From Cape Flats nature lover to Kirstenbosch curator: Meet Werner Voigt

2019-06-05 07:47
Werner Voigt, new curator of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden (Supplied)

Werner Voigt, new curator of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden (Supplied)

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Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden has a new curator in the form of Cape Flats-born Werner Voigt who has turned his life-long love of plants into a successful career. 

Born in Elsies River, Voigt's family later moved to Eerste River, which was not as built-up as it is today, where he wandered about admiring everything from fynbos to vygies. 

"Our house was one of the first to be built there, and my dad and I used to take long walks," said Voigt after the South African National Botanical Institute (Sanbi) announced his appointment.

Monday was his first day on the job. 

He attributes his love of plants and the outdoors to his late mother, Elizabeth who died in a car accident in 2010, and father Nolan. 

Voigt said his mother was an avid gardener, and with his parents' love of the outdoors, the family regularly went on long walks and camping trips. 

He chuckled when asked if his mother was of the generation that put plant snip-offs in their handbags while on outings. "That's exactly what she did, much to our embarrassment."

But it was from watching his mother coax those snip-offs to life that his interest was piqued.

'I loved to watch things grow'

Sometimes, his heart sinks when he sees how neglected parts of the Cape Flats are, but at the same time, he has seen people making huge efforts to conserve the vegetation and keep some areas clean, and that pleases him.

Voigt replaces Philip le Roux who died in a cycling accident in December.

He has been with Sanbi for 19 years and interned at Kirstenbosch in 1998 and 1999.

He has a National Diploma in Horticulture from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, as well as a B-Tech in Horticulture from the University of South Africa.

READ: Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden curator dies after cycling accident 

Voigt said he was not your average teenager and made compost out of old tea bags.

"I was a bit of a loner. I just loved to watch things grow." 

It seemed a natural progression after he finished high school to study horticulture and as chance would have it, he interned at Kirstenbosch in 1998. 

Got engaged at Kirstenbosch's The Dell

Sanbi says that since then, he has spent time at Kirstenbosch as a horticulturist as well as at the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden in Betty's Bay as a curator.

He was also based at the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden in Worcester for 13 years - the first five years as a horticulturist and the last eight as curator - where he was responsible for the overall management of the garden and its staff.

"I feel like I have come full circle," said Voigt.

He added that he loved Kirstenbosch, saying he proposed to his now wife Carmen in The Dell, which has a cool stream, huge fig tree and cobbles dappled in sunlight.

His wife and three children will remain in Worcester until the end of the year.

Voigt, in the meantime, is enjoying spending time with his father again now that he is back in Cape Town.

'Servant of the garden' 

He stresses that loving nature is not the same as looking after a vast heritage and scientifically important garden such as Kirstenbosch. 

He admits that, at first, he was "a little bit daunted". 

However, he believes that the garden has well-trained and supportive staff who are committed to what they do.

"I see myself as a servant of the garden," he said modestly.

He is pleased that conservation is becoming "cool" again and being taken seriously by young people.

Something that he wants to work on during his tenure is to get the garden more involved in scientific knowledge-sharing through studies and university papers. 

But most importantly, he wants everybody in Cape Town to get to know it well so that they can feel it is part of them. 

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