Complex BotSoc structure

Caroline Voget, Meadowridge

The Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSoc) held its special general meeting on Friday August 17 at the University of the Western Cape (“BotSoc’s troubles brew”, Bulletin August 16).

The meeting was not an annual general meeting (AGM) but a special general meeting (SGM) that was called by members of the Kirstenbosch branch of the society who were concerned that the administrative head office of the society, supported by members of the Council of the Botanical Society (who are all volunteer members under an elected president), was closing down the functions of the individual branches, especially Kirstenbosch (which is by far the largest section of the society) in favour of centralising operations.

The SGM was called, with legal advice, to try and resolve this issue and restore trust.

The structure of the BotSoc is complex in that it is a non-profit, membership-based, national, non-governmental organisation with several branches, most (but not all) of which are centred around one of South Africa’s10 (nearly 11) national botanical gardens (NBG). These gardens are state-owned and run by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) which is a government organisation under the Department of Environmental Affairs.

The first of these gardens, Kirstenbosch, was declared in 1913. The government of the day insisted that a body of private individuals willing to help fund and run the garden be formed before they would commit to declaring Kirstenbosch as a NBG. So the Botanical Society was formed, just weeks before Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden, and the two have had a close association since. At one stage, funding from the South African government almost dried up and Kirstenbosch was kept going by members of the BotSoc digging deep into their pockets. In the 1970s, however, with the formation of the National Botanical Institute, Kirstenbosch was finally adequately funded by the government, and several more NBGs were declared. BotSoc continued to support and fund-raise for Kirstenbosch, and several other branches were formed, some around the new gardens and others in their own special area of South Africa. At this time the society became less garden-support based and took on new conservation projects.

Each BotSoc branch is run by a committee, and most have regional AGMs, but the BotSoc Council members and the president also call an AGM of the entire society each year. The Bulletin article refers to the AGM of the Kirstenbosch branch (“BotSoc’s murky waters”, Bulletin July 20, 2017). This branch is the largest of the BotSoc branches, and it was felt that they were being unfairly treated in that staff, money that used to come to them from subscriptions, and several of their volunteer-led fund-raising activities such as the annual plant sale and the Kirstenbosch Bookshop had been discontinued, or taken out of their hands and placed under the administration of the head office without explanation or discussion.

Kirstenbosch is passionately and deeply loved by BotSoc members, as is South Africa’s indigenous flora, especially our unique fynbos and other extraordinarily biodiverse biomes. This passion drives many members who have been involved
for many years, and indeed, generations, in society activities. Some of the head office’s attempts to “transform” the society, while welcomed at first, started to alienate members who felt that a membership-based society should make sure that the members’ expectations and wants should be taken into consideration too – especially as the end goal was the same: “to win the hearts, minds and material support of individuals and organisations, wherever they may be, for the conservation, cultivation, study and wise use of the indigenous flora and vegetation of southern Africa”.

Somehow the perceived threat to members’ participation in BotSoc activities led to allegations of mismanagement and inappropriate use of funds – indeed the whole gamut of suspicion, name-calling and personal vendettas on both sides, which was tearing at the fabric of the society.

The SGM proposed a way around the stalemate by dissolving the constitution of the Botanical Society of South Africa and reinstating a new constitution which is basically the same, but allows for more autonomy for the branches, and the election of an interim council to take the society forward to the next AGM.

The meeting was chaired by Dr Farieda Khan with an open debate prior to voting on the five motions submitted. Members voted to adopt the new constitution with a majority of 91%.

Let’s hope that peace can be restored and the venerable 105-year old society can continue to thrive and inspire.

* Caroline Voget, is the past editor of Veld & Flora, the Botanical Society of South Africa’s magazine for its members.