Defend Truth


Sanbi’s odd Kirstenbosch decision turns it into a venue for elite local visitors and tourists


Rochelle Kapp is an Emeritus Associate Professor (Education) from the University of Cape Town. Kelwyn Sole is an Emeritus Professor (English) from the University of Cape Town and a poet. 

The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden will in future no longer offer low-cost garden entry to South African citizens through its long-established Botanical Society (BotSoc) membership system.

When Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was established in 1913, “it was envisioned as a site that served white citizens”.  Though still providing limited access to the majority of South Africans, in recent years its potential has widened.

It has gradually been evolving into a place that has offered the opportunity to serve as a repository for onsite learning and appreciation of our natural heritage.

This has occurred through various means: its educational programmes and guided walks for school children and adults; its relatively inexpensive membership system and its discounts for the elderly. These are moves in the right direction.

Given our country’s socio-political history, Kirstenbosch is an important site of people development and job creation, and its natural and botanical wonders should be accessible to all.

It is our strong opinion that this praiseworthy and socially responsible role should be the basis for its future development as an asset to its city, its country and continent, and the whole world.

However, in the past year, in a move reminiscent of our dreadful past, the garden has once more become a resource for elite local visitors and tourists.

It should not be forgotten that it is part of a Unesco World Heritage Site, widely regarded as one of the world’s most precious biodiverse, indigenous natural environments; but it will in future no longer offer low-cost garden entry to South African citizens through its long-established, Botanical Society (BotSoc) membership system.

The effect of a ruling by the South African National Botanical Institute (Sanbi) to eradicate this system has meant that instead of a member paying around R562 per year for unlimited entry to the garden, South African and SADC citizens will now pay R100 per adult and R40 per child under 18 per visit. A family of four who would have paid approximately R1,124 per year for unlimited free garden entry, will now pay around R280 per visit.

This is plainly unaffordable for most South Africans and, over the last 11 months the garden, a once popular and safe environment for South Africans, has visibly emptied out, and is now visited — as far as we have seen — mainly by overseas tourists (with the exception of Tuesdays, when South African pensioners have free access).

It seems that the objections from the Botanical Society and its members to this decision by Sanbi have fallen on deaf ears and, while the assertion has been made that the garden will remain economically viable, the financial effect of this loss of a highly lucrative income stream (over R6.1-million) is clearly visible in the consequent neglect of its upkeep and the recent call for “volunteer gardeners”.

A critical resource and safe space for all

Rochelle was prompted to start writing this reflection while sitting high up on the slopes of Kirstenbosch. She was there alone, seeking solace in the soft, buttery light of the late afternoon as she awaited news about Kelwyn’s major surgery at a nearby hospital.

As she sat there, she reflected that, as an elderly woman, Kirstenbosch has been a place where she and many other women and children could feel safe — an unusual phenomenon in South Africa. This led her to contemplate the multiple roles that Kirstenbosch has played in her life and, in somewhat different ways, in both of our lives.

For Rochelle, who grew up on the Cape Flats during apartheid with restricted access to green spaces, it was a revelation to discover the extraordinarily diverse flora and fauna and the dramatic landscape of Kirstenbosch post-1990.

Kelwyn, previously accustomed to the grasslands and bushveld further north, found it a location where he could familiarise himself with the intricacies of the fast-disappearing Cape Floristic Region and its fynbos biome, threatened all around by urban development.

At the same time (given the span and variety of Kirstenbosch’s collection) it was a place of connection with plants and trees he recognised from other parts of South Africa.

Peace and environmental education

No matter where we have travelled, Kirstenbosch remains our special place. It’s the site at which we learned about indigenous plants and gardening and where we first became birders.

Together, we learnt the joy, deep peace and connectedness of being in nature and observing the sights, sounds and fragrances of the passing seasons, each of which brings its variety of birds, butterflies, insects and flowers: the pelargonium and buchu scents in their dizzying variations; the nesting spotted eagle owls, the stunningly pretty swee waxbills and other gleaning seedeaters; and – for us in particular – welcoming every spring the migrants as they arrive, including the unforgettable paradise flycatcher and darting black saw-wings.

We’ve seen the almost imperceptible changes in forests, streams and flowerbeds over the years, including the transfiguration of the aptly named Enchanted Forest from its early scrawny beginnings to its present abundant growth; and, as non-botanists, we have come over time to recognise many plants and trees by the appearance of their bark, flowers and leaves.

We are simply two of the many people for whom the garden is an ongoing learning experience.

It is also a place for the unexpected. For us, this would include the first time we came across the escapee flock of bronze mannikins that have settled in the garden; the unexpected flight of a honey buzzard over our startlement as we drank coffee; the boomslang which escaped our human inquisitiveness; the precious few minutes when we were abruptly face to face with a caracal kitten; and — alerted by the alarm calls of a flock of indignant white-eyes — the moment we were made aware of a wood owl hidden in thick foliage.

Of course, everyone who knows Kirstenbosch, or has spent any time at all there, will have their own reminiscences. Its beauty is that it has served many roles: as a place of peace and refuge; a play space for children, an outdoor teaching venue; a place for family outings and celebrations; a location for unexpected meetings with friends; a rendezvous supplying both conversations and the sharing of information; a base for hiking and photography; and so much more.

For all concerned, it is a place to test and hone one’s skills — whether these be botanical, photographic or birding — and to discover new natural wonders. We have seen this sense of surprise, and eagerness, on the faces of many people we pass by on our walks — especially children — expressed in differing ways through different languages.

Value of nature

For Rochelle’s activist parents, Kirstenbosch was an ambivalent space in which they experienced much joy in nature, but which also evoked painful, angry memories and stories of a past lived in Newlands and Claremont, the indignities of expropriation and forced removals under apartheid and the still ever-present weight of a vastly unequal society.

As a teacher in a working-class school, Rochelle’s mother and her colleagues deeply valued opportunities to introduce the children in the school environmental club to the joys of hiking up the mountain and observing nature.

When her speech and memory were erased by Alzheimer’s disease, she was no longer able to recover those memories and recount her stories, but she still seemed to appreciate Kirstenbosch anew each time. While she was usually anxious and restless in large crowds, on our weekend trips she gazed with obvious wonder at the sights and sounds of the garden and its restaurant, where the staff recognised her and made sure she had a welcoming cup of Rooibos tea almost as soon as we sat down.

We are aware that Kirstenbosch has had its financial problems, and that the dispensation that has now ended was a good deal. We see no problem with Sanbi adjusting Kirstenbosch’s membership fees from time to time by a reasonable and affordable percentage.

Read more in Daily Maverick: A closer look at the richness of South Africa’s biodiversity

But this decision which has now been made is — to put it mildly — extreme, and bears all the hallmarks of a bureaucratic edict out of touch with the social and, indeed, custodial objectives of the garden as these have evolved.

End of an era?

Movies and music concerts and fun runs may help redress some of the financial concerns, but it is our worry that, as the coffers seem to show no signs of swelling, the pressure to tweak Kirstenbosch into a theme park will increase.

It is more than likely that, in order to generate the necessary finances to maintain the site there will of necessity be a steady increase in loud, disruptive events. At worst, as financial constraints burgeon, we fear that branding and commodification may make this place we love unrecognisable.

There is a balance to be kept between preserving an environment, fulfilling a community role and remaining financially sound. Yet it should not be forgotten that Kirstenbosch is a World Heritage Site, and SANBI has an obligation to hold this precious garden in care for the people of this planet.

More than this: to share it. At the end of apartheid, Sanbi acknowledged that in the past they had served exclusively white interests, and made a commitment to serve all South Africans.

This latest U-turn seems likely to revert the garden to a place reserved for the wealthy and landscaped for transient tourists. While the entrance fee now inhibits locals using the garden on any regular basis, the higher fee for international tourists is still cheap for most of them, given the exchange rates (a friend from the Netherlands recently likened it to the price of two cups of coffee!).

At the same time, as the numbers of local visitors dwindle, we can only share the sentiment of that staff member who wondered to her friend within earshot: “What will become of us when there are no people to serve?”

Clearly, the garden needs viable income, but Sanbi needs to find solutions that go beyond superficial and stop-gap imperatives. It is a resource which belongs to all South Africans.

The need should be to focus on preserving its unique and rich biodiversity while adopting policies and pricing which will enable the majority of South Africans to appreciate and enjoy its beauty and be inspired to feel ownership and inclusion in the project of conservation. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Camille Augustus says:

    Kirstenbosch costs has been prohibitive long before this. Native Capetonians and with a family of 4, we’ve only been once in the 14 years we have kids. Locals have long gotten used to it not being an inclusive space for us to go. We won’t miss it, unfortunately.

    • Steven Burnett says:

      I tend to agree, but remember it is a world class facility. The Eiffel tower will be expensive for Parisian cost of living. fact check: 2016 rates using internet archive I guess your visit would have been R125/140 – some would say that is a good deal for an occassion: Entrance fees
      SA Students (with card): R30
      Children (6 – 17 years): R15
      Under 6 years: Free
      BOTSOC members: Free
      SA Senior Citizens (with ID): Free on Tuesdays except on public holidays

  • Lynne Harrison says:

    Our membership ran out in September 2023, we have been members of Bot soc for over 20 years, through varsity, living in Joburg and returning to the Cape. It was always an awesome place to have a membership for that allowed free entry once you had renewed the membership. Great gift for Christmas and birthdays, another years access. Needless to say haven’t been back since. Going there for a rather expensive memorial service tomorrow, but it is one of my adopted mother’s favorite places so a good place to go to remember her. Such a pity that Kirsten Bosch is now not somewhere kids will go regularly, it’s just too expensive who in their right mind would go more than once every few months at R100 a visit. We used to go just to feel grass between our toes…

  • Peter Lourens says:

    National parks and national botanical gardens belong to the citizens of South Africa. As citizens we should all be offered reasonable access to all of these. Sanparks has its Wildcard that offers unlimited access at a fair price. Why did Sanbi end its unlimited access through the Botsoc arrangement? My visits to Kirstenbosch has been replaced by visits to the neighboring TMNP.

    • Bradley Bergh Bergh says:

      SANBI have tendered for a service provider to administer the rollout of a Botanical Gardens loyalty card. They will apparently shortly be making an announcement.

      • David McCormick says:

        Thanks Bradley, you know more than the staff at Kirstenosch. It would have relieved some tension had this information been made public sooner. Best get this done before the tourism season ends otherwise all businesses operating within Kirstenbosch will have a bleak winter. As for BOTSOC, my guess is winter has come early.

        • Bradley Bergh Bergh says:

          BotSoc has been communicating the roll out of the SANBI’s own garden membership program for over a year in all its communications with members. It is now officially being launched on 01 April 2024. It is already reflecting on the SANBI website.

          • Marko P says:

            I want to know why the writer of this article didn’t do the basic minimum of investigation and actually speak to SANBI? Or just Google their new membership plans? The info is freely available. SANBI might truly be the evil exclusionary force they make out, but why not actually just do a tiny bit of investigation and find out what’s actually happening!

  • JDW 2023 says:

    An excellent article and I hope that the relevant people are reading. I find it quite repugnant how ordinary citizens are slowly forced out of enjoying the beauty that our country has to offer where, eventually, as this article points out, only high income individuals and tourists can accessing these sites and experiences. Two other relevant and close examples also grate my carrot like no other: the Franschhoek wine tram and the red bus that hops around the Cape Town city bowl. Those have both become just as unaffordable on a local income. I was a student in the city more than 10 years ago and when Kirstenbosch started its Sunday summer concerts, there was a commitment at the time to keep the concerts at a minimum fee (around R30) to ensure that students could also gain access. Well look at what those concerts cost today. I could go on with several other examples of how Kirstenbosch is pulling a dirty on South Africans but you get my drift.

  • Tim Price says:

    The sudden change is very disappointing. I have visited i have been a regular ast Kirstenbosch since I was a small child. As an adult the family SANBI membership enabled us to go as a family or take the odd friend at a reasonable cost. Since this has been terminated, we haven’t been as a family due to the excessive cost. The tea room must be suffering too. A poor decision by SANBI who should be compelled to explain the reasoning behind it

  • Justin Hall says:

    Please fight this fight, green spaces are critical for mental health and are especially vital for those who don’t have regular access to gardens!

  • Jerome Davis says:

    It is a huge sadness to our family that we can no longer afford to visit the gardens. We would go every few weeks with our botsoc membership and it shaped our lives, especially our childrens’. I wonder how many families have been affected in this way. The strategy of sanbi to increase gate sales will not work. It is so sad that something that used to enrich the community of cape town is now just another playground for rich tourists. Isn’t this the antithesis of what sanbi should be about?

  • Peter Slingsby says:

    According to their website Sanbi’s mandate is ” to explore, reveal, celebrate and champion biodiversity for the benefit and enjoyment of all South Africans, which includes managing the National Botanical and Zoological Gardens as ‘windows’ to South Africa’s biodiversity for enjoyment and education.” Of ALL South Africans, Sanbi board. But what else should you expect from yet another Board of Cadres? Ultimate destruction of the parastatal that they oversee …

  • JC Coetzee says:

    The management decision is not isolated to Kirstenbosch. Same situation at Harold Porter and Walter Sisulu. Even at Sanbi you have to follow the money, it seems!

  • anton kleinschmidt says:

    Give it a few more years and Kirstenbosch will not be worth visiting even if entrance is free

  • Mark Irvine says:

    This is a very sad result of fighting between SANBI and the Western Cape branch. Local visitor numbers will plummet, as it is now unaffordable for most of us.

    • Bradley Bergh Bergh says:

      Western Cape branch of what? This was a decision by the SANBI board approved by the minister of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment.
      SANBI have tendered for a service provider to administer the roll out of a SANBI gardens loyalty card and are apparently on the verge of making an announcement.

  • Moraig Peden says:

    SANBIs decision affects all the national botanical gardens in SA. In addition to making the gardens unavailable to ordinary SA citizens, it is likely to destroy the Botanical Society. Most people joined Bot Soc and paid membership fees in order to access the gardens. Now – few people will join Bot Soc which has done valuable education and conservation work for decades. I fear that SANBI has taken a narrow short sighted decision.

  • James Harrison says:

    I was a member of the Botanical Society for decades, but no more. One of my main reasons for membership has been taken away. My impression is that the issue of access to National Botanical Gardens has been mishandled by both SANBI and BotSoc, although I cannot claim to know the details. I would be happy to maintain my BotSoc membership if it at least offered a healthy discount – say 50% – on entrance fees. If such a deal could be struck, I imagine that both BotSoc and SANBI would benefit. The current arrangement is showing signs of unsustainability for both organizations. A sad state of affairs.

    • Clare Jeffrey says:

      Valuable and sensible comments. I, too, would renew my Botsoc membership if it meant a 50% discount in entrance fees.

      I wonder if anyone in authority is reading these comments?

  • jason du toit says:

    for almost almost south africans ~R560 per annum is NOT cheap. pretending that the botanical society withdrawal makes kbosch “unaffordable for most South Africans” is specious in the extreme, when it was already completely unaffordable for most south africans.

    the family of four: four visits a year is the same price as the annual society membership. for many people (if not most) four trips a year would be a lot. my wife and i who were members for several years, who love nature, live relatively close by (20km), and have a car, would probably make it to the garden only 4 to 5 times a year. at R80 (at the time) per entrance, we needed to visit about 6 to 7 times a year to break even. and some of those visits would be via a short hike coming in through the back entrance for free. without our memberships the park is far cheaper for us.

    kbosch’s location makes it quite an trip to get there. without a car it might as well be almost on the moon. this is not an easy taxi, bus, train route location. getting the family to the gardens would in itself be a hugely expensive and time-consuming journey, typically on weekends (when public transport is less available).

    remember, kirstenbosch is competing for time and pleasure with the beach, local parks (far more accessible), free parks like green point or ratanga or sea point that are far more accessable via public transport, weekend chores, weekend shifts. thinking that “most South Africans” would visit so many times a year is ludicrous.

    • Iota Jot says:

      Exactly. My first thoughts too. Of course this is a disappointment to regular visitors and an entirely wrong-headed decision (though good to hear they are working on a loyalty card), but surely at the prices the authors quote, only a tiny fraction of the local population can afford to visit the Gardens. R500+ is a considerable outlay, let alone the amount needed for a family, for a household to spend at once.

  • jeff rudin says:

    My thanks to Rochelle Kapp and Kelwyn Sole for writing the article we’ve all been waiting for ‘someone’ to write. My thanks also to Peter Slingsby, for alerting us to Sanbi’s Mandate “to explore, reveal, celebrate and champion biodiversity for the benefit and enjoyment of all South Africans, which includes managing the National Botanical and Zoological Gardens as ‘windows’ to South Africa’s biodiversity for enjoyment and education.” Rather than crying on each other’s shoulders, let’s do somethin about it. Something like a petition and/or sending the article, along with its comments, to Sanbi. They presumably have reasons for their decision, even though it escapes most people. Let’s ask them to explain themselves and let’s send their response, or lack of one, to the Daily Maverick. I offer to follow up on this latter suggestion.

  • Richard Cowling says:

    What hasn’t been mentioned in these comments is the huge investment, both in cash and kind, that the Botanical Society has made in the development of Kirstenbosch and other national botanical gardens in South Africa. What a way to treat a benefactor!

  • Charlotte Bertin says:

    This move is no surprise for those who know the SANBI system. They have the same issues of poor governance, misappropriation of funds, terrible management, as well as racial and sexual harassment and assault issues that have permeated every public and private institution in our country. There are no surprises, only the inevitable catastophe of human greed and stupidity.

  • John Cartwright says:

    It seems that SANBI’s management has been captured by elements that are – in a curiously twisted South African way – hostile to middle-class whites and indifferent to working-class coloured and black people. There is an unpleasant mean streak in this affair. Very sad.

  • Leoni Lubbinge says:

    This is really sad, and remember it affects all botanical gardens. I also believe some people joined BotSoco mostly for the cheaper entry fee to botanical gardens. So now there is just no way I can visit most botanical gardens 😟.

  • Jack Russell says:

    A microcosm of greater SA under the anc – what used to work no longer works. The root causes invariably the same – an obsession with centralised anc control and it’s poor management, money sucked out by SANBI to pay their swelling BEE employee numbers, money that should be available stolen and misspent a general jealousy of white success, etc.

  • Rae Henderson says:

    What about a Hiker’s ticket similar to the system so successfully used at Chapmans Peak. It’s outrageous to have to pay R100 just to traverse a tiny bit of Kirstenbosch for 5 minutes to get to Skeleton Gorge or Nursery Ravine.

    • Steven Burnett says:

      and how would you stop hikers spending five hours in the gardens and not going up Skeleton Gorge? If you want to do that for free, you can already park at cecillia forest (uh mean you’d have to walk a little bit further, but that’s kind of the point?). FYI, I don’t see anyone here talking about the new annual membership card that has been released since the article was written. Adult entry = R800 per annum. so go more than 8 times and you’re ahead. Not the massive change that the uproar created, just slow communication and decision making that got it there.

  • Nonnie Oelofse says:

    Unfortunately it is a a given fact that there are certain characters who destroys everything they come into contact with…JUST LOOK AT SOUTH AFRICA AS A COUNTRY…..

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    A very sincere article and I agree with the sentiments expressed therein.
    It is amazing that the People who live in Cape Town are not up in arms about the changes that seem to have been decided without consultation with its residents.
    This is part of a unique heritage for all South Africans…it should be protected at all costs – including the open nursery that offered plants and consultation to those interested in propagating our unique species which has now been closed. Why must we rely upon strangers and visitors to save our heritage? Why is it that humans only appreciate things when they’ve gone? Lets not let that happen here.

  • Clare Rothwell says:

    I live in the EC and visit CT every year or so. I don’t have any annual memberships to national parks or gardens and was pleasantly surprised that I could get into Kirstenbosch for only R100 when I visited, this January.

  • harry hoenderpoep says:

    R800 per year – R67/m – is a bargain. We had it good for so long, and it’s still such a treat. People who complain about that price are likely paying more than this per month on Netflix, or junk food outings, and plenty more.

    The real issue is probably that there aren’t more spaces like KB in Cape Town and countrywide, and that the govt doesn’t invest heavily into creating more. A city of 4-5 million needs ten KB’s, if not more.

  • Andrew Molyneaux says:

    Kirstenbosch is as iconic to the South African landscape as are the Union Buildings in Pretoria and should be funded in the same spirit – I shiver at the thought of turning such a space into a theme park – It is incomprehensible !!!

  • James Webster says:

    Why does a lack of commitment to the botanical treasures of Kirstenbosch surprise you when the attitude of the average South African to the unique South African flora and fauna is only contempt unless they can eat it or wear it ? For a culture that supposedly values its heritage, South African culture shows complete and utter disdain for its biological heritage, its apologists see nothing wrong in the poisoning of endangered animals and birds purely so that portions of their bodies can be hacked off and incorporated into disgusting muthi, their mutilated carcasses left to rot, or in the bark-stripping of threatened tree species for noxious concoctions, or in the poaching and poisoning of iconic species such as lions, hyenas, elephants and wild dogs for a buck and a BMW, or in the destruction of habitats for mining. Mismanagement of organisations in South Africa has become endemic since 1994, and sadly, the wilful and corrupt mismanagement of our ecologies won’t end until South Africa abandons the primitive and retrogressive culture that it now lionises, and replaces it with one where our ecological heritage is more important than designer clothes, KFC buckets and black German cars.

  • PJ T says:

    The Bot Soc membership was a must amongst all our friends.
    It enabled Kirstenbosch to be a venue of choice for an afternoon stroll and tea.
    Our group will probably relocate to the sea walk (or part thereof) between Muizenberg and Simonstown, and our lunches and teas will be held in places like Kalk Bay.

    Kirstenbosch has lost a large stream of regular customers like ourselves, not just for the gardens, but in the shops and restaurants as well.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted