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Environmental Action For Change - Principles & Practice

Number 16 - July 1998

A. Ashwell & P. Bobo-Mrubata


The National Botanical Institute in South Africa is a state-funded statutory organisation responsible for botanical gardens, herbaria, botanical research and environmental education programmes in five of the nine provinces of South Africa.

In Cape Town, the Kirstenbosch Outreach Greening Programme (part of NBI) was formally initiated in April 1997 with the appointment of Phumla Bobo-Mrubata as outreach horticulturist. The programme aims to empower the community with horticultural skills, to improve the quality of life and to conserve and promote the environment for the benefit of all communities in South Africa, through training and greening programmes.

Previous attempts to support community greening had been ad hoc and not very effective. Responsibility for implementing the programme had fallen between two departments. The education department had excellent contact with schools but lacked the expertise or resources to establish gardens. The horticulture staff supported the need for outreach but had neither the time nor institutional support to participate. Thus support of school and community gardens was sporadic, lacking coordination, planning and evaluation, and tended to undermine rather than strengthen the relationship between the departments. Past programmes had been well meaning, but most had been "events" rather than processes, with little follow-up and support.

Development of the Programme

Eleven schools in the township of Khayelitsha were identified according to a set of criteria (see box) and funding was received from a number of organisations, including the Provincial Department of Public Works, the City of Tygerberg, Anglo American & De Beers Chairmans Fund and Woolworths. As well as allowing the purchase of materials and the organisation of training workshops, money was also available for each school to employ five casual labourers from the local neighbourhood, thus providing employment and skills development opportunities for unemployed people.

All schools involved in the greening programme satisfied the following criteria:

  • The teachers showed an interest in the greening programme
  • Teachers and pupils were already doing something in their grounds
  • The school had an environmental club
  • Teachers and members of the enviro-club were prepared to get their hands dirty
  • The school was prepared to take initiative
  • The school grounds were fenced.

Principles of Programme Development

Reflection on these and other concerns helped to develop a framework for the outreach greening programme which reflects certain principles and assumptions:

  • An ecological world view, which seeks to integrate rather than separate. The programme is characterised by collaboration across departments at Kirstenbosch, and integration of training and curriculum development into the process of garden development.
  • Sustainability. The garden must outlive the development agency's involvement with it.
  • Developmental process.

Firstly, garden development itself is an ongoing process, linked to the seasons, involving stages such as site assessment, garden planning and design, site preparation, planting and maintenance.

Secondly, community garden development is about developing people - not just their skills, but also their confidence and vision. Thus, the outreach greening programme is based on a series of workshops at which people learn the skills of gardening and apply these skills immediately to develop their gardens.

  • Environmental education occurs through, and for, environmental action. Therefore, we have not waited for the gardens to be "finished" before "using them for education".

The development of school gardens provides teachers and learners with ongoing learning opportunities, including materials for study and projects within the school grounds. School based field work and projects are important approaches of the new Outcomes Based Education system being implemented in South Africa from 1998.

  • Developing relationships, both with the garden, and between the people involved in the project, whether they be members of the school community, NBI staff, funders or NGO's, is an important aspect of the programme.

There is a tendency to view the relationship between a community project, development agency and funder as an unequal one, with the community group being dependent on the expertise and resources of its benefactors. Yet, in the same way that the concept of ubuntu* reminds us that we derive identity and purpose from our interactions with others, an ecological world view also reminds us of our inherent interdependence. Perhaps we need to acknowledge our de facto interdependence more, and enjoy the growth of mutual respect and confidence that comes from realising that all of us (including development agencies) learn new skills and derive meaning from interacting with one another.

  • Reflective practice. Because this is a new venture, there is much to learn from evaluating the programme and making improvements in a way that is responsive to opportunities and to one another.

The Workshops

School garden development workshops took place throughout the year, hosted by one of the participating schools and attended by teachers, learners, caretakers and casual labourers from each school. Topics included:

  • How to assess and prepare your site
  • Pulling and planting grass runners
  • Planning and laying out the garden
  • Getting to know indigenous plants
  • Planting trees, shrubs and groundcovers
  • Deep trench vegetable gardening
  • Your school garden and the curriculum (Teachers' workshop)

Following the workshops, The Outreach Horticulturist and student assistants from Kirstenbosch visited each school to help the staff and the school community implement each stage of garden development. At the end of the year, all participants who completed the course were presented with certificates.

What has Been Achieved?

During the first year of the outreach greening programme, all the programme objectives have been achieved. All 11 schools now have starter gardens of indigenous plants, and all participants have experienced the first phase of the horticultural training programme. They are familiar with a number of indigenous plants and understand the concept of water-wise gardening.

Now that the gardens exist, teachers and learners have a resource which they can continue using for Outcomes-Based Education. More importantly, there is evidence that the programme has addressed some of its broader aims. For example, the fact that some of the labourers worked after hours in the school grounds without expecting to be paid reflects their commitment to, and sense of ownership of, the project. The training programme has also contributed to job creation, with some labourers finding full-time employment in businesses they have started themselves, within other companies or in the Department of Education. The programme has resulted in greater respect and understanding between teachers and community members, and closer school-community cooperation. In being responsible for the programme, teachers have gained administrative and management experience. Also, by returning locally indigenous plants to disturbed areas on the Cape Flats, this threatened ecosystem is being restored and conserved, and the water-conservation benefits of using locally indigenous plants is being highlighted.

Plans for 1998

The outreach greening programme will continue to operate in the original 11 schools for at least another year. Now that starter gardens exist, we hope to continue to build skills and awareness. In addition, the programme will expand to incorporate five new schools. Because demand for assistance is much greater than the capacity to support schools, a training manual is being developed for use in schools.


A view of the environment has developed over the last decade which acknowledges its biophysical, social, economic and political components. The Kirstenbosch Outreach Greening Programme has been successful in meeting objectives in all these categories. We recognise a duty to contribute to the reconstruction and development of our land. This can be a daunting task, but by believing in what can be, and by taking action together, much can be achieved .

* ubuntu is a Zulu or Xosa word which refers to the notion that "a person is a person by means of other people" - i.e. we find meaning through interactions with others.