Botanical gardens education in the new South Africa: towards just provision of educational opportunity

Joel Mkefe & Ally Ashwell

National Botanical Institute, Private Bag X7, Claremont, Cape Town 7735, South Africa

Part 1: The experience and legacy of apartheid education

By Joel Mkefe

This paper aims to share experiences and relate real issues that have affected education in the past in South Africa. Traces are still hard to remove from the present South African education system. I will start by sharing what I experienced both as a scholar and student under what was termed "Bantu Education", and later as a teacher during the period of transition from the apartheid system to our new democracy.

Bantu Eucation

Let me first explain that this was a system of education which did not happen accidentally but which was carefully planned and meant for Black South Africans. The education system was designed to make sure that Black people stopped thinking critically. If I may quote the words of Dr Verwoerd, a previous Minister of Native Affairs from the opening debate in Parliament in 1953:

Bantu relations cannot improve if the wrong type of education is given for Natives. They cannot improve if the result of Native education is the creation of frustrated people who, as a result of the education they receive, have expectations in life which circumstances in South Africa do not allow to be fulfilled immediately, when it creates people who are trained for professions not open to them.

When there are people who have received a form of cultural training which strengthens their desire for the white-collar occupations to such an extent that there are more such people than openings available. Therefore, good racial relations are spoiled when the correct education is not given.

What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? What is the use of subjecting a Native child to a curriculum which, in the first instance, is traditionally European?

I just want to remind Honourable Members that if the Native inside South Africa today, in any kind of school in existence, is being taught to expect that he will live his adult life under a policy of equal rights, he is making a big mistake.

(Suzman, H. 1993 pp34-5)

From that year, State funding of Black schools was drastically reduced. There was a dominating, powerful bureaucracy of inspectors, principals and teachers. A teacher would teach in order to meet the demands of the syllabus, rather than to respond to children's needs.

The experience of Bantu Education

Schools were poorly resourced, having no laboratories, scientific apparatus or sports fields. We were expected to use public sport fields in our communities. I remember that, when we "did" experiments, we did not actually do them, but memorized them. For example, if you mix carbon dioxide with lime-water it will turn milky—we would sing that off by heart, not even aware of what lime-water was or what it looked like.

Black colleges and universities were much like schools themselves. Student teachers were concerned more with learning to pass exams and obtaining a certificate than with learning to become an effective teacher. When new teachers got to schools they had little to offer and little experience of practical teaching, so they simply reverted to the way in which they had been taught. They depended on the text-book as the sole source of information and just summarised notes for the children, making them memorise them (by rote learning) and reproduce what they had told them, with no room for discovery learning or learning through play. Huge classes, averaging 60 pupils, were one hindrance that caused the school not to have time for extra-mural activities. By 2 pm teachers would be so tired that they would not want to do anything else but go home.

There was, and still is, no coordinated in-service teacher development offered by the Education Department. For example, while I was teaching, there was only one science subject-adviser for more than 300 Black primary and high schools in the Western Cape. The inspector would therefore concentrate on matriculation teachers only, and the rest would suffer. Whatever was offered was provided by non-governmental organisations, which played a very significant role in aiding and equipping teachers with the necessary support.

The legacy of Bantu Education

A perception developed that education occurs in the classroom only, and that the quantity of written work was more important than the quality of work and level of understanding of pupils. Bantu education created a "Uflat picture" or text-book reality. There was little or no relationship between learning and life. For example, I would know a stigma, style and ovary from a text-book, but never imagined that they existed in the flowers of the plants I walked past daily.

Worse still, nature conservation and environment were seen as "White things", because accommodation in game reserves and other resorts had for many years been reserved for Whites only. The fact that a White man would travel in a pickup with his dog on the passenger seat and the Black person on the back, sent a message to people that animals were more important than Blacks.

Now that we have a new democracy in South Africa, all of us, whether individually or as members of institutions, need to decide how we shall respond in order to redress the imbalances of the past.

Part 2: The NBI's vision and response

By Ally Ashwell

A vision for environmental education in the NBI

One way in which the NBI can help to address the issues and challenges raised by Joel Mkefe is through the establishment of environmental education programmes in our eight National Botanical Gardens. Since 1992, education officers have been employed in three Gardens, namely Kirstenbosch, Witwatersrand and Pretoria. By the end of the year 2000 AD we aim to have at least one, and preferably two, education officers in each Garden. These education officers run a variety of programmes focusing on different needs and issues. None are all-encompassing in their effect, but we are making a start—and are committed to learning from experience.

Before I introduce you to some of the programmes, I would like to share our vision of environmental education. Environmental education has been described as a response to the environmental crisis. So our understanding of the term 'environment' will in large measure determine the form our environmental education programmes take. In South Africa, as Joel's talk will have indicated, it is impossible to view the environment simply as an ecological or physical entity. People's lives have been so deeply affected by the political economy of Apartheid that the environmental priority to be addressed is that of social justice.

We view the environment as being social and ecological in nature, and the role of environmental education as addressing the linked issues of ecological sustainability and social justice. The botanical gardens in which we work provide the themes and resources which give content to our interactions, but the wider context of South Africa in transition provides the challenge which inspires us as educators.

The political system for which South Africans have fought is a participatory democracy. Yet the demands of such a system on the citizenry are enormous. Effective participation requires access to information and resources, clarity in terms of the issues at stake and options available, confidence in oneself and one's opinions, and skills of communication, decision-making and problem-solving.

We believe that, within the context of our botanical gardens, the provision of quality education programmes can contribute to the development of an informed, critical and confident citizenry equipped to participate in decision-making about our shared resources towards a sustainable future.

Issues to be addressed: access to information and resources

The Kirstenbosch outreach bus, provided by the Anglo-American De Beers Chairmans Fund, and sponsorships raised to provide educational visits for pupils, are making the Gardens more accessible to first-time visitors. In this way we are addressing the issue of access to these resources, so that people can in future make informed choices about visiting the Gardens. In fact, from February to the end of August (1996), the bus has transported 8,800 pupils to Kirstenbosch, the vast majority of whom have been first-time visitors.

Providing career programmes opens up options for pupils about future employment. We see this as a particularly important initiative for the NBI in addressing its affirmative action policy.

Production of low-cost resource materials provides accessible information on our Gardens and indigenous plants. In some cases these materials are produced in collaboration with other organisations, teachers or our part-time education officers. Educational guides to the Gardens put knowledge into the hands of the learners, who are then able to take responsibility for finding out about their surroundings.

Issues to be addressed: appropriate educational approaches

Getting over the legacy of apartheid education and an authoritarian political system means challenging some ingrained habits of teachers. Part-time education officers help the full-time staff to run guided educational visits, and make it possible to offer programmes which are more pupil-centred and oriented to group work than simply being guided tours. Making choices about our education practice, such as between a teacher-centred guided tour and a group-orientated enquiry process, reflects our commitment to challenging those practices which entrench old power-relationships.

Bill Graham from the Birmingham Botanic Garden, UK visited Kirstenbosch at the beginning of this year, courtesy of the British Council, and provided us with a capital of ideas on issues-based approaches which we have been using to encourage critical thinking and debate in the groups. These approaches have helped us to put our vision of environmental education into practice, through activities that clearly show the social and ecological nature of the environment.

Teaching in a garden provides rich opportunities for integrated studies, active, hands-on learning, experiential approaches and learning through fun. Developing an enthusiasm for learning is essential if we wish to rebuild a culture of learning in our country, where many years of disrupted education have resulted in a demoralised and disinterested school community. Furthermore, providing outdoor learning opportunities helps pupils to start reassessing their ability to learn from first-hand observations and discussions, and not simply from the text-books upon which many teachers are completely dependent.

Issues to be addressed: building effective networks

Small staff numbers, such as one or two officers per Garden, could pose a problem in terms of effectiveness, but running collaborative programmes with other environmental and science education organisations has proved to be the best way of ensuring that Garden visits take place in a context of ongoing contact and follow up. A good example of this is Joel's work with the Primary Science Programme, a group that has contact with all primary science teachers in Black schools in the Western Cape Province. Programmes run at Kirstenbosch do not take place in a vacuum, but are part of an ongoing programme of teacher professional development.

All our education officers participate actively in the Environmental Education Association of Southern Africa (EEASA) network, through which we keep in touch with developments in environmental education in southern Africa. Our centres provide meeting places for EEASA gatherings, and, through this, many collaborative programmes have been initiated.

At this time of reconstruction and development, curriculum and qualifications systems are being completely revised. NBI education officers are playing a proactive role in curriculum development, by participating in curriculum forums and resource-material development initiatives. We hope in this way to advise on the incorporation of themes and topics that will enliven and localise the teaching of botany and environmental education in schools.

Issues to be addressed: capacity building

When the African National Congress came to power in 1994 it instituted a nation-building initiative known as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). Although the Programme has been criticised for lack of delivery, we believe that the spirit of the RDP should inspire us all to rebuild the country and the capacity of its people. As educators, we see our involvement in the RDP as contributing-to teacher professional development.

We both offer and host workshops for teachers on a variety of topics, including environmental education, professional development in botany, and planting and propagating plants in school grounds.

Our own staff also require opportunities for further professional development in this broad and ever-widening field. Therefore an annual NBI Educators Week is organised to discuss education issues in all eight National Botanical Gardens. Monthly enrichment programmes are organised, at which full- and part-time staff either attend an informative lecture or outing or work together to develop, evaluate and refine their programmes and materials.

In the last two years, Suzelle van der Westhuizen, education officer at the Witwatersrand Garden has been organising regular monthly enrichment programmes for the labourers in the garden, to deepen their understanding of the sections in which they work, and of topics of general interest in the Garden. This highlighted a need for literacy training, which is now being addressed, with the gardeners attending classes for an hour a day.

Community-based action

Finally, significant opportunities for learning how to participate as active citizens in a democratic society come from actually addressing issues in our communities. Through the experience of planning, negotiating and taking action, we learn to work as partners in improving living conditions in our communities.

We believe that one of the things we need to develop further with the resources and expertise available to us in the NBI, is support for schools which want to develop their grounds. The mission of the NBI is to conserve and promote indigenous plants. Through the development of indigenous gardens, schools can help to conserve local plants and act as green nodes in a web of urban nature reserves. These gardens in turn provide teaching and learning opportunities, both in terms of materials for study and as a focus for sustained local action.


One of the reasons why we have come to this Congress is to learn from the experiences of others who have gone so much further than us along this road. We hope to return home with clearer vision and greater determination to continue addressing the environmental and educational challenges of the new South Africa through our programmes in the National Botanical Gardens.


Suzman, H (1993). In no uncertain terms. Jonathan Ball, Cape Town.

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