Joane Pim

‘‘Let us concentrate a moment on the culture of the African in relation to - you will be surprised - Landscape Architecture,” she writes. ‘‘In many African townships there are no trees in the streets and barren areas of veld strewn with rubbish as parks. ‘Man can not live by Bread alone’ - I should like to substitute ‘drudge’ for ‘bread’ - ‘Man cannot live by Drudge alone’. How well that describes the average dweller of Soweto's existence I leave to the reader to decide.”

Soweto gardener
Joane Pim's ideal. From: Soweto: a city within a city. Johannesburg's Southwestern Bantu suburb, 1969

And this interesting sentence: ‘‘How can civilization and progress in the person of the European commit them to such an utterly dreary existence?”

Sure, one can argue, and correctly so, that a verdant Soweto would have been a mere cosmetic gloss on apartheid-era Soweto. Beautification of a black township would have been, as Steve Biko put it, ‘‘a soporific to the blacks while salving the consciences of the guilt-stricken white.” And yes, Pim was surely not about to suggest the dismantling of the economic and political structure of South Africa and behemoths like Anglo American which obtained its minerals with cheap and mobile black labour.

And yet, I cannot, in retrospect, find Pim’s ideas and her work worthless. Some of the trees she had planted would now be fifty, sixty years old. In October 1967 she visited Harmony Gold Mine to enquire about the mineworkers' opinions on the gardens she had established there. She was told, by them, that some of the men pick flowers for their rooms.

I share Joane Pim’s belief that gratification of the aesthetic senses is a fundamental human need. Not always the most pressing, but nevertheless not trivial or bourgeois.

This biography started with one of another South African, and I think that is apposite to Pim. She didn’t shirk from the unpleasantness of apartheid South Africa but, in her way, left it a better place. I think she would’ve been pleased by what happened 16 years after her death in 1974.