In Langscape Magazine Articles

The Biocultural Fabric of Renosterveld: A Unique Ecosystem at the Heart of the Swartland, South Africa

October 20, 2018

Text and photos by Emmeline Topp

“You know how the Swartland got its name? It’s the Black Land,” the farmer tells me. His face is lined beyond his thirty-two years, decades of weather and work deepening its contours and tanning its skin. “When the Europeans first arrived two hundred years ago, all they saw was this renosterveld, black when dry in the summer, black when wet with rain.”

As I look upon the Swartland now, only fragments of this black bush remain. Most of the land is covered in huge green-golden fields of winter wheat and countless rows of stunted grapevines clinging to wire frames. Renosterveld is Afrikaans for “rhinoceros field,” referring to the dusty grey hide of the now-extinct black rhinoceros that used to roam South Africa’s Western Cape. The rhinoceros fields of the Black Land.


A typical Swartland scene at De Brug. The black hilltop in the distance is remaining renosterveld. 2017

The names belie a region threaded with color and vitality. The Swartland is part of the Cape Floristic Region, a recognized global biodiversity hotspot on account of its thousands of endemic plants, captivating in their beauty and richness, which form part of the unique biocultural diversity on the southernmost tip of the African continent. Beginning approximately two thousand years ago, the KhoiKhoi pastoral peoples crossed the Swartland, leaving large sections relatively undisturbed. Following agricultural conversion, renosterveld is now the most endangered habitat in South Africa, with less than five percent remaining in the Swartland. As an ecologist, I am keen to understand the drivers shaping this landscape, including differing community values attached to renosterveld.

As an ecologist, I am keen to understand the drivers shaping this landscape, including differing community values attached to renosterveld.

Moorreesburg is a rural Swartland town approximately two hours north of Cape Town. I stay on a farm on the slopes of the largest remaining fragment of renosterveld in the area. Most remaining fragments are found on slopes that are too steep and rocky to plough. For farmers, the renosterveld is often of little concern or seen as an unproductive nuisance—and, simultaneously, part of their heritage. For practical reasons, they notice its animal life more than the botany and are very tuned in to issues of predation and pest control.

“As a principle I enjoy having it on the farm,” a wine grape producer says of the small seven-hectare patch among his hundred hectares of vineyards. “I do enjoy walking through every now and again. I’ve seen lots of snakes, scrub hare, duiker [antelope], lots of birds, skilpad [tortoise], the Cape fox, porcupines, and we have a problem with the feral pigs. I don’t want to say it’s good for nothing; I just can’t use it.”

Other farmers explain they have come a long way since uncontrolled plowing. The long-standing discordancy of renosterveld is that, in botanists’ eyes, its value is so great that clearing for arable land is inconceivable.

“It’s not even viable!” One elderly resident of the Swartland, and steward of one of the very few remaining lowland renosterveld patches, tells me. “And that makes me so mad. Why do they have to [plow] it? That koppie has Spider lilies [Ferraria uncinata], Spiloxene [Cape star flower] and the peacock Morea [Morea villosa] flowering up there, and they don’t know it’s there.” The koppie she refers to is a nearby hillside with relatively recent clearance.

Morea flower

A peacock Morea flower (Morea villosa). This once common species is now considered “vulnerable.” Swartdam, Swartland. 2017

Her own patch stands fragile amid invasive Port Jackson acacia trees and pesticide clouds over the neighboring vineyards. Yet recent visits from local amateur botanists and researchers give her hope that more people will come and foster awareness of the precious nature of renosterveld. “The local farm workers, they come through the koppies with their children on the way to school, and I want those children to be able to learn about what’s in there.”

The local farm workers, they come through the koppies with their children on the way to school, and I want those children to be able to learn about what’s in there.

Chiefly, the farmers here have one major challenge on their minds: drought. The Western Cape has had record low levels of winter rain for three years running, and it hangs over the land like a phantom, causing the worry in my host farmer’s eyes. He undertakes drilling everywhere on the land, shining a mirror down the holes, in search for the glint that tells of more groundwater. In the local Spar supermarket, families discuss the increasingly severe water restrictions. Signs are mounted on the roads out of town listing ways to save water: “Keep Showers to 2 Minutes,” “Heavier Laundry Loads Less Often,” and “Recycle Shower Water to Flush Toilets.” In the crowded Moorreesburg churches on Sundays, the community prays collectively for rain. “Day Zero” looms on the horizon, the date when officials will have to turn off Western Cape taps and begin rationing water. The land is desperately thirsty.

wind-powered water pump

A classic wind-powered water pump, one of the agricultural symbols of the Swartland. 2017

Fire is drought’s equally dangerous sister. Yet it plays an important role in renosterveld ecology. Two years ago, on my host farm, a huge veldfire (naturally occurring wildfire) ravaged the eastern slopes, and the once-thick shrubs became black charcoal stalks. The following spring, a most glorious flowering of bulbs was visible on the slopes for the first time in eighty years.

Some farmers plan to use fire to manage renosterveld and, in doing so, continue their family relationship with the land. One young farmer’s tiny koppie is the last piece of natural heritage on her family farm. In a sea of vines and wheat fields, backed by huge grain silos, it is choked with too-high renosterbos (Elytropappus rhinocerotis) and taaibos (Searsia spp.) following years of fire suppression. “I found out about fire management on Facebook,” she says. “I saw all these photos up there of flowers after a burn. They used to have agricultural shows around here, and my grandmother showed flowers every year. I’d like to keep the tradition.” Recent research on burned renosterveld patches has rediscovered species that were previously thought to be extinct, such as Polhillia ignota, a shrub species in the Fabaceae family. Her plan is to burn the patch next autumn and bring it back to life.

‘I found out about fire management on Facebook,’ a young farmer says. ‘I saw all these photos up there of flowers after a burn. They used to have agricultural shows around here, and my grandmother showed flowers every year. I’d like to keep the tradition.’

Other natural resource conflicts demonstrate the many community values of renosterveld. One very large fragment, formerly a landfill site and home to a motocross trail network, was recently designated a nature reserve. Now motocross is officially forbidden.

“Motorbikers and quad bikers are up there anyway,” one municipal employee tells me. “It damages the plants and causes erosion. And the other problem is the bush doctors; they dig up renosterveld plants for medicine. It’s completely unregulated and very damaging.”

I am curious about the extent to which this traditional ethnobotanical knowledge is a part of the community. In the vibrant section of Moorreesburg by the taxi station, an open sack is spread across the concrete pavement. On one side of the sack are bulbs and roots and, on the other, bunches of herbs and wrapped leaves. The local Rastafarian bush doctors here point to large bulbs of cinnamon root, good for piles and clogged arteries; pungent wild mountain garlic with a bunch of squid-like tentacles; bunches of renosterbos and wild sage for tea or smudging (removing unwanted spirits from a house by spreading smoke); paper bags of aloe leaves; ointments prepared with aloe and Vaseline for sores and infections; and “elephant’s feet” and kankerbossie (cancer bush, Sutherlandia frutescens). “I can cut a piece for you, 20 rand, 30 rand, how much you need,” the bush doctor offers.

Traditional medicine

Traditional medicine sourced from the Swartland renosterveld by the local Rastafarian bush doctors. 2017

I see that the critically endangered renosterveld is home to this unregulated activity, but I am gladdened by the living connection to the local ecosystem. It is an enterprise that requires the renosterveld biodiversity itself and its potential value for people. Added to this, some local farm workers still hunt and trap for food in the veld, including guinea fowl and porcupines, and the thorny scrub patches can also be seen as places of natural bounty. The myriad community values of the patches enrich them beyond any value they may have as wilderness.

Together with the endemism of the flora and fauna, the cultural diversity of South Africa’s Western Cape renders the Swartland even more incomparable. South Africa has eleven national languages, more than any other country in the world. On the farms surrounding Moorreesburg, farmers and farm workers speak a variety of Afrikaans, English, isiZulu, and isiXhosa. This diverse population is increasing and the Swartland needs new, wider roads, new housing. Lightning-speed urbanization is another of the major pressures on critically endangered renosterveld. Many of the municipal-owned patches are earmarked for imminent development, leading some community members to plan emergency transplanting of fragile renosterveld geophyte species from these areas. In this biocultural hotspot, so much is at stake on all sides.

Lightning-speed urbanization is another of the major pressures on critically endangered renosterveld.

The renosterveld, then, is a multifaceted natural resource woven into the very heart of the Swartland. The future for the community is full of challenges: a rapidly shifting sociopolitical landscape and an alarming lack of rainfall threatening its very existence. It is also full of hope. Species previously believed to be extinct can be rediscovered. Seemingly devastating fires yield thrilling floral rainbows in spring. And many members of the community continue to walk across the koppies, part of life progressing despite adversity, their footsteps weaving more colorful stories through the rhinoceros field.

Swartland roads

Kicking up dust on the Swartland roads. 2017


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Emmeline Topp holds an Erasmus Mundus MSc in Sustainable Forest and Nature Management (University of Copenhagen, University of Padova) and is currently based in the agroecology group of Georg-August University and the Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany. Her interests include biodiversity conservation, sustainable land use, and human–nature relations.

Further Reading

Aston Philander, L. (2011). An ethnobotany of Western Cape Rasta bush medicine. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 138(2), 578–594.

Cousins, S. (2017). Renosterveld remnants of the Swartland: A rainbow of colour and rarity veiled in black. Veld & Flora, December, 158–162.

Esler, K. J., Pierce, S. M., & de Villiers, C. (2014). Fynbos Ecology and Management. Pretoria, South Africa: Briza.

Newton, I., & Knight, R. (2005). The use of a 60-year series of aerial photographs to assess local agricultural transformations of west coast renosterveld, an endangered South African vegetation type. South African Geographical Journal, 87(1), 18–27.

Winter, S., Prozesky, H., & Esler, K. (2007). A case study of landholder attitudes and behaviour toward the conservation of renosterveld, a critically endangered vegetation type in Cape Floral Kingdom, South Africa. Environmental Management, 40(1), 46–61.


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