Saturday, 19 July 2014

Andre's Farm

Looking over the city.
Andre Laubscher is a one-man force of nature. He is the glue that has held together the community on his farm for two decades. My introduction to both Andre himself and his farm came in the format of an afternoon class trip. Andre’s was one of two city farms we visited last Tuesday, but it was the one that stuck with me the most. The second farm, Oranjezicht City Farm, is a well-organized, and very clearly preplanned farm in a Cape Town neighborhood just ten minutes from Andre’s farm. The two plots could not be more different though. Where Oranjezicht is full of Dutch inspired diamond shaped plots and wide stone pathways lined with neat rows of vegetables, Andre’s land is unkempt and strewn with surprises lying around every bend of the muddy, puddle-strewn dirt roads that wind their way around the farm. Oranjezicht is built on a historical site with proper certifications and permits from the government, while Andre is considered a “squatter” who cannot be forcibly evicted due to South Africa’s Eviction Law – a mandate which forbids eviction of residents who have lived on a plot of land for six months or longer. Originally a post-apartheid response to previous forced removals of black and colored peoples from their rightful homes, the Eviction Law effectively allows Andre live on a beautiful plot of government-owned prime real estate and conduct his farm how he wishes.
A path leading to the theater Andre and a group he
works with use to put on shows for community members.
After passing through the gate-less opening in the fence surrounding Andre’s farm, our minibus followed the dirt road uphill to the land’s main complex of residence buildings. As we drove, the first sight that caught my eye was a horse casually grazing while standing amongst small stacks of old car tires. The scene was unexpected and slightly odd, but fit perfectly with the rest of what we were about to see and learn about the community that has formed on the land Andre loves so much. Our group of ten students and Lisa plus Cal and Sianne (two of our teachers at the University of Cape Town) piled out of the minibus and into a wild paradise in the middle of the bustling city of Cape Town. After being called both on his cellphone and through Cal’s makeshift megaphone – hands cupped around her mouth – Andre came marching up the hill we had just finished. With a large grey beard; slightly haggard face; a plaid flannel shirt; and canvas pants belted with string, held up with suspenders, and tucked into rain boots; he looked remarkably like a burly Santa Claus in fishermen’s gear.
With this view, it's no wonder everyone wants the land!
We walked in silence for a few meters, taking in the beautiful scenery visible from Andre’s farm – one of many reasons the government and other organizations want Andre gone is to take advantage of this view through various housing opportunities. In the short minutes it took us to walk to the spot Andre chose, we had picked up a cohort of three large dogs and seven small children of varying ages and degrees of shyness. Once we reached the suitable spot, Andre told us the story of his personal history involving the farm as we feasted our eyes on the gorgeous views of the city and Table Mountain.
Some of the many animals who live
on the farm.
            Everything that makes up Andre’s farm today can be attributed to two humble beginnings: goats and frogs. Andre first discovered the wild and abandoned plot of land over twenty years ago. He “stupidly bought two goats” and about once a week went up to Signal Hill (the area in which his farm is located) to cut alien branches for the goats to eat. One day he went up the dirt road leading to the farm and noticed that there was a large tangle of alien plants just up the hill on the site of the old military barracks. He cut some that day for his goats and from then on returned regularly. When he heard the frogs that live in numerous wet areas around the farm sounding off at night, Andre fell in love and knew he had to stay. Throughout the day he repeated that sentiment several times: “I have an obsession with those frogs,” he’d say, and then go on to talk about the importance of all the little animals that people often don’t consider. Soon Andre was hired as a caretaker by the government and moved on to the farm with his family. A South African law says that all caretakers must be found new homes if the land owners wanted to sell the land or to not have a caretaker anymore. The government didn’t want to find Andre a new home, so he stayed on and settled in. Though not the official caretaker of the plot, Andre developed a micro-community in which he was the ultimate source of care. He took care of the land and its small animals, as well as his goats and many other injured or abandoned animals that people began to drop off for him. One day instead of the usual puppies, bunnies, goats etc., someone dropped off a child. This was the inauspicious beginning of Andre’s soon to be prolific foster farm. From then on out, Andre has provided more children with a new start on life than he can remember. He advocates for parks and open spaces to be turned into foster farms for both the young and the very old. Nature is healing and healthy – a space like Andre’s allows people to feel useful and to get the experiences of a rural farm with the benefits of surrounding Cape Town.
            Unfortunately, Andre is not always welcomed by the community which surrounds his farm. When he first moved to the farm near the end of apartheid, Andre received a cold welcome from the wealthy white surrounding neighbors because his wife is, in his words, “a little bit tanned.” Recent media has accused Andre of allowing criminals to live on his land, but did not contact any of the farm’s residents for interviews or follow up information. There have been several run-ins with government officials, both legal and physical (Andre once punched an official in the face). Andre is under constant threat of being kicked off the land he has called home for over two decades and made into a home for countless more since then. Now though, there is a battle between government who wants to build low income housing on the land and a contracting company who wants to use it for high class housing. According to Andre, this should keep him safe and able to focus on more important things for at least five years.

With a large heart and the attitude that things must get done, Andre goes about his life matter-of-factly making a difference in ways that other people only dream of. His final words to us were entirely in keeping with the ragtag yet functional way Andre runs his farm: we were told “come anytime and join a bonfire,” and that food wouldn’t be a problem, as “we can discretely run over a chicken or something.” On his farm Andre has created a world in which he enables people to enjoy full lives and the company of others no matter the official restrictions that may exist.
 -Rachel Kassler ‘17

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