100 years and still growing

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By John Yeld

Cape Town - It’s officially the Botanical Society of South Africa, but this much-loved organisation – the largest membership-based environmental non-government group in the country – is almost universally called just plain BotSoc.

And as it enters its centenary year, it’s looking back with pride at 100 years of helping to protect the subcontinent’s globally unique and wonderfully rich plant diversity, but also forward at the challenges ahead – not least that of transforming itself to become truly representative of South African society.

Its conservation track record speaks for itself, in the natural veld and in the establishment and maintenance of the country’s nine formal botanical gardens now under the auspices of the SA National Botanical Institute (Sanbi).

In fact, the society’s raison d'être was the creation of the world-famous Kirstenbosch botanical garden in 1913. This land was left to the nation by Cecil John Rhodes, but the government of the day would only agree to the establishment of a new botanical garden if an appropriate civil society organisation was formed to assist with the venture and to help with the garden’s upkeep and maintenance.

So a public meeting was held in 1913 where it was resolved to establish a national botanical society with the specific objective of raising funds to augment government spending on a garden. And three weeks later, the government handed control of Kirstenbosch – then a derelict farm – to a statutory board of trustees chaired by the then Chief Justice, Baron de Villiers, for the creation of the National Botanic Garden of South Africa.

That’s why BotSoc celebrates its 100th birthday on June 10 while Kirstenbosch came into being on July 1, explains Zaitoon Rabaney, BotSoc’s executive director.

Now boasting 16 branches and more than 20 000 members – most in SA but some in other countries – the society has faithfully kept its pact with the government, helping to make Kirstenbosch one of the world’s most prominent gardens.

It has also helped create and maintain the other eight national botanical gardens around the country: Harold Porter at Betty’s Bay; Karoo desert garden at Worcester; Free State garden in Bloemfontein; Walter Sisulu garden in Roodepoort; Pietermaritzburg garden; Lowveld garden in Nelspruit; Pretoria garden; and the Hantam garden at Nieuwoudtville.

Not surprisingly, given its founding association with arch-colonialist Rhodes, it’s probably fair to say that the society’s early decades were characterised by a membership that didn’t dig its own fingernails too deeply into the soil, although of course this didn’t lessen their very real financial contributions.

As late as the 1950s, the Kirstenbosch branch of the society was dominated by an upper-class social set, as one of its most illustrious members, Dr John Rourke, explained last year when he received the society’s highest honour of honorary life membership and a gold medal for “exceptional services”.

When he’d joined in 1957, the society’s sole function had been to raise funds for the management of Kirstenbosch, Rourke recalled. “It was very much a garden party society, and the big events were visits to members’ gardens with fabulous spreads of scones and cakes. There was no talk of indigenous flora.”

But BotSoc started changing in line with the growing international environmental consciousness of the 1960s. Major changes included an emphasis on the cultivation of indigenous plants, promoted through the society by supplying free seeds to members; the introduction of the still highly popular wildflower shows; and the transformation of the society’s annual journal, Veld & Flora, into a vibrant quarterly magazine.

And the organisation has since become involved in numerous conservation and education programmes, projects and initiatives, within the national botanical gardens and elsewhere in South Africa.

“The research shows that back in the old days, it was the BotSoc that did so much to help with the upkeep of the gardens, and it was only much later that things changed and government also came on board with grants. So the society had a very important role to play then,” says Rabaney.

Since 1994 and the establishment of Sanbi that replaced the National Botanical Institute, there’s been bigger government support for biodiversity conservation, and BotSoc’s role has also expanded significantly.

“Our work is now much more than just helping to look after botanical gardens – we feed into national biodiversity conservation programmes,” says Rabaney.

She points to the recognition of this expanded role in the society’s 2005 Mail & Guardian Greening Award.

“We’re now doing much more meaningful work in the field of conservation – for example, we established a strong conservation unit in 2000, and that had a good innings until 2009/10 with a good platform of support with GEF (Global Environment Facility) funding and the CAPE programme.

“And moving forward, we’re definitely taking global plant strategies conservation into account, and we’ll continue supporting Sanbi with a mandate of plant conservation through initiatives like the Crew (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers) programme and stewardship work and so on.”

Because of its close relationship with Kirstenbosch, BotSoc and Sanbi have jointly planned a year-long, nation-wide centenary celebration programme, starting today with the launch of Professor Brian Huntley’s book Kirstenbosch.

Two outreach projects in this programme are particularly close to Rabaney’s heart: the Silver Tree Restoration project in conjunction with SA National Parks that includes propagation at Kirstenbosch, and an art project in association with the Frank Joubert School of Art and previously disadvantaged schools that includes visits to Kirstenbosch, art and conservation workshops, the creation of vegetable gardens at some schools and the painting of murals at others.

And BotSoc will not be shying away from the shameful “Group Areas” forced removal of people of colour – many of whom worked at Kirstenbosch – from Protea Village just across the road from the gardens.

The society has invited committee members of Provac (Protea Village Action Group) to take part in the centenary celebrations as a way of acknowledging the painful past.

“We have a good history of 100 years, even though the society started as a colonialist white elitist group. We need to take this history on board, embrace it, take stock of where we are now and see how we can collectively work toward making a more inclusive future, for all our kids.” - Cape Argus

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