‘What’s going on at my beloved Bot Gardens?’

2011-02-01 00:00

INTERVIEWED when he took office in early 2010, the curator of the Botanic­ Gardens in Prestbury, Gcina­ Allen Nene (30), said that his dream was to make the local Bot Gardens­ the best gardens in the country­. A year later, how are he and the gardens faring?

Despite recent phone calls and letters to the newspaper complaining about the gardens, compliments outnumber complaints in the comments book at the entrance to the gardens. Analysis reveals many of the issues and challenges that characterise a nation, and a garden, in the process of transformation (see box).

“People forget that all botanic gardens are run by a government department like any other: the South African National Biodiversity Institute [Sanbi­],” said Nene. “The difficulties that other departments experience, the ones that appear in the media all the time, are our difficulties too: budget cuts and post freezes, for example (see box). At the same time, we consume services supplied by local and regional government, just like other ratepayers, so we experience the same frustrations and problems with lack of service delivery (see box).

“Despite the challenges we face, I still believe that this is a destination of choice and the best picnic spot in the city and surrounds. My message to residents of the city is simple: we are doing the best we can with what we have. I welcome criticism, but would ask for it to be constructive and ask people to come with solutions too (see box). I also welcome involvement from citizens who want to help make these the best botanic gardens in the country. That is still my dream.”

BUDGET AND REVENUE GENERATION­

 

THE gardens’ budget has not been increased for some time and budget cuts are a frequent occurrence. “This means that even scheduled and approved maintenance work cannot be done, like fixing leaking water pipes, renovating buildings or creating new attractions,” Nene said.

One of the issues he highlighted in early 2010 was the need for Bot Gardens to generate their own revenue. He outlined plans to make the site a functions venue. This has happened, and the gardens host an average of four weddings a month. These vary in size from 150 to 400 guests, either in the revamped functions hall (the old restaurant) or a marquee. The function venue also hosts other events like small conferences. On average, these events generate R20 000 a month for the gardens.

Unfortunately, the functions also created a side effect that caused public concern: noise. Weddings were a particular headache for surrounding neighbours, so Nene and a committee representing residents in Tatham, Quince and Hillside roads thrashed out a set of guidelines for functions in the gardens. For example, weddings are now held on Saturdays only; they go on no later than 6 pm; and the marquee is set up inside a circle of trees and flower beds to cushion some of the sound. Limits are set on the noise level for loudspeaker systems, and patrons who do not comply forfeit their R2 000 deposit. “The biggest problem was the DJs who played music­ loudly and would not turn it down. Now we ban them if they will not comply with our requirements,” Nene said. To date, three DJs have been banned from hosting events in the gardens.

Kim Jones, one of the neighbours who helped draft the functions regulations in the gardens, said: “The noise was a catalyst, but the consultation process allowed us to address several issues related to events in the Bots, including their environmental impact. The noise problem has been completely sorted out and as a result of that process we have open communication and a very good relationship with Allen.”

Although the gardens’ neighbours are satisfied, some visitors are not. Nene confirmed that he personally attends to comments and complaints recorded by visitors, but “when I investigate, there are often other motives­ behind them and they often come from the same small group of people”.

One of these complaints is the noise that visitors experience with functions. “This issue highlights the cultural diversity of South Africa. There are visitors who want the garden the way they used to be: a place of peace and quiet. But to people of other cultures, noise is a part of life and they don’t notice it. Most of our weddings are black and Indian, and noise is a part of those cultures and their style of weddings.

“Those who complain about the noise can visit on other days when there is no wedding. They could also donate R20 000 a month to the gardens to replace the revenue we generate and then we’d stop holding weddings,” he smiled wryly.

Another complaint that features in the comments book is about having to pay the gardens’ entrance fee to go to the coffee shop (see box). The venue is another of Bots’ income earners, as it pays rent for the space occupied. Nene said it was Sanbi’s national policy­ to make coffee-shop patrons pay the entrance fee, but it is something he is “working on”.

Penny Hatting, owner of the Strelitzia Room restaurant said: “The gate fee is an ongoing problem that has an enormous negative impact on my business. However, I can get discounted gate fees for group bookings of 10 or more, and a further discount if they spend more than R80 a head. If smaller booked groups spend more than R100 person I am happy to give them back half of their gate fee.”

SECURITY

 

THIS has been improved by the installation of a palisade fence along Zwartkops Road and the boundary with the neighbouring church. Despite employing only two security guards, the gardens have maintained their “zero incident rate”. One security guard patrols at night, while the day guard is more like a cashier, manning the entrance gate to collect fees and provide information­.

FROM THE COMMENTS BOOK

 

• “It was lovely. We enjoyed our visit in the rain.” — Perth, Australia.

• “The toilets at the restaurant are absolutely filthy every time we come. Old ingrained dirt. Please address this.” — Willowton

• “Gorgeous, a great place for kids and families.”

• “Why can’t entrance to the coffee shop be before park entrance, or get a refund of the entrance fee if we have been to the coffee shop?”

• “Beautiful, relaxing, a piece of heaven on Earth in today’s rushed life. Thank you.” — Empangeni

• “ … stinkblaar, dodder and cats claw are taking over the gardens. What is going on at my beloved Bot Gardens?” — Johannesburg.

• “Nice view! Clean, quiet.”

FUTURE PLANS

 

DESPITE the obstacles he has encountered, Nene is still enthusiastic and holds onto the plans he outlined last year for attractions to draw people­ from different city communities to the venue, especially younger people. The first part of an adventure playground has been completed and several notes in the comments book demonstrate how much it is appreciated by parents of young children. He still has plans for a children’s garden and aims to revive two trails by the Kingfisher Lake: the Dragonfly and Damselfly trails.

“We want to host bigger and better concerts this year, including the first Mother’s Day concert organised by the SPCA. The annual BotSoc-Cansa tea party in the Plane Avenue will also be expanded and we are expecting more schools to become part of our environmental education programme,” he said.

Nene’s family has joined him in Pietermaritzburg and he and his fiancée, Nomazotsho, were married in December. Their two daughters attend a local school. Also a horticulturalist, Nomazotsho now works for the CSIR at UKZN as a research technician.

INFRASTRUCTURE ISSUES

 

ON a recent weekend, the gardens were without electricity as Msunduzi Municipality cut the supply because the rates bill was unpaid. Nene was negotiating with municipal officials over a huge water bill that was caused by undetected water leaks, but the electricity officials were not informed as “the right hand did not know what the left was doing”.

“I feel more like a municipal negotiator than the curator of a botanic garden,” Nene said.

“Like all other city ratepayers we have endless difficulty with services. There are no plans of where the water meters are, the old water pipes need repair; and we do not know which aspects of water and electricity supply are our responsibility and which are municipal.:

MAINTENANCE AND STAFFING

 

THE gardens clearly reveal a deficit of regular maintenance, especially cleaning up plant debris and weeding. Alien species have infested some beds: bug weed, ginger lily, balloon vine, mulberry and cat’s claw.

Complaints in the comments book also recorded dirty toilets on a recent weekend. Nene said they wage constant battle against invaders, but are constrained in this, as well as maintenance generally, by a lack of staff.

To maintain the 47,7-hectare site with its 12 hectares of landscaped gardens, he has two horticulturalists who supervise a grounds staff of 20 people.

“Most of the time we work with an active ground staff of 14 or 15, as two or three people are away at any one time, either sick or on leave. People living with HIV can be away for months at a time. When staff die or resign, their posts are frozen and they are not replaced.

“The grounds staff do all the maintenance, not just the gardening. So when there is a leaking water pipe, or a pathway that needs mending, we have to pull people off gardening.”

On the issue of toilets, Nene said there are staff on duty to clean them and he often checked on them himself.

He apologised to those who had experienced poor conditions and agreed to attend to it.

“Staffing is a complex issue and is my priority for this year. We are doing the best we can with the resources we have.”

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