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Remembering Apartheid’s botanical diplomacy at the Chelsea Flower Show

Melanie Boehi has an MA in history from University of the Western Cape and is currently a PhD student in history at University of Basel. Her research is concerned with political histories of plants, gardening and museums in South Africa.

The Royal Horticultural Society announced yesterday that the SANBI-Kirstenbosch display had won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. SANBI was quick to tweet about “Our 34th Gold in 41 years of exhibiting”. However, in the midst of the celebrations of these impressive numbers, what was forgotten was that the South African displays at the Chelsea Flower Show began as an exercise in apartheid state propaganda. The history of apartheid’s botanical diplomacy must be remembered, and we should keep in mind that neither botanical gardens nor flower shows occur outside of politics.

It is the time of the year once again when Britain and parts of its former empire are in awe of flowers. Newspaper front pages and TV prime time programs report on VIP visitors, new plant cultivars and the latest gardening fashions at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show. 

In South Africa (or at least in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs), many have eagerly awaited yesterday’s release of the award list. They were not disappointed: the judges awarded a gold medal to the display of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. From 24-28 May 2016, the Royal Horticultural Society hosts the show on the grounds of the Chelsea Royal Hospital in London and about 165,000 visitors pay hefty entrance fees to see the spectacle. 

Of the over 100 exhibitors in the Great Pavilion, most are florists or nurseries, many of whom are making a fortune from hybridising plants initially collected during the colonial era. A few exhibitors come directly from countries once belonging to the British Empire, such as the Barbados Horticultural Society, Grenada, and SANBI and Kirstenbosch. Their aim won’t be to sell plants but to promote tourism to floral destinations. 

The theme for this year’s SANBI-Kirstenbosch display is “Harold Porter National Botanical Garden – A Gateway to the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve” and Dr. Tanya Abrahamse, the CEO of SANBI, concludes her foreword in the institution’s Chelsea 2016 Brochure by telling prospective tourists that “wherever you are holidaying in South Africa there is a National Botanical Garden close by waiting to embrace you with its beauty and ‘window’ onto our country’s fascinating biodiversity.”

The exhibit consists of a diorama-like display of plants displayed in front of a backdrop of photographs of mountains, waterfalls and the sea in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. The SANBI-Kirstenbosch display portrays South Africa as a travel destination for unspoilt nature and indigenous plants – which, ironically, the average Chelsea Flower Show visitor likely perceives as exotic curiosities. Thus, the display resembles the mainstream tourism advertisement of African destinations for European visitors, which deploys a colonial tourist gaze and produces images of empty nature and exoticism rather than of actual lived realities and histories.

However, this relatively benign tourism advertisement has not always been the aim of the South African exhibits at the Chelsea Flower Show. When South Africa participated for the first time with a display of its own in 1976, its exhibition was an exercise of apartheid state image improvement. Following the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960 and the subsequent banning of the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress, international criticism of apartheid and the efforts of the boycott movement, which targeted South Africa’s trade and participation in academic, art and sport exchanges, increased. It is well known that the apartheid state set up media companies and front organisations for propaganda, but it is less known that botanists, plants and Kirstenbosch were also deployed in these campaigns. Due to their strong cultural association with beauty, plants and gardens were particularly suited for this purpose.

In 1958, Piet Meiring, the director of the South African Information Service, suggested that the Kirstenbosch NBG dispatch cut flowers for display at the International Flower Show in New York. The display promptly won a gold medal and the first prize, which was handed over during a ceremony at Kirstenbosch. The Cape Times (2 August 1958) recommended that as sport was “providing a prolific source of quarrels it might indeed be well if people with an urge to peacemaking brushed up their horticulture and botany.” The success in New York sparked an intensification of the demand for cut flowers from the Kirstenbosch NBG for numerous flower shows on all continents. Little did it matter that medals at flower shows are not only given to the best but instead are simply judgements of the quality of plants, design and endeavour – there is no limit to how many gold, silver gilt, silver and bronze medals are given away at a show. The media reported about the gold medals as if they were won at sport tournaments.

The Secretary of Information, Eschel Rhoodie (who later fell from grace for his role in the Information Scandal), was involved in initiating South Africa’s display at the Chelsea Flower Show. In October 1975, the British flower arranger Pam Simcock had visited Cape Town and met staff members of the Department of Foreign Affairs, including Rhoodie. During this meeting, the suggestion was made that South Africa should officially participate in the Chelsea Flower Show. Pam Simcock was commissioned to design the exhibits and the Kirstenbosch NBG was requested to provide plant material and send staff members as representatives at the exhibition. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided the funding and the South African embassy in London organised the exhibitions. The South African Chelsea exhibits were regularly awarded gold medals and other trophies. Flower shows allowed the apartheid state to maintain international relationships through what I suggest can be termed “botanical diplomacy”, which also served to reassure white South Africans that they were not completely shunned by the international community.

For long, it was believed that flowers, being strongly associated with beauty, would not be targeted by the anti-apartheid movement. For example, the Cape Argus (28 May 1962) reported that the organisers of the 1963 Kirstenbosch Golden Jubilee celebrations, which the apartheid state also used for image improvement, believed that “they can boycott anything they want to abroad, but they cannot make the women of the world boycott South African flowers.” However, protests against South Africa’s participation in the Chelsea Flower Show did occur in 1986, when several exhibitors refused to participate because of apartheid. In 1987, the organisers asked the Department of Foreign Affairs not to attend.

However, unlike the embassy, the Kirstenbosch NBG was still welcomed as a participant. The Department of Foreign Affairs continued to fund and organise these displays until 1994. The Kirstenbosch NBG thus functioned in similar fashion as other front organisations. After 1994, the Kirstenbosch NBG continued to participate in the Chelsea Flower Show, although now under different circumstances. Private sponsors replaced government funding and the themes of the displays now focused on issues such as democracy and nation building, biodiversity, climate change and ecotourism. 

I am not at all against admiring and celebrating flowers, and I think this year’s SANBI-Kirstenbosch display is beautiful and indeed a very worthy representative of the country. But I also think that it is important that in the celebration of the floral spectacle, a moment is included to remember its history. We can’t possibly measure the effects of the apartheid state’s botanical diplomacy. However, remembering it makes us aware that neither the Chelsea Flower Show nor Kirstenbosch emerged in a vacuum, but were shaped by politics, and they themselves each shaped politics. When we gaze at the self-representations of royals, politicians and companies who will this year once more be filmed and photographed looking at flowers, we will be reassured that the power of flowers has not yet lost its magic. DM

Melanie Boehi has an MA in history from University of the Western Cape and is currently a PhD student at University of Basel. Her research is concerned with political histories of plants, botany and horticulture in South Africa.



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