Long Read | Cape Town’s garden of good and evil

The Kirstenbosch botanical garden was created through forced removals and used as a tool of propaganda for the apartheid state. How can black South Africans relate to it today?

It was a sunny summer Wednesday when I met Andrew Jacobs at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town.

I was sitting in the office lobby when Jacobs peeked his head into the hallway and asked who I was looking for. He smiled warmly when I responded with his name, leading me to his office around the corner. Now the communication officer and tour guide at the garden, Jacobs has an intimate and complex history with Kirstenbosch.

“I’m a thoroughbred Capetonian, you know? And my interest in Kirstenbosch, that wasn’t really my dream, nothing like that. As a young person, you always dream of going to college or university … that didn’t happen.” 

Jacobs’ story is one that is intertwined with the colonial construction of Kirstenbosch and Cape Town itself. The lush physical beauty of the place, resting as it does on the slopes of Table Mountain, is coupled with the violence of its making; the garden raises questions of belonging, exclusion, imperialism, nationalism and beauty. In the 1950s, black families were forcibly removed from central areas in Cape Town such as Woodstock and District Six, as well as an area neighbouring Kirstenbosch called Protea Village.

“From Protea Village, I remember I was an eight-year-old kid, [I came home and my] belongings were packed already. And so you ask your dad and your mom, ‘What’s going on? Where are we going?’ ‘We’re going to a new place.’ That’s all that was mentioned. And so we left here and went to a place called Lotus River, and we were poor. And I think so much so that we were poor already, and when we were removed we got poorer.” 

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About 10 years after his family was removed from the Kirstenbosch area, Jacobs found himself back in the garden as a young working adult. His father was employed in the nursery and he would follow him, cutting seedlings and tending the older plants. Then Jacobs met a mentor, Ernst van Jaarsveld, who had a tremendous impact on his life.

Under the guidance of Van Jaarsveld, Jacobs’ work with seedlings opened up an opportunity to travel to London in the late 1980s, at the height of apartheid, for Britain’s famous annual Chelsea Flower Show. 

A complex and contradictory relationship

For the apartheid government, the flower show played an important role in the maintenance of South Africa’s image among the international community. Through “botanical diplomacy”, it was used to humanise South Africa and demonstrate that its governing structure was producing valuable biodiversity. In displaying the various flora and developments of the garden, it could be shown that South Africa was working, that apartheid was “working”.

Jacobs describes his experience abroad as a difficult mix of overwhelming, complex and rewarding. He has been at the Kirstenbosch garden for 44 years and is two years away from retirement, and he remains critical of this relationship.

“I still love this place as is, because I saw this place grow from not having a [garden] centre, not having a conservatory, and a protea garden and so on … So I saw this garden grow, but I didn’t really grow with it. White people, they took ownership of it, and we didn’t [do] that as yet. And there’s a difference, because once you take ownership of anything, something changes: ‘No, this is ours. We should look after it better.’ And no one really explains that to you.”

9 March 2020: The marker for Van Riebeeck’s Hedge, which details the historical significance of the hedge in relation to the settlement of Cape Town.
9 March 2020: The marker for Van Riebeeck’s Hedge, which details the historical significance of the hedge in relation to the settlement of Cape Town.

The intimate binding of Jacobs’ experience with the land of Kirstenbosch and the structure of Cape Town reveals the complexity of being and belonging, of exclusion, agency and intertwinement – sometimes of the most contradictory of sorts.

Kirstenbosch’s public image and memory being one of national treasure and abundant beauty obscure the violence that made the garden possible. Prior to its establishment, Dutch settlers had arrived in the mid-1600s in the area that is now Newlands, Rondebosch, Observatory and surrounds. There were continuous clashes between the Dutch and the Khoikhoi people, who used the land Kirstenbosch was created on as grazing areas for their livestock.

Perhaps one of the most notorious historical aspects of the settlement is the establishment of Jan van Riebeeck’s hedge: the planting of almond trees and thorny bushes to act as a “protection” barrier between the settlement and the Khoikhoi. The hedge can be understood to mark European expansion and African exclusion, as well as the laying of ideological and geographical foundations for apartheid and white supremacy in Cape Town, a city and space that remain profoundly suffused with inequality.

A tool of propaganda

As the settlement expanded, it changed ownership and occupation. In 1895, Cecil John Rhodes purchased the land. After his death, much of the land he had come to own or acquire through violence was left to the government to further the colonial development of Cape Town.

It was in 1913 that the Kirstenbosch garden was established. Melanie Boehi, a historian and postdoctoral researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, has spent time considering Kirstenbosch’s narrative, history and archive for her forthcoming book, bringing forward and centring the mechanisms that have moulded its seemingly apolitical public memory as well as visibilising the histories of violence within the gardens. 

9 March 2020: The canopy walkway in Kirstenbosch, one of the garden’s major attractions with its views of Table Mountain.
9 March 2020: The canopy walkway in Kirstenbosch, one of the garden’s major attractions with its views of Table Mountain.

“[Kirstenbosch] is a space that has evolved as embedded in colonial, imperial, apartheid and post-apartheid political processes. The garden does not exist outside of politics, or in isolation of the rest of the country. It is fundamentally a political space,” she says.

Considering the public memory of the garden, a guiding question that Boehi points out is how and why Kirstenbosch has a place in the mainstream public memory as apolitical. “We have to ask who understands Kirstenbosch as an apolitical space? I doubt the African workers, the workers who lived in Protea Village and the convict labourers who were forced to work at Kirstenbosch perceived it as an apolitical space. In this context, Kirstenbosch evolved as part of colonial and apartheid politics of exploitating black people’s labour. The presence of slavery on the land of Kirstenbosch, dating back to the early occupation of the land in the 17th century, also inscribed the landscape with histories that cannot be erased. 

“When Kirstenbosch was established in 1913, it was not envisioned as an apolitical space. On the contrary, Harold Pearson, the first director, positioned his argumentation for the establishment of the new botanical garden to appeal to both proponents of British imperialism in southern Africa and to the Cape-based elite and evolving South African nationalism after the Union of South Africa was established. Pearson described Kirstenbosch’s aim as contributing to science, economic development and conservation, but importantly also to white settlers’ citizenship formation and emotional attachment to the country. The idea of Kirstenbosch as an apolitical space was primarily promoted during the apartheid era.”

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Returning to the Chelsea Flower Show, Boehi emphasises how useful a propaganda tool “botanical diplomacy” was, contextualising Kirstenbosch’s participation within this. “As the boycott in the spheres of sports, academia and cultural exchanges increased, the apartheid government organised and funded South African participation in flower shows around the world, most prominently the Chelsea Flower Show. The South African Information Service deliberately appealed to the widespread assumption of flowers and gardens being apolitical and beautiful. Kirstenbosch was the main contributor of plants to these activities, in which both plants and the garden were presented as ambassadors of South Africa. Kirstenbosch also functioned as a site of political spectacles, where festivals took place with the aim to spread positive images to white South Africans as well as visiting international guests.”

Considering “silences” in the history of work at Kirstenbosch, Boehi identifies how archival records reveal the historical presence of those who came to be classified under apartheid as coloured and black, as well as pointing out institutionalised racial hierarchies, which complicate the narrative of the garden. In her PhD dissertation on the garden, Boehi writes, “These silences concerning the presence of African workers were an expression of the racial hierarchies that shaped labour relations in the past and continue to have an impact to this day.” 

When you take a tour or walk through the garden, the various signs and plaques tell a story that is celebratory of development and omits the other shaping factors such as forced removals, slavery and apartheid. In these identifiable ways, the history of Kirstenbosch is sanitised and presented as apolitical.

Belonging and relevance

According to a statistical study done in 2010, Kirstenbosch is most frequented by white people (90%) and high-income earners (48%). It creates a feeling of alienation and exclusion that is perpetuated by things like the lack of easy public transport, the garden’s geographical location and the costly entrance fee for adults of R75 a person.

Phakamani Xaba, principal horticulturist at Kirstenbosch, points out that although there have been changes, including that the head curator and nearly all the management and staff are black, the essence of the space has yet to shift.

“It’s quite a change, although I don’t think the paradigm has changed. For me, I think with some projects we are trying to stoke that. You know, hold on, these botanical gardens that have these imperialist institutions … what is our objective? Why can’t we theorise our own reality [as advocated by Ugandan author and academic Mahmood Mamdani] and say we want to use these spaces for X, Y, Z? And this isn’t to say that everything here is wrong, but that we can shape and mould this place to be scientifically [and] culturally relevant and inclusive to all South Africans.”

Originally from Johannesburg, Xaba found his entry point into horticulture through his interest in useful indigenous plants, but it did not come without questions of belonging and relevance. It was at the KwaZulu-Natal Botanical Garden in Pietermaritzburg that Xaba initiated the project that would land him at Kirstenbosch. Now a well-established display, the Useful Plants Garden made him ask questions about ownership and knowledge creation. 

“Apart from promoting conservation and sustainable use of threatened plants due to [their] use, I also wanted black people to identify with Kirstenbosch as their space as well. The Useful Plants Garden is a collection of plants that historically were used for everything and everyday uses for food, medicine, crafts, whatever, but all indigenous.”

9 March 2020: One of the many sheltering trees in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town.
9 March 2020: One of the many sheltering trees in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town.

The Useful Plants Garden marks the first time the names of indigenous plants were standardised in labels. Xaba points out that this naming is significant as most plants in South Africa, though having local names or references, are standardised and indexed by an English or Afrikaans name. In this case, the Useful Plants Garden honours and uses the indigenous names as the standard, the institutionalised. The social and political project of the Useful Plants Garden is one way in which space can be opened up for black people to reclaim and take ownership of the remedies and uses of various plants. It is a reminder that public space is political.

Boehi notes: “The major issues with framing Kirstenbosch as an apolitical space is that the garden can then not speak to politics. In the context of colonial and apartheid legacies at Kirstenbosch and Protea Village itself – forced removals in which Kirstenbosch was complicit – and the plans of the Protea Village residents to return after a very long struggle to claim back land, the social and economic injustice affecting the whole country and the climate crisis, it is important that the garden is understood as a place from where to think about these questions. The garden does not exist outside of politics, even if it wanted to. These challenges are not unique to Kirstenbosch, and some botanical gardens have begun to work across historical nature-culture binaries with the aim to contribute to social and environmental justice in the time of the Anthropocene.”

Public space as political space

Ilze Wolff is an architect whose practice considers the politics of public space. When asked about the ethos of her work, she responded with a question that guides a great deal of it: “How do we intervene with wisdom through architecture in this highly politicised space?”

While her firm, Wolff Architects, generally designs buildings, she says the range and beauty of architecture can take on other forms. “People approach us as architects so they expect a building, but sometimes it’s not a building. Sometimes it’s a conversation, sometimes it’s a building of a lost communal practice, sometimes it’s a restoration, sometimes it’s a garden. We can build other things.”

Wolff Architects has done this kind of communal restoration work in what could be considered a celebration and funeral for the Luxurama cinema, a prominent and well-loved theatre in Wynberg that was home to local and international artists throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Wolff notes that the likes of Otis Redding, Eartha Kitt and Joan Armatrading performed at the theatre, and although it was patronised by black people, there were instances of white people painting themselves darker to attend. 

9 March 2020: The entry sign to the section in Kirstenbosch that houses numerous South African plants. They are demarcated by their indigenous names and historical use in many communities.

At the time of her firm’s intervention, the space had been vacant for 10 years and was soon going to be remade into an Islamic cultural centre. As part of the ICA Live Arts Festival in 2018, Wolff led a tour through the space that paid homage to the artists and ethos of the 1 400-seat theatre. 

Through her own work prior to and with Wolff Architects, she emphasises that the landscape of Cape Town is one of forced removals, erasures and complex histories. As such, a nuanced and multidisciplinary approach has allowed for space creation for these kinds of celebrations. Her work shows the imaginative, communal and transformative work that can be done to address justice in public space, alongside ownership and belonging.

Wolff is from Cape Town and grew up in Stellenbosch, but her relationship with Kirstenbosch hasn’t been a longstanding one. “I did not know about Kirstenbosch until I was in varsity. Our parents didn’t take us because it wasn’t allowed. We didn’t go to Kirstenbosch; we didn’t go to Table Mountain. I mean, these places were tourist places.” 

Beyond the garden’s boundaries

Presently, Kirstenbosch offers extensive scholarship programmes to all employees to study horticulture and biodiversity. It also has internships, 90% of which go to black students. Xaba says this kind of “capacity-building” allows for more pathways for black people to enter the natural sciences. Importantly, as Xaba points out, biodiversity offers economic opportunities, a sense of belonging and intellectual ownership of plants, as well as the potential to propel advancements in technology.

Werner Voigt, head curator of the garden, has thoroughly considered the pitfalls and points of restorative justice that Kirstenbosch can offer. He points out that Kirstenbosch cannot simply extend itself for relevancy by bringing people into the space, particularly black people from farther outskirts and townships of Cape Town, only for them to be transported away after three hours. Rather, Voigt emphasises that Kirstenbosch should address dispossession in a robust way.

“To cause real positive change, the environment that people live in needs to change. For me, this is a limitation of Kirstenbosch, and one of my visions is to make Kirstenbosch relevant beyond the geography and boundaries of where it’s at. And we’re not talking about creating other Kirstenbosches in other places, but the name Kirstenbosch can be relevant not necessarily with plants. 

9 March 2020: A sign explaining the uses and different names for the sour fig plant, one of many featured in the Useful Plants Garden.
9 March 2020: A sign explaining the uses and different names for the sour fig plant, one of many featured in the Useful Plants Garden.

“It can be relevant in the communities in the Cape Flats on other matters as well. It’s looking beyond plants and asking what are the needs? If it’s providing finances, if it’s building schools, if it’s setting up healthcare centres, why should we not investigate those as opportunities to cause change? It can’t just be plants, because still today it’s not a need. People want to eat, they want access to health, they want to feel safe.” 

Voigt, similar to Jacobs and Wolff, grew up in Cape Town but didn’t experience the garden until he was a young adult. He got his start in horticulture from a young age, though, being drawn to spending time in his family’s garden and in the veld of the Cape Flats. Despite being a born and bred Capetonian, Voigt’s first engagement with the garden came through an internship programme at university. In this way, his own experience is part of the larger narrative of Kirstenbosch not finding expression or relevancy to black people in Cape Town. 

Voigt says there is a space for belonging that must go beyond planting trees in memory of certain black people in the garden. “[Doing] that doesn’t bring justice,” he says. Rather, shifting the perspective and acknowledging that the space was made possible through black people can offer “positive connections” by addressing belonging and affirming space and ownership through the acknowledgement of its history.

Corrections: This piece has been changed to reflect the garden’s politics and evolution alongside political processes, as well as archival labour records.

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