BotSoc’s troubles brew

The Botanical of South Africa, based at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, faces challenges around the management of its Cape Town branch.

Tensions are mounting ahead of the Botanical Society (BotSoc) of SA annual general meeting tomorrow, Friday August 17.

Last years’ AGM, attended by a record 200-plus people, heard Mike Martin, of BotSoc’s Kirstenbosch branch, say he was “mortified” that he could not present a treasurer’s report and that in that year the society had operated at a loss of nearly half a million rand.

The audit for 2017, done by Lucas Chartered Accountants, is available online and shows an operating deficit of R1 618 975, as opposed to R232 120 for 2016.

The society, which was formed in 1913, supports 11 botanical gardens within the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and has more than 20 000 members worldwide with 9 600 at its flagship Kirstenbosch branch, where the head office is based.

During the meeting at Kirstenbosch in July last year, BotSoc’s leadership said they were seeking to plot a way forward amid allegations of staff being poorly treated and financial uncertainty (”BotSoc’s murky waters,” Bulletin, July 20, 2017”).

Over the past month, the Bulletin received five emails from people who are, or have been, BotSoc members. They declined to be named but raised concerns about the future of the Kirstenbosch branch. One said he had resigned last year in disgust after the AGM.

The Bulletin has a copy of an email sent in May to Kirstenbosch BotSoc members and signed by Dr R (Ramagwai) J Sebola, chairman of the BotSoc council. It refers to “baseless allegations and unsubstantiated accusations against BotSoc and the executive director over the past 14 months”.

It states “Numerous attempts have been made to address these allegations, but half-truths and distortions of fact continue… as part of a sustained and deliberate strategy of destroying the credibility and integrity of the council and the executive director. “This situation is promoting internal divisions and causing severe reputational damage to BotSoc.”

It lists 18 allegations and the not-for-profit’s response to them. At the heart of the allegations is unhappiness over the fact that Kirstenbosch BotSoc branch’s funds are being used for other branches.

A follow-up email, titled “a cautionary note”, sent to BotSoc members on Friday July 13, and subsequently sent on to the Bulletin by a source, says “we unfortunately cannot engage with the press at this stage”.

Another email from a member of the Kirstenbosch BotSoc branch, sent to numerous Constantia valley people, urges those on his mailing list to attend the AGM and support the branch regarding their membership fees and fund-raising.

The member said that between 1991 and 2005, Kirstenbosch BotSoc volunteers (about 100) had raised R65 million for that branch by approaching local and international donors and sponsors, and through manning the bookshops at Kirstenbosch and organising plant fairs and other events.

The member also criticised plans to change BotSoc’s constitution, saying the proposed amendments would limit branch members’ ability to run their own activities and fund-raising projects, as those would all be subject to the discretion and control of the executive director and council and all money raised would belong BotSoc National, not the branch.

“If this goes ahead there will be no point in having any branches and they will probably collapse,” he writes.

However BotSoc executive director Zaitoon Rabaney said BotSoc was considering the constitutional amendments to make the society compliant with the legal and regulatory environment it operated in. The process had started in September last year and all members had had a chance to contribute to the first draft.

“It’s important to note that the proposed revision to the society constitution is one put forth by the Kirstenbosch branch committee and constitutes amendments which in the society’s belief are self-serving, for a minority of members of the Kirstenbosch branch,” she said.

Ms Rabaney said the land for Kirstenbosch garden had been granted on condition an organisation be formed to support the development of all national botanical gardens.

BotSoc supported all botanical gardens in South Africa equally and without that the committees could not function on their own, she said.

Some branches, she said, raised funds for their own projects and those funds were not shared between all other branches.

There had always been rules for branches to follow, she said. “This process follows the internal branch, Sanbi and council sign-off.

“In the past these prescribed protocols were not followed which gave rise to questions being asked by Sanbi to the BotSoc.”

BotSoc was having the latest audit done and the financial statement would be made available to its members at the end of August, early September, said Ms Rabaney.

She said all those joining the BotSoc receive the benefit of free entry to all of the SANBI managed and owned national botanical gardens, under the auspices of the Department of Environmental Affairs.

“BotSoc does not manage or upkeep the gardens’ operational needs which are funded by government.

“And all national botanical gardens staff with Sanbi are part of the public services,” said Ms Rabaney.

The AGM will be held at the University of the Western Cape from 5pm and buses will depart from Kirstenbosch Garden Gate 2 between 3pm and 3.30pm, RSVP to info@botsoc-kirstenbosch.org.za