“We are people of the soil, me and my family,” says Charles Jaftha, standing beside buckets filled with the kaleidoscopic bunches of dahlias for which Jaftha’s Flower Farm is famous in Cape Town. We are talking in the shade of the farm’s wooden outbuildings in the suburb of Constantia on a warm summer day. To reach the flower-selling area, visitors walk past spacious coops of large brown hens and petite white ducks and beneath plum trees dripping (literally) with ripe purple fruit. If you arrive early enough, “fresh eggs are available,” adds Charles. The plums are given away. Local florists, caterers, and well-informed AirBnB guests find their way down sandy Brounger Road daily (except Sundays) to buy bunches of pristine blooms, whose freshness is unrivalled.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
The farm’s vivid flower beds are bisected by a shallow stream a few feet wide. The fields are unfenced and anyone can wander through the flowers.
The Jaftha family’s connection to this land is bone-deep, spanning generations during which Brown and Black South Africans were systematically marginalized and excluded from land ownership as a result of the intricate laws that made Apartheid’s racist architecture formidable. The unassuming farm is equal parts hardworking horticultural wonderland and a window through which one may glimpse South Africa’s painful history. That the Jafthas work the earth here at all is against the odds of South Africa’s Apartheid-era legacy, which persists even 28 years into the country’s first democracy.
Charles and his brother Malcolm Jaftha are fifth-generation flower growers. Charles looks like their father, Moses Jaftha, whose almost 40-year farming legacy the two men are continuing. Malcolm is the gardener, steeped in his father’s craft of raising flowers for market. Charles tends the business side of their farm. The patriarch died on December 26th, 2020, from COVID-19 contracted while he was hospitalized for diabetes. Mr. Jaftha, known as Moos, was a leading light in his community, and a founding member of the Constantia Heritage Education Project (CHEP), whose vision is to preserve and tell the stories of the people who used to live in Konstansie, as the fertile Constantia Valley was known. Apartheid broke up the diverse community of self-sufficient smallholders who grew gardens and raised animals here in what Charles describes as “one big family.”
Constantia today is affluent. It is wine estates, riding stables, exclusive restaurants, and wealthy homes sheltered behind high walls and tight security. Demographically, it is overwhelmingly white. Moses Jaftha “was the living bridge between the vibrant community life in Constantia before the forced removals and the painful time after,” wrote Ernestine Deane, a musical artist and member of CHEP, in tribute to Oom Moos when he died. Of the flower farm she said, “His being there gave us permission to return. It is the only place in Constantia where I feel well and easy, where I am without anger…”
The Jaftha brothers were born a stone’s throw away into a flower-growing tradition. Their maternal grandfather grew flowers for market, and their father’s mother was a flower seller. In 1969, when their father was 25, the family was uprooted. The notorious Group Areas Act, a series of laws designed by the white Nationalist government to divide people not just by color but from their own communities, legalized forced removals. The extended Jaftha family was relocated to new, and separate, barren blocks of flats on the distant and sandy Cape Flats. “Their plan was to split the families,” says Charles, mildly. “It was inhumane.”
With no access to land, the family’s animals, flowers, and trees stayed behind. But Mr. Jaftha saved tubers and took cuttings, giving some to friends for safekeeping. The plums that greet guests on arrival are scions of those trees. The tall fig trees are from cuttings he collected far and wide, in search of the different varieties that once were prolific here. His wife Helen still makes traditional green fig preserve from the unripe green figs. And “these bulbs,” Charles says, gesturing towards the jewel-hued dahlias, “have been in the family since the 1960s.”
How did the Jaftha’s return to the land? Friendship. In the 1970s the corner butcher shop (now a pub called Peddlars) was bought by their former neighbor, André Badenhorst. As a young man Mr. Badenhorst, who is white (and a winemaker), had farmed beside the brothers’ maternal grandfather, Charlie, before the forced removals. He transformed the shop into the Old Cape Farmstall and Butchery, and Mr. Badenhorst employed his friend Moses Jaftha as a blockman (butcher). He also leased a hectare of land behind the farmstall and grew strawberries. When the butchery side of the business closed, Mr. Badenhorst and Mr. Jaftha agreed that Mr. Jaftha would grow flowers on the land. “But because there could be potential problems with race and the leasing of municipal land, I kept the lease in my name,” wrote Mr. Badenhorst in Afrikaans in an email to me. After 1994, and South Africa’s first free election, that precaution was no longer necessary.
Today, as we walk through the farm, Malcolm explains that the water table is very high here, and the dahlias must be lifted in winter to prevent them from rotting. (In normal rain years, the autumn and winter months of May through August are when the Cape is at its wettest and most lushly green.) He has plans to grow native native arum lilies (calla lilies to Americans) in the soggiest winter patches. But even in the wet season the cut-flower business persists, with narcissus, ranunculus, and Iceland poppies relishing the cool weather.
But a recent drought left scars. Cape Town experienced a water crisis from 2015 through 2018 (it was considered over only in 2020), when an extreme drought led to severe water restrictions. The Jafthas lost the bulk of their dahlias. Their red spidery dahlia, once the most prolific and popular flower, now occupies only two rows in bloom.
With his dog Buster trotting at his feet, Malcolm moves between the rows, giving instructions to gardeners. To feed their flowers, they spread pelleted chicken manure across the fields. They also use a liquid mix of guano and water “to keep the young dahlias’ leaves green,” he says, with an occasional boost of synthetic 3:1:5 fertilizer.
A gardener is deadheading what look like perfect dahlia blooms, and when I ask, he says they are not fit for market, being too open. With permission, I gather them greedily. The brothers’ standards are very high. In my Brooklyn neighborhood they would be sold at a premium.
Before I leave, and after buying bunches of the glorious dahlias (to supplement my gleaned flowers), I ask Charles how the Jafthas would like to be identified. The Apartheid regime classified people obsessively—and with dire consequences—according to skin color. “They called us Coloured,” he says. “They called us Brown people. Once we were not white enough, and sometimes now we feel we are not Black enough.”
“We would like to be called Africans. Because we belong to Africa.”
In the Constantia home where I grew up, the Jaftha’s dahlias light up my mother’s kitchen. The flowers remind me that the land I grew up on probably has another story to tell.
For more on South African gardens, see: