closer to the weather and rainfall and increases our appreciation of water. Recently I visited my friends who had put a 200-liter plastic drum under a gutter in their courtyard. It seemed so insignificant compared to the 2 x 5000-liter storage tanks they already had, but Pat pointed out it was enough to make 200 liters of foliar feed for his veggies. He requires unchlorinated water to make activated worm compost tea, so the rainwater is valuable. This experience has shifted the way I think: even small water storage tanks are worthwhile.

Understanding water in the soil

In his excellent book The Water-wise garden’ (Penguin Australia, 2008) Jeffrey Hodges explains how plants use water and the way water is stored in the soil. I found his book fascinating, and the chapter on ‘How water works in your garden’ has transformed my watering practices. Understanding the physical aspects of water and soil has changed the way I look at water. He describes that ‘when water falls onto the ground, either by irrigation or natural rainfall, soil scientists divide it into 3 categories’ (notice only a small portion of it is actually available to plants):

  • ‘Run-off water is water that washes off the surface without soaking into the ground. It may cause erosion and is unavailable to plants.

  • Gravitational water is the water that soaks in and drains away into the subsoil – not available to plants.

  • Capillary water is the water that remains ‘stuck’ in the smaller pore spaces of the soil – this is the water which is available to plants.’ This water which surrounds the soil particles is what root hairs and mycorrhizal threads (mycelia) can absorb.

It is worth noting that the free capillary water keeps moving up, towards the surface, as water evaporates into the atmosphere. It is as if water is constantly sucked up through the soil. This is why a thick layer of mulch really helps because it cools the soil and slows down the upward movement of soil water and loss to the atmosphere. Hodges explains that ‘as soil dries out, the moisture films around soil particles become thinner and at a certain point the root hairs cannot ‘extract’ the water, because of strong attractive forces holding the water to the soil particle.’ At this point – called permanent wilting point – the plant goes into water deficit.

Above: Sketch from ‘The Water-wise Garden’ by Jeffrey Hodges Raindrops that fall on bare soil damages its structure. Covered soil remains undisturbed and the water soaks in where it falls.


Painting over the Present—

While these are attractive pictures in themselves , to me they represent another variant of “`Township Porn” that takes a particular view of South African life and uses it to become an emblem for the artist. As far as it seems to me from the few pictures here – those are hardly representative life in South African cities – there are many diverse views possible – both ‘better” and “worse”. I am in no way denying that South African cities are unjust and unequal – but I believe there is a middle ground emerging that is more variegated adn more real thatn thee pictures show.  From domus


I began this project 16 years after the end of apartheid rule in South Africa. As a photographer, I have explored the transformation of society and aspects of change as a general theme. In this particular essay I have focused on the environments occupied by some of South Africa’s poorest people. It would seem that although wealth and power have shifted hands since the first democratic elections in 1994, many of the benefits of these shifts have failed to filter down to the grassroots level.

The photographs focus on the interiors and exteriors of people’s homes. They are intentionally static in their composition in order to accentuate the minutiae of the occupants’ day-to-day dwelling places.

The bright colours captured in these photographs act as visual trinkets to momentarily distract the viewer from deeper harsh realities. However, although they encourage denial, they are also suggestive of resilience, hope and, sense of humanity that remains in these poverty-stricken communities.

These photographs were taken in small towns, townships and cities throughout South Africa. It has been surprising to find that although the areas differ in many ways, there are almost always individuals who seemingly refuse to be subsumed into the starkness that surrounds them.Graeme Williams

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In search of Joburg’s condemned buildings

From Daily Maverick what’s next?

After three people were crushed in a Johannesburg building last week and the city committed to clearing condemned properties, GREG NICOLSON went in search of Jozi’s best dilapidated architecture. It’s a potent symbol for a voyeur of change.

On the corner of Twist and Wolmarans Streets in Joubert Park, Johannesburg, sits Lorna Court. Its facade has faded and the paint’s chipped. The doors on the balcony terraces have come off their hinges and the windows are broken.

Inside, debris covers the floor like a carpet and each room, bar the security guard’s, is blackened by smoke. On the fifth floor, the roof has caved in and weeds grow in rooms overlooking the park.

Seven years ago, says the guard who lived in the building, a man was fighting with his wife and used a gas funnel to set her alight. The building went with her and has been condemned ever since.

It’s a telling example of the city’s neglected beauty. After another Johannesburg building caved in on three people in search of scrap metal last week, I set out to catalogue some of the city’s most beautiful but condemned architecture.

Lorna Court, a block of apartments encapsulating all Johannesburg’s supposed potential to become the next Manhattan, stands for many as a symbol of the City of Gold’s decline.

Literary presenter Victor Dlamini said: “No one will ever know for sure what precipitated this exodus from this once hallowed city, but overnight, once prestigious office blocks and gleaming restaurants were left vacant, haunted by their quick fall from glory. Parking spaces that had once been reserved for shiny chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces were left to rot and decay as the offices were abandoned. The rush to flee the city led to a plethora of suburban office and residential developments in places like Sandton and Fourways.

“The departure of the city’s business for the suburbs had a devastating effect on the inner city as rents collapsed and restaurants, fine shops and nightlife spots closed in quick succession. The departure of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange from its imposing building on Diagonal Street was probably the symbolic moment when the inner city became a ghost town.”

Photo: Inside Lorna Court, apartments have been gutted by fire and weeds grow on the top floor. It remains a symbol of the city’s potential for rejuvenation. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.

Buildings across the city serve  as testament to the city’s glamorous past and current neglect. Opposite the Gauteng Legislature stands  the imposing Rissik Street Post Office, built in 1897 and destroyed by a blaze in 2009. Behind a street fountain, the building’s gutted insides are visible through missing windows that climb towards the timeless clock tower. The building, unlike many others in Joburg, is undergoing developments.

Take a short walk down Rissik and the ground floor of apartment and office blocks have been concreted closed, with an occasional colonial building title hanging over a door, offering a glimpse of a half-destroyed building. On the brick wall of one condemned building, a Johannesburg Art City billboard towers over the street, next to floors of smashed windows.

After many of the moneyed residents fled, a list of opportunist developers, inspired officials and nostalgic community groups tried to “rejuvenate” what has always been and still remains a contested African city of capital and culture, a mimic of its European counterparts while at the same time a hub in the continent’s production.

In his state-of- the-city address, Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau lauded the new Maboneng precinct as a sign that the inner city is opening itself to those excluded after its “decline”. Optimists also point to Braamfontein, where developers have focused on delivering affordable accommodation to students and young professionals. The streets are generally clean and the areas developed by South Point offer a comfortable entry to the city for those who normally tread in the suburbs.

Heading east down Smit Street, a Tudor-style brick home stands on a corner before the Hillbrow Community Health Centre. Circled by overgrowing grass, it’s one of the few standalone homes so close to town. Tiles on part of the roof are missing and cracks run through the once-solid brick structure. On the footpath, behind a fence shielding the house from pedestrians, three men sit sniffing glue. Two begin to fight.

Photo: A Tudor-style brick home and other inner-city shops and buildings in decline. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.

The lone house seems a symbol of change and contest. It’s a walk away from the lauded Braamfontein developments, across a bridge from the streets between Bree and Noord taxi ranks (dirty but not dilapidated), down the road from Hillbrow and a short drive from the Maboneng precinct. It’s an obvious choice for a smart developer, a potent symbol for a voyeur of change. DM