A city’s fight for flowers

2013-08-16 00:00

IT may be hard to believe, but Pietermaritzburg was once known as the City of Flowers. Giving credence to this name was a family of flower sellers, whose buckets of colourful blooms were an indelible part of the city centre’s landscape. Today, Ram’s Flower Market celebrates 100 years of trading in the city.

There is a special bond between cities and their flower sellers, but none more special than the unique history shared between Ram’s Florists and Pietermaritzburg. It is a story of sheer determination, goodwill and the power of the human spirit — where an entire city came out fighting for its flower seller. The story shows up the absurdity of the old Group Areas Act and serves as a reminder that the residents of Pietermaritzburg can be a feisty bunch.

Retired businessman Ron McDonald will tell you that Ram’s Florists is able to celebrate 100 years of existence today because of the sheer determination and hard work of George Ram and his family. George believes today’s anniversary is as much a celebration for the city that stood by him in his lengthy battle over the Group Areas Act — to gain the right to trade in the city centre. It was a battle played out in the pages of The Witness and which at times threatened to close the business.

The family business started in 1913 when Poornamasie Ram, at the age of 15, came to Pietermaritzburg from Durban and started selling flowers in the city streets to earn a living. He soon moved to a more permanent spot in Theatre Lane and from there the flower seller had pride of place trading outside the city hall from 1931 to 1938. The next move was to the market square (Freedom Square), where the city council erected a flower selling stand for the family.

Poornamasie had seven children with his wife Ethwari, and it became clear that the flower seller wanted a better life for his four sons and three daughters. His son Sewbarath, who died in 2006, became a highly qualified physicist and had to settle in Canada in the early seventies because he could not find any work in South Africa. Son Mahanand went to work in the botany department at the then University of Natal and George worked at Eddels Shoe factory and his youngest son, the late Satyapal, helped out at the flower stall.

In 1965, Poornamasie died in an accident while bringing a consignment of fresh flowers up from Durban. George had a difficult decision to make: whether to continue the family business. He grew up helping his father so he knew what to do and he was encouraged by his eldest brother to keep the business going.

Little did George know at the time what a challenge this would become. By 1968, the government of the day began enforcing the Group Areas Act in Pietermaritzburg. This act stipulated that the different race groups had to live and do business in specially demarcated areas. By 1971, Ram’s Florist had been given notice that they had to vacate their site in the Market Square because an Indian-owned business could not trade in a white area. George put up a fight and was granted an extension until August that year, when he was forced to move. The Natal Witness carried a story headlined “Sad parting from market”. The business was forced to relocate to a small shop in Retief Street, but the move meant that it lost most of its customers. So began a lengthy battle for survival. By 1972, the Pietermaritzburg city council joined the fight, no doubt encouraged by a slew of letters from residents protesting the closure of the flower stall. E.M. Stephenson wrote: “It is unbelievable that the council can let them be banished by the stroke of a ministerial pen in this heartless fashion.” The newspaper took an unprecedented step of publishing poetry by readers on the closure of the stall. There were also some imaginative headlines: “What a blooming shame”, and, “Hope flowers for family’s business”.

For the mayor at the time, Cecil Wood, it was absurd that Pietermaritzburg could not have its flower seller, when the ruling did not apply “in either Pretoria or Cape Town where non-white flower sellers were allowed to carry on their business in white areas”.

Through 1972, the council made numerous appeals to the Department of Community Development, but all were in vain. Over the next three years, the council’s time was preoccupied with the building of the new library next to the city hall and the issue of the flower sellers faded into the background. This was when the business managed to survive through the goodwill of fellow citizens. George said that Ron McDonald, who ran a gardening business, offered them space on his premises. City architect the late Michael Dyer, who was a friend of George’s brother Mahanand, spoke to the Mullinos family, who owned the Lounge Tea Room in Commercial Road. They allowed Ram’s Florists to sell their cut flowers from the three tiers of steps outside the shop. Marje Mullinos remembers the family as extremely hardworking: “Even the eldest brother, a professor in physics, would roll up his sleeves and sell flowers whenever he came to South Africa on holiday,” she recalled.

By 1976, the library was built and there was a sparkling new fountain in the space between the library and the city hall, known as Ndhlovu Square. However, it all appeared soulless and the council decided it wanted its flower sellers back to add a splash of colour to its latest architectural feats. Council made a fresh application for a permit for Ram’s Florist. The permit was refused and the front page of The Witness carried a photograph of a dejected George looking at the refusal letter. Councillors were angry. Robin Perrin said the refusal was an insult to the capital. Mike Woollam described the move as incredibly stupid.

A decision was taken to send a delegation to then minister of Community Development, Marais Steyn. A resolution was also passed that if the delegation did not get any satisfaction, the council should take the matter to the Supreme Court. The delegation proved successful and by May 1977, George had his permit.

This inspired a poem published in The Witness and the newspaper carried an editorial headlined “Bumbledom”, that slated bungling bureaucrats.

Today Ram’s Florist has a number of outlets in the city and is being run by George’s daughter, Sohana Ram.

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