In Langscape Magazine Articles

Biocultural Features of Urban Gardens and Yards Enhance Place-making and Belonging in South African Townships

July 14, 2018

by Duncan Haynes, Michelle Cocks, and Charlie Shackleton


RDP housing has been critiqued as unimaginative and as limiting opportunities for place-making. Photo: Tony Dold, 2016


South African cities and towns continue to reflect legacies of colonialism and apartheid, during which urban black Africans were restricted to living in designated areas, locally termed “townships.” Generally, townships were poorly serviced, with a high proportion of informal structures, backyard dwellers, and widespread poverty. The democratic transition in the early 1990s allowed all citizens free movement, resulting in a surge in urbanization. Many new urban dwellers took up residence in informal settlements on urban peripheries. The new democratic government sought to address the backlogs in housing and service delivery with significant investments into township areas. This included the development of low-income housing developments, locally termed “RDP” areas (named after the government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme) in most towns of the country. The RDP’s objective was to provide a “formal” house situated in a “properly planned” settlement. It was based on a series of unexamined assumptions made by foreign consultants and planners rather than through participatory processes to identify the needs and priorities of urban residents. Consequently, the RDP has been critiqued as offering houses but not homes.

Housing developments were based on a series of unexamined assumptions made by foreign consultants and planners rather than through participatory processes to identify the needs and priorities of urban residents.


Place- and Home-Making

Processes of place- and home-making enable feelings of rootedness and belonging. Conceptually, “place” is conceived as a “space” imbued with meaning. “Home” is understood to incorporate place identity, in the sense of a person or persons belonging to a space. Symbolic meanings can be significant in constructing narratives of “home.” Security, comfort, privacy, and space for self-expression are also important in the creation of “home.” Activities within garden spaces are useful to explore processes of home- and place-making as they represent residents’ negotiated relationship to place. Home gardens may also represent locales for preservation of traditional knowledge and biocultural diversity practices. Biocultural diversity studies indicate that social and ecological circumstances contribute to how one defines, understands, and interprets the world.

Within this context, we undertook a study to assess elements of yard modification (such as the creation of gardens) and to understand whether it contributed to a sense of well-being, rootedness, and belonging among amaXhosa urban residents in Eastern Cape towns. IsiXhosa speakers (who make up a large majority of the population of the Eastern Cape province) differentiate between a “house,” indlu, and a “home,” ikhayaIkhaya refers to a spiritual home where the ancestors reside. Access to a rural home influences whether one develops a spiritual home in the urban space. A biocultural diversity lens was incorporated into our analysis to acknowledge a Xhosa cosmological framework within which acts of place-making are performed. Of a total of 590 households’ yards surveyed, fifty-five percent reflected modifications related to processes of place-making, such as growing vegetables; collecting imifino, a wild leafy pot herb that is cooked as spinach; planting fruit and shade trees and decorative plants; and planting of medicinal and culturally relevant plants and tree species. Another such modification is placing a temporary or permanent ubuhlanti, a type of kraal (a thorn or brushwood enclosure for livestock) that is considered sacred as it represents places where the izinyanya (ancestors) reside and watch over their descendants. Within these enclosures, idini (ritual sacrifices) are performed with the animal tethered to a pole called an ixhanti. Following the sacrifice, the horns of the beast are attached to it as a mark of reverence.

A biocultural diversity lens was incorporated into our analysis to acknowledge a Xhosa cosmological framework within which acts of place-making are performed.


Vegetables and Traditional Food Plants

Vegetable gardens consisted primarily of contemporary vegetable types to supplement the cost of bought groceries. Those with access to larger spaces also grew what are locally referred to as “Xhosa vegetables,” including pumpkins, maize, beans, and imifino. Study participants expressed that these species were particularly tasty and healthy and, being traditional, also reflected their identity as amaXhosa.


Medicinal and Culturally Relevant Plants and Trees

Commonly grown medicinal plants included umhlonyane(Artemisia spp., used to treat common colds and coughs), ikhala (Aloe ferox, used for internal parasites), and ingcelwane (Bulbine latifolia) and umgobeleweni (Clivia nobilis), both of which are used to maintain impilo, or “fullness of life.” It embraces both physical health purity through ritual practice and making oneself free of “pollution.” Misfortune and ill health are often believed to be caused by a breach of customs and traditions or by supernatural powers. Ingcelwane is used to cleanse the body regularly by vomiting (gahba), steaming (futha), and purging (cima). One gardener related that he felt pride in growing these plants and teaching his sons about being Xhosa and to maintain impilo, even within an urban area.

One gardener related that he felt pride in growing these plants and teaching his sons about being Xhosa and to maintain impilo, the ‘fullness of life,’ even within an urban area.

Ma Mhlaba’s garden with ikhala (Aloe ferox), intelezi (Tillandsia) hanging from the umnquma tree (Olea europaea), and Itswele lomlambo (Tulbaghia alliacea) planted along the fence. Photo: Ella van Tonder, 2017


Plants were also grown along the fence or at the entrance of a home to protect residents from evil spirits sent by malevolent forces and sorcery. Itswele lomlambo (Tulbaghia alliacea) was the most common species; it is planted to protect the household from umamlambo, a “snake familiar” (a kind of spirit that acts as an assistant to a witch or wizard). Intelezi (Tillandsia spp.) were often hung in trees or on gate posts to protect occupants from evil forces and lightning.

Umnquma trees (Olea europaea Africana, a type of olive) are also planted in gardens. This tree is considered sacred as the first portion of sacrificial meat at a ritual is served on wild olive tree leaves. A ritual is deemed ineffective if this practice is not adhered to. Although traditionally harvested from the wild, scarcity there appears to have encouraged its planting in urban gardens. Mrs. Mthembu said, “My husband [now deceased] planted this tree. He announced (i.e., spoke at a ceremony to both guests and ancestors) that it would provide branches for family ceremonies.” She added, “It is a sacred tree; whenever he harvested branches from the tree [for ritual purposes], he would recite the names of his clan.” Others expressed interest in growing sorghum, tobacco, and calabash plants, which are offered as gifts to the ancestors when a ritual is hosted. The value and significance of these plants was expressed by recipients when they were given traditional seeds by the main author: “This is a gift forever,” and “Such a gift can span multiple generations.”


Sacrificed meat being served on branches of umnquma inside a kraal (ixhanti on the left). Photo: Tony Dold, 2010


Sacred Places: Kraal (ubuhlanti) and Tethering Pole (ixhanti)

Some urban residents constructed and maintained an ubuhlanti and/or placed an ixhanti in their gardens. IsazisiMzi is a ritual performed to relocate ancestors to one’s new kraal and home. In Mr. Xulu’s words, “My ancestors are here, I brought them. . . . I said: ‘Now we are passing through the gate; you will please reside here and protect us.’”

The presence of ubuhlathi or ixhanti in the garden space indicates to all that the occupants’ ancestors have been installed there. The act is seen as ensuring that the family receives protection and blessings from its ancestors. The ubuhlathi or ixhanti is accessed and used when rituals are performed. It is also accessed when male members of the family wish to communicate with their ancestors. This may include simply sleeping in the kraal or performing a ritualized wash and purging.

“The value and significance of these plants was expressed by recipients when they were given traditional seeds by the main author: ‘This is a gift forever.’”


Fruit and Shade Trees, Decorative Plants and Features

Common fruit trees planted included peaches, apricots, and guavas. These often sprouted from seeds thrown into compost piles and were transplanted to a desired spot. Intentional planting of fruit trees often coincided with the residents’ permanent settling into the house and thus acts as a symbol of habitation time. This may create a special relationship with the planter: “I planted this peach tree when I was a small boy; now it is like my child.” Other trees were valued for their shade under which residents enjoyed sitting and relaxing.


An ubuhlanti and ixhanti incorporated into the urban space. Photo: Ella van Tonder, 2017


Tshawe still has links with his rural home, ikhaya. Within his urban home, he has invested considerable energy in decorating his garden by creating and maintaining a hedge, which he jokingly refers to as his “urban kraal”; this “makes his house more private” and gives him great sense of satisfaction and pride.

I planted this peach tree when I was a small boy; now it is like my child.



Urban residents derive numerous benefits from the modifications of their yard spaces, such as personal pleasure and pride in being able to grow one’s own vegetables and collect imifino. Participants felt that such opportunities allowed them to pass Xhosa knowledge on to their children. Yard spaces also provided outlets for self-expression through maintaining decorative and landscaping features. For many, the garden also provided a place to relax and de-stress, to quietly reflect and remember, or to take their minds off troubles. The planting of medicinal plants was highly valued as it enabled ready treatment of common ailments and maintaining one’s impilo. The placement of culturally relevant plants within the garden also helped to ensure that residents felt protected from evil spirits. For those who had no links to a rural spiritual home, the ability to relocate and house one’s ancestors within the urban space allowed their urban house (indlu) to become ikhaya, a home, and created place-belonging.


Mr. Mila enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun against the wall of the ubuhlanti. Photo: Ella van Tonder, 2017


Biocultural Diversity and Place-Making

Using a biocultural diversity lens facilitated a more holistic interpretation of processes of place-making and place attachment within the Xhosa urban context. Many of the plants, trees, and cultural structures contained within urban gardens are deeply embedded within this particular cultural context and have provided the residents with a deeper sense of well-being, rootedness, and belonging. Residents who actively engaged in yard modification felt that not engaging in such processes would impede their capacity to express and display aspects of their personal and cultural identities. Among those with no ties to a rural home, the presence of the ubuhlanti and ixhanti was particularly important, as their presence ensured that their indlu, house, become ikhaya, home.

Residents did, however, experience constraints in expressing their biocultural practices in the garden. While residents valued traditional plants and “Xhosa vegetables,” some were difficult to obtain in the urban space. For example, the Indigenous version of umhlonyane was scarce, resulting in most residents growing the European variety.

Some expressed that the small size of plots was restrictive, as traditional Xhosa vegetables require more space to grow. Additionally, the expense of fencing a temporary house also appeared to limit further yard modification and place-making for some.

These insights provide a means to begin understanding processes of place attachment through yard modification. This is relevant to many amaXhosa urban residents, who, despite numerous limiting factors, continue to engage with biocultural practices within their urban homes. Such considerations have not been taken into account by planners and government housing efforts, because the emphasis has been on merely providing houses to low-income communities. Such a premise fails to engage holistically with the needs of amaXhosa urban residents to be able to incorporate cultural identities into their urban place-making. Urban residents modify their lived landscape through the inclusion of plants, trees, and structures that reflect aspects of their personal and cultural identities. They speak of this engagement as contributing to an enhanced experience of the urban reality.


After all her work is done, Ma Mhlaba enjoys her afternoon tea with a view of the plants in her garden. Photo: Ella van Tonder, 2017


Acknowledgements. We are grateful to the local residents who worked with us and willingly shared their knowledge. Acknowledgment is made to Ella van Tonder and Tony Dold for the photographs. This work was sponsored by the National Research Foundation of South Africa; any opinion, finding, conclusion, or recommendation expressed in this material is that of the authors, and the NRF does not accept any liability in this regard.

The authors are researchers and post-graduate students based at Rhodes University and who are part of a program that aims to understand the multiple realities and intensity of urban dwellers’ worldviews, including their appreciation of, needs for, and uses of urban green spaces and elements therein.

Duncan Haynes

Further Reading

Antonsich, M. (2010). Searching for belonging: An analytical framework. Geography Compass, 4(6), 644–659.

Dold, A. P., & Cocks, M. L. (2012). Voices from the Forest. Johannesburg, South Africa: Jacana Media.

Lehohla, P. (2016). Community survey 2016 in brief (Report 03–01–06). Pretoria, South Africa: Statistics South Africa.

Marchetti-Mercer, M. C. (2006). New meanings of “home” in South Africa. Acta Academica-University of the Free State, 38(2), 191–218.

McAllister, P. (1997). Ritual and social practice in the Transkei. African Studies, 56(2), 279–309.



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