Mzwandile Peter: A Capacity Building Program Success

Mzwandile Peter, “Zwai” to his friends and colleagues, is a Capacity Building Program success story.

Raised in a family of seven by a single mother in one of the roughest neighborhoods of Cape Town, he went on to attain a degree in horticulture. As horticulturalist with the National Botanical Institute he learned about the Table Mountain Fund's Capacity Building Program and, with its support, completed a one-year Associate in Management (AIM) certificate at the University of Cape Town.

As part of the program he also completed a work placement as a manager at the Working for Water project at Edith Stephens Wetland Park. He is now communication manager for Cape Flats Nature at the park.

Question: What does your job with Cape Flats Nature involve, and what excites you about the work you’re doing?

Answer: I’m the Communication Manager of Cape Flats Nature. This is a project that aims to develop a model for good practice for the sustainable management of the city of Cape Town’s conservation sites in a way that benefits local communities. My job involves communicating the project events and activities to a broad and diverse target audience, ranging from local communities, schools from disadvantaged communities, and the general public of Cape Town.

What excites me the most about my work is our people-centered approach, to make nature conservation relevant and meaningful to communities battling to make ends meet. I am proud of the fact that the local youth acknowledge me for inspiring them to love and care for the natural fragments that exists on front of their doorsteps.

Q. How did you get to communications from horticulture?

A. I’m still a horticulturist who has been given the opportunity to share my knowledge and love of nature. I’ve always wanted to communicate the value of caring for our natural resources to the local communities and create a sense of pride and appreciation for nature.

Q. What inspired you to become a horticulturist?

A. I’ve been fascinated with biology and the green environment since high school. And that’s been my personal driving force to bring people close to nature.

Q. You told us earlier about coming from a “disturbed background.” Did you mean all the social upheaval of the time?

A. Yes. I was born in Nyanga, one of the small townships in the Cape Flats. I’m not going to lie to you. I’ve watched some of my young mates being gangsters. The Cape Flats has a history of gangs and a history of political activism. There were a lot of chances to go into that sphere, but I stood up tall and told myself this is what I want to do. And I will definitely get there. It’s not to say I didn’t rebel like one of the youths, putting things on roads, throwing stones at government vehicles. That was that time. But I saw a different side to it too that was you could do so much other than just being politically orientated. There are other alternatives out there.

Q. You have a technical diploma?

A. Yes, I have a technical diploma in horticulture. Last year I completed a one-year management course funded by the Table Mountain Fund called AIM – Associate in Management – at the University of Cape Town’s business school. It was very, very interesting. My experience in working with people is that it requires a lot of management. Sometimes you can get management skills from experience but the technical skills, like financial management and other technical skills you need, are harder to get. Most conservationists are good in the hands-on part of their job but in terms of managing people and projects, they find it becomes difficult. I’m very lucky because I have developed and managed projects myself so I am good in that area.

Q. The Capacity Building Program aims to help people who have been traditionally disadvantaged, particularly black people and women. What do you think of that?

A. I was shocked by the advertisement in the newspaper when I first saw it. It said, “young, black or woman.” For goodness sakes! Black! It was a bit discriminating. Though I think it’s quite a dynamic, interesting approach to getting these conservation managers because previously this was a white-driven career. And let’s be honest, it still is.

In some of the companies myself and my black colleagues work for just to break barriers you have to have really light skin pigmentation to be a driving force. There’s also the possibility of people undermining you because of your background. Many people in the conservation community don’t understand the rich culture of loving the environment in the black community. I’m sure that 80 to 85 percent of local people love the environment, but they haven’t been exposed to it or had the opportunity to explore it.

That’s why I’m so proud of Edith Stephens — it brings Kirstenbosch (Botanical Gardens) to the people — and the change in mindset that we’ve seen in both local people and traditional conservationists is unbelievable.

Q. Edith Stephens has been described as a former gangland turned community oasis. Do you agree?

A. Yes. I was born about 6 kilometers away and I used to pass Edith Stephens almost every single day when I would go to Kirstenbosch or to Claremont. At the time it was a farm covered by illegal dumping. Women who worked on the farms on the other side of Edith Stephen used to tell stories of being raped when they passed down there, and it used to be a battlefield for some of the gangs. It was a very dilapidated area that didn’t do the community any good.

The transformation has been magical from an area that everyone wanted cleared to make way for housing. I remember going around the townships and people saying, 'Young man, you are still young. You do not know the history of this place. You do not know how the gangsters rob us here and how they used to fight here.' And now, the project has brought hope that out of this dump we could have something that would benefit all of us. I love that!

Q. How did you get started?

A. I started as a community liaison officer. So my initial responsibility was to spread the word out there, get the community buy-in. That was the first and biggest task I had to face at a very, very young age. The second task was to get the funding from the city of Cape Town so that we could start some job creation because that was another thing inhibiting the process. People understand what we mean by biodiversity but what will be the benefit in the end for the poverty in those townships? We hit a critical turning point for what we wanted to achieve.

The most powerful thing was that the vision for the project was not a top-down approach. It involved the communities – people just sharing ideas about what they wanted to see happening at Edith Stephens. You know what I like about the vision as well is that it is different from other conservation sites. It says recreation, conservation, education – that’s rare and it invites involvement. I like that it doesn’t solely focus on environmental education or conservation but it allows the communities to use that for other purposes as well.

That’s why we decided after refurbishing the old farm house into an environmental education center to not only allow the people to use it as an EE (environmental education) center but they can have it for their weddings, church services and things like that and it has been heavily used. I was a bit concerned two years back when all the capital buildings were constructed and there weren’t any kids.

The most important thing was to get a buzz, get people coming in and out, especially kids and I was very concerned about that – all that work and there was nothing happening but we’ve managed, we’ve managed very well.

Q. Why are parks important?

A. Especially in urban areas, there is a huge shortage of housing and you do not conserve all the spaces that you have. You need these green lands, especially the Edith Stephens Park. It’s such a remarkable area – this little wetland that serves a lot of aspects, from this threatened endemic plant species to the geophytes and hydrophytes and the needs of the community as well. You can’t put a cost on a natural asset such as that one. It’s impossible.

Q. Where do you want to go in your career after Cape Flats Nature?

A. I’ve been privileged and fortunate to work for Cape Flats Nature. The experience I’ve gained is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. I see myself heading a black-owned NGO that will drive conservation actions that relate to the social context of South Africa, specifically to our social and cultural behaviors, and that will bring real, tangible benefits to the local people.