The new vision required both conceptual and physical foundations. Across South Africa, workshops were held to assess the opinions of community leaders in townships – many of these still deeply scarred by the factional violence of the 1970s and 1980s. A strong partnership had already been established with a new NGO, Trees for Africa (TFA), which targeted the environmental needs of impoverished townships. Gradually a coherent programme was crafted, with the technical expertise available in the NBI’s gardens, and the fund-raising and social-engagement skills of TFA forming a successful model for moving from garden to community.
One of Nelson Mandela’s early associations with Kirstenbosch was the launch of a school greening project at Alexander Sinton High in 1992.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Road Trips Photo Gallery
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An early project involved one of the leading schools of the Cape Flats, Alexander Sinton High School, where Kirstenbosch assisted in establishing an indigenous garden, opened by president-to-be Nelson Mandela in 1992.
An early photograph shows the Nature Study School, built in 1938, and now serving as an events venue – the Sanlam Hall.
The new ‘environmental education’ model needed an appropriate home base. The Nature Study School, built in 1970, was a rather grim, concrete blockhouse, needing a serious face-lift to make it more welcoming and user friendly. Government funds were not available, but the long association between Kirstenbosch, Cecil Rhodes and Gold Fields of South Africa Ltd, of which Rhodes was a founder, helped secure generous funding from the Gold Fields Foundation in 1992, with R450 000 being made available to renovate the building. An additional grant of R250 000 was received from the Douglas Murray Trust to develop a children’s ‘Discovery Centre’ in the building and to employ two education officers to replace those previously funded by the Cape Provincial Administration. By the end of 1993, a vibrant Environmental Education Centre was operational, with Alice (Ally) Ashwell installed as Education Officer.
One of the Garden’s many stalwarts, Stella Petersen was the first ‘previously disadvantaged’ woman to earn a Master’s degree in botany from UCT, and was a protegee of Edith Stephens (see also pages 36 and 160). Petersen, whose warmth and charm made her a favourite among the younger visitors, was an active volunteer at Kirstenbosch from the inception of the volunteer programme until her 87th year. Her lifelong contribution as teacher and conservationist was rewarded with an honorary doctorate from her alma mater in 2011. She especially enjoyed the quip of one youngster – ‘Granny, you look old, you walk old, but you don’t talk old’.
Kirstenbosch was again fortunate to have inspired and passionate leadership, this time to develop its new environmental education programme. Ashwell set about formulating programmes to comply with the new curricula, while ensuring fun-filled, practical, hands-on sessions where learners could engage with indigenous plants and their ecology by touching, smelling, observing, recording and analysing information about them