Despite the odds, green shoots of hope are growing in South Africa

One year ago, when the scale of the challenges ahead of a pre-COVID-19 South Africa was not clear, a group of inspiring people came together in Salt River, Cape Town, to meet with the local community.

The annual International Public Art Festival was coming up in February 2020, and NGO partners Progress and Bazart, as well as Tuba Films and UNICEF South Africa wanted to create something new, something revolutionary, something impactful.

Drawing inspiration from a similar project in London, the team undertook a year-long project to transform disused parts of the city into community gardens and safe play areas through public art, gardening and film making.

Hope amidst adversity

Despite the immense difficulties that emerged in the wake of COVID-19, and out of the adversity of this past year, this is a story of hope and renewal, as children transformed discarded and unused spaces in their communities into food gardens and safe havens to gather and play.

Three communities were identified, with sites in an urban area of Salt River, a Safe Park in Soweto and a plot on the grounds of a rural school in Durban.

A young girl waters plants inside a community garden
© Progress South Africa/2020/Thurlo McKieOn a Saturday afternoon, a young girl waters the Salt River Community Garden in Salt River, Cape Town.

Throughout the project, artists sourced by Bazart worked with residents to paint murals based on the theme of “digital space”. Tuba Films trained six young people in film making, two from each project site, who went on to document the duration of the project and the transformation of their safe spaces and local communities.

The Progress team worked with residents on gardening, to learn about good nutrition and how to improve nutritional intake through community-level food production. As the projects took off, people started by clearing the ground and removing rubbish. Young people received training on how to create a food garden from an unused space, how to produce seeds and to nurture the ground for a sustainable and food-diverse garden. As time progressed, crops such as kale, spinach, carrots, beans, tomatoes and beetroot flourished.

Then lockdown hit

In response to the spread of COVID-19, the South African government placed strict restrictions on movement and as the economy ground to a halt, millions of South Africans lost their livelihoods. The socio-economic fallout from the pandemic has threatened the wellbeing of many more and hunger continues to stalk the streets.

A man tends to rows of plants in a community garden
© Progress South Africa/2020/Thabang MazibukoGreen Champion, Benjamin, tends to the organic crops in the children’s food garden in Freedom Park, Soweto. The space is used to empower the local youth and is a source of nutritious food.

But despite the lockdown the three gardens under the project continued to flourish and through the employment of young people and women, communities were able to include water tanks and handwashing stations at the food gardens to help protect against the spread of COVID-19.

The creation of these food gardens meant that young people not only improved their educational knowledge about nutritional issues, but the spaces also provided cheap and easy access to healthy crops that they had already grown.

The spirit of ‘Ubuntu’ – togetherness

I remember the reactions of young and old people, all saying that the process of creating the gardens empowered them and transformed their lives, as they are now home gardening and they had access to more food during lockdown.

They also highlighted how they love to bring their children to the gardens, areas that used to be no-go zones, with high rates of substance abuse and crime. People are proud of their gardens and it has built a cohesive community, recreating a spirit of ‘Ubuntu’ – a togetherness – at a time when it is needed most.

As we reimagine a safer, fairer and better South Africa for every child and build back better from the devastation wrought by the coronavirus, community gardens like these can play their role.

Not only through the production of nutritious food but through the safety they provide for children to learn and grow, through the skills and employment they provide and through the partnerships they forge between different and diverse groups of people.

The goal now is to expand the programme and to empower 25,000 young people at forty sites across the country by the end of 2022.


Mayke Huijbregts is Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF South Africa

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  1. This as an amazing and transformative project that will empower many youths that otherwise,under the Covid-19 pandemic ,would have turned into substance addiction by way if peer influence. Congratulations to all those who collaborated with UNICEF to make this dream alive.