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Joe Nkuna was issued with a fine of R1,500 after planting vegetables on the pavement at his house in Theresapark. Picture: Thapelo Morebudi/Sunday Times
Joe Nkuna was issued with a fine of R1,500 after planting vegetables on the pavement at his house in Theresapark. Picture: Thapelo Morebudi/Sunday Times

Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do ... Plus, you get strawberries.” 

That, at least, is the view of “gangsta gardener” Ron Finley.

Finley lives in Southern Los Angeles, an area of “liquor stores, fast food, vacant lots”. 

Eleven years ago, he fell foul of the law after planting a “food forest” on the strip of land between his property and the street. 

Within a mile of his house, he had all manner of fast-food outlets (a McDonald’s, Del Taco, Burger King and Popeyes) – but he had to take “a 45-minute round trip to get an apple that wasn’t impregnated with pesticides”, he says in his 2013 TED Talk, Guerrilla Gardener (4.1-million views and counting). “So what I did, I planted a food forest in front of my house.”

After the LA police received a complaint about the garden, Finley was given a citation and then threatened with a warrant of arrest if he didn’t clear the land immediately. Instead, he decided to fight – because “planting produce, especially on an open plot of land in the middle of a food desert, should not be a punishable act”, writes Vogue’s Claudia McNeilly.

Through Finley’s efforts – and driven by councillor Herb Wesson – the city council had by August 2013 unanimously voted to change the law about planting vegetable gardens on unused strips of city land. 

Three years later, LA County went a step further, implementing tax breaks for property owners who make unused land available for farming and gardening. The resolution applies to parcels of land smaller than 1.2ha (about 1½ soccer fields) and free of toxic substances. At the time, the county assessor’s office was estimated that there were 57,000 such plots in the city.

Not to put words into Finley’s delightfully foul mouth, but “that’s a lot of mother--- kale”.

Cabbages: a cautionary tale

Finley’s is a fascinating story at the best of times – and it’s worth reading McNeilly’s 2017 profile of him, as well as this more recent LA Times piece. But it’s particularly apt this week, given the spotlight on SA’s own guerrilla gardener, “cabbage bandit” Djo BaNkuna.

Since 2019, BaNkuna has used the pavement of his property, in the Tshwane suburb of Theresa Park, to grow vegetables. 

His crop of pumpkins, sweet potatoes, onions, dill and the much-maligned brassica has fed the charges of his wife, a social worker in Soshanguve, as well as neighbours, recyclers and general passers-by. Given his green-fingered success, he expanded his operation to the pavement alongside the public park across the road – with the blessing of the park manager, he says.

Then, last Thursday, two metro police officers arrived at his property to investigate a complaint. They apparently informed him that his food forest was not allowed, and that he would need to either get council permission for the operation, or remove the produce and plant grass or roses instead. How very Parkhurst.

In BaNkuna’s telling, he visited the council the very next day, only to be all but laughed out of the building at the very suggestion that there was such a permit in the first place. He was simply told, he says, that he can plant what he likes – but he does so at his own risk, as the land belongs to the city, which can do with the land as it sees fit. Fair enough.

Next stop, the metro police department, to inform the authorities there that he didn’t need permission to grow produce. Only, by his account that turned into an angry confrontation.

Come Tuesday, the metro police arrived at BaNkuna’s property to hand over a fine for infringing the national Road Traffic Act and interfering with a municipal structure, and an instruction to remove the offending cabbages by the end of the day. 

He has subsequently said he will contest the fine in court.

The story is perhaps not entirely as clear-cut as it’s been presented, and there are unanswered questions. 

For one, it’s uncertain whether BaNkuna was selling his produce. The city certainly claims so, pointing to a Facebook post in March (presumably now deleted) in which he apparently refers to charging neighbours “R10 a hand” and “grabbing” the land across the road.

But the city authorities have hardly covered themselves in glory. For a start, it’s a little unseemly to immediately trawl BaNkuna’s social media to look for dirt on him. 

Quite frankly, I don’t really care if he charged his more affluent neighbours R10 a pop to offset costs if he was feeding the poor. And to focus on this one post is to ignore the many that tell a different story. Like this one, from August: “My street garden fed eight families today, free from the soil. Sharing food makes us human, sharing food builds community.”

Or this, from April: “The capitalist in me sees cash, but my wife sees help. I am forbidden to even contemplate selling my produce, even to recoup cost.”

Then there’s the apparent show of force by the metro cops. BaNkuna writes on social media – apparently backed up by pictures taken at the scene – that as many as 16 officials and five vehicles arrived at his home on Tuesday to hand over the fine. The pictures show at least two metro cop vans there.

As for the fine itself: metro police spokesperson Isaac Mahamba told TimesLIVE on Monday that BaNkuna could be liable for a fine of between R150 and R1,500, depending on the discretion of the officer. That he was given the maximum R1,500 fine, after apparently trying to do the right thing and secure a permit, reeks of malice.

A more accommodating approach

There’s little doubt that BaNkuna’s vegetable garden violated bylaws and obstructed pedestrian traffic. So in many ways this is a storm in a cabbage patch. But it speaks to broader issues of land use and whether our bylaws are fit for purpose in changing times.

Consider Stats SA’s 2017 report on food security, released in 2019. It suggests 1.7-million households, or 6.8-million people, went hungry in SA that year. A full quarter of those hungry households were in Gauteng, and two-thirds were in urban areas: the poor there either lacked sufficient money to buy food, or were unable to produce their own.

But Covid reversed a 20-year decline in hunger. 

And so the National Income Dynamics-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey shows that 47% of SA households ran out of money for food in April last year; between May and June, 21% reported that someone had gone hungry in their home in the previous seven days, and 15% reported that a child had gone hungry.

Given the urban-rural breakdown in the Stats SA report, I’m assuming most of those who went hungry were in urban areas. Places, perhaps, like Tshwane, where a well-placed, well-meaning and free vegetable garden could make all the difference – particularly in the face of staggering government inaction.

I don’t know when last you walked around your neighbourhood, but I’m often struck by how intentionally hostile so many pavements in Joburg seem to pedestrians: tastefully jagged rockeries; impenetrable ivy; deserts of cacti. “Food deserts”. And impassable.

If municipalities are prepared to turn a blind eye to these monstrosities, why come down so hard on BaNkuna? 

Why wouldn’t they simply help him to establish a path through his garden so he can comply with the relevant laws? Or, here’s an idea: if it is the laws that are the problem, why not amend them, as LA did, so people can grow food on unused council land and use the ground outside their garden walls more productively, in service of society.

Gardens like BaNkuna’s are to be celebrated, not ripped down, as power-crazed metro police would presumably prefer. As Finley would succinctly say, we should all just “plant some shit”.

De Villiers is the features editor of the FM

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