Murky waters for Botanical Society

BotSoc councils Dr Lee le Roux of Simons Town.

The treasurer of the Kirstenbosch branch of the Botanical Society (BotSoc) said he was “mortified” that he could not present a treasurer’s report and that in the past year they had operated at a loss of nearly half a million rand.

This was revealed at the organisation’s AGM last week, attended by a record number of people as leadership sought to plot a way forward amid allegations of staff being poorly treated and financial uncertainty.

The meeting, attended by about 200 people, was held at the Kirstenbosch Gardens on Wednesday July 12, and was meant to offer members the chance to discuss how they wanted the committee to represent their needs and what benefits they wanted from the society.

Accusations flew and Marinda Nel had to step in at the last minute to chair the meeting.

Behind the scenes, the official chairman, Dirk Muller of Constantia, had resigned two weeks before.

Ms Nel began by providing background to the Botanical Society of South Africa and the way management worked. The land for Kirstenbosch had been granted by the government on condition that a civil society organisation was formed to support its development.

The Botanical Society was formed on June 10, 1913. It now supports 11 botanical gardens within the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and has 20 000 members across the world. The Kirstenbosch branch is the flagship with almost half,
the 9 600 members, and the garden is where the head office is based.

BotSoc is run by a council of volunteers, two of them have a botanical background. Kirstenbosch is the founding branch and is run by volunteers and seven paid staff.

Ms Nel then introduced BotSoc’s treasurer, Mike Martin. “I’m mortified that I cannot present a treasurer’s report,” he said, adding that he had not received the financials from head office. He then quoted from Mr Muller’s speech which had been delivered at the previous AGM, on August 16, last year. “This last year has been an annus horribilis for me and my long suffering committee, a number of whom have resigned or intend resigning later this year…”

Mr Martin said the past year had been even worse, with Belinda Gebhardt having resigned from the committee, followed by Bongani Mnisi who also resigned from BotSoc. He had been due to take over from Mr Muller whose term was to have ended this year.

Mr Martin said the branch made a net operating loss of R413 000 after donations to Kirstenbosch of R500 000 towards the construction of the cremnophyte wall. He attributed their losses to the branch losing income-generating ventures such as the bookshop, the craft market and the dwindling of membership levies. A levy of
R39 a membership is paid by head office to the branch. This number has not increased since 2008 despite the fact that membership levies had almost doubled in the same period. “Support for Kirstenbosch Garden is a key reason for the branch’s existence,” said Mr Martin.

During question time, someone asked BotSoc council members about finances – staff salaries, consultant fees, and what portion of income from the Kirstenbosch branch went to head office – to which council treasurer Moegamat Stenkamp responded that the audit was incomplete.

The invitation to the AGM quoted national chairman Andrew Blackmore’s open letter in the June 2017 edition of Veld & Flora (BotSoc’s magazine), in which he wrote that council aimed to “re-purpose our processes and structures for greater efficiency”.

The atmosphere in the Kirstenbosch Sanlam Hall went from icy to red hot as tempers flared, with some members being labelled “white colonialists, racist and sexist”.

The Kirstenbosch branch committee had invited council to attend the meeting and, apart from Mr Stenkamp, Dr Farieda Khan and BotSoc executive director Zaitoon Rabaney had accepted, with Council’s vice-chair, Dr Lee Le Roux speaking on their behalf.

She introduced Robyn Hey of Robyn Hey and Associates attorneys who said they had been appointed in February to amend BotSoc’s constitution and to find a comfortable way forward.

Dr Le Roux said they would not be “frivolous” changes but would address matters around human resources, financial and legal risks, reputational and social risks and the threat to endangering BotSoc’s relationships with organisations such as Sanbi and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

Dr Le Roux also said that after the plant fair was cancelled by the Kirstenbosch branch, council had offered its support and “disciplinary steps” had been taken (“Heavy hearts as Plant Fair cancelled”, Bulletin, April 20).

She said council had been advised to go through a restructuring process as there were issues with the two Kirstenbosch bookshops and employees, which posed threats to the national body. It was then that she made reference to members being “white colonials” and certain people being racist and sexist.

Mayhem broke out, calmed by Ms Nel, who then asked for questions.

Mr Martin’s comments that he was appalled at how BotSoc staff had been and were being treated, met with applause. He said of the four staff of the bookshop which had been taken over by BotSoc head office, the manager had subsequently passed away, one person accepted a settlement package and two branch staff remained until further notice.

When Bob von Witt asked about plans to terminate the employment of these staff, Ms Rabaney said the AGM was not the forum to discuss this.

Doug Cleeland added that he found the undertones from “both sides” disturbing. “Colonialism, cross currents… what I’m seeing here is unhealthy. Kirstenbosch is iconic, a world destination. I appeal to you to get this thing together. It needs leadership from both sides,” he said.

When another member asked if council had shared what they were doing, Dr Le Roux said: “We prefer to stay under the radar and did not want to air our dirty laundry in public”.

And when Claude Felbert asked why head office did not supply minutes of meetings to BotSoc members, Dr Le Roux said they were available at head office.

Asked for comment after the meeting, Mr Muller said he was not allowed to speak as he has “taken a settlement agreement”. While he did not elaborate on this, his wife Debra said if he did, he could be kicked out of BotSoc.

She added that during their 29 years of marriage she had shared her husband with Kirstenbosch BotSoc and he had been serving his third term as chair before he resigned. She added that he had been accused of bringing BotSoc into disrepute.

Philip le Roux, curator of Kirstenbosch, said although the financial support that Kirstenbosch Garden once received from the Botanical Society had dwindled in recent years, the support they received from volunteers had gone from strength to strength.

“The volunteer garden guides have, in particular, more than doubled their efforts. Visitors now have an option of joining free guided walks of the garden three to four times a day. In addition, the branch now supports the garden by providing garden guides to satisfy the ever increasing demand from the tourism industry for private guided tours.

“The service that this group of 40 fully trained and very knowledgeable guides provide is irreplaceable and much appreciated by the garden,” said Mr Le Roux.