The great coup of the Botanical Society of SA
The Kirstenbosch branch of the Botanical Society of SA led a campaign that sacked the society’s ruling council
The tranquil surroundings of the Kirstenbosch gardens in Cape Town were the backdrop for a coup that has ousted the Botanical Society of SA leadership.
The Kirstenbosch branch led a campaign that achieved majorities of at least 91% in a series of votes that sacked the society’s ruling council and dumped a constitution agreed in 2013.
Now an interim seven-person council made up of coup leaders has six months to “rebuild trust and relationships”, table missing financial statements for the past three years and hold an annual general meeting.
The trigger for the coup, which was staged at a special general meeting attended by 350 members, was the council’s centralisation and transformation agenda.
In her annual report this year, Kirstenbosch branch chair Marinda Nel said the council decision to centralise power and control at its head office – also at Kirstenbosch – had harmed the branch and led to the retrenchment of three staff members.
Nel added that branch chairs had been instructed “to no longer communicate directly with members”.
“Head office and direction of council took over the bookshop with some R500,000 worth of stock that had been managed by Kirstenbosch branch,” she said.
“Not only was it a major source of revenue, it was also a place where plant and book enthusiasts would congregate – a proud display to tourists of the prime quality of work by local authors and botanical artists.
“The lack of skilled and experienced full-time staff resulted in the cancellation of the [Kirstenbosch] plant fair – not only a major fund-raising event for the branch, but an iconic event for all passionate fynbos gardeners.”More than 60 members of the 9,500-strong Kirstenbosch branch called for a special general meeting, which went ahead two weeks ago after a council bid to halt it was defeated in the high court in Cape Town.
The 350 people at the meeting and 1,000 members who cast postal ballots voted overwhelmingly to oust the council, led by Dr Farieda Khan, and introduce an interim constitution that restores branches’ decision-making powers.
Khan, who chaired the meeting, said the ousted council still believes the Botanical Society SA’s primary stakeholder, the South African Biodiversity Institute, is obliged to work with a central authority and will not be able to establish relationships with independent branches.
She said a “distasteful and disturbing incident” took place at the meeting, which was held at the University of the Western Cape.“In addressing the audience, one female Botanical Society member had welcomed fellow members to ‘the university of the working class’, and her comment was immediately responded to by some male members of the audience, laughing and making interjections which were not audible to me as they were all sitting at the back row.
“The female member then went on to say that she hoped that the Botanical Society would soon address the issue of representivity among its membership, but was interrupted again by the same group, with interjections of ‘Your remarks are inappropriate’.”Khan said environmental NGOs could not hope to survive or thrive “if they do not respond to the relevant socio-political challenges we face as a nation”.
She added: “Continuing to hold ‘membership teas’ to reward an untransformed and narrow membership and volunteer base, while not implementing relevant strategies to transform this base, is not the way to go about it.”