Brothers in conservation want to restore indigenous knowledge

Dr Johan Wentzel reckons that he and Dr Ephraim Mabena could have been brothers in another lifetime, tied together by a common passion for nature conservation and, in particular, indigenous plants.

Wentzel is a university-trained physicist. Mabena is a traditional doctor carrying the seeds of local knowledge passed down by the gods and life’s experience. They both run nature conservation projects on the opposite ends of the Magaliesberg, which runs west to east, north of Pretoria.

Wentzel and his wife Annette run the Wildflower Nursery in Hartbeespoort, west of Pretoria. Their mission is to make everyone “as enthusiastic about our indigenous flora as we are”.

Mabena is the founder of the Mothong African Heritage Trust in Mamelodi, east of Pretoria, which he runs with his wife Mabel and their neighbour Mamorake Moila. It is located in the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve, which has been recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

The trio have transformed the space from a dumping ground, crime
hotspot and lovers’ make-out point into a nursery, indigenous plant garden and bird sanctuary.

Mabena also hopes to process indigenous plants into cosmetic and medicinal products. But his biggest wish is that Mothong grows into a thriving centre of indigenous African knowledge systems.

Wentzel read about Mabena’s project in the Mail & Guardian last year (“Healing resurrects blighted land above Mamelodi”, March 29 2018) and tracked him down. A friendship has since blossomed between the two.

“We got together and talked about it and realised [that] in a previous life we could have been brothers,” says Wentzel with a chuckle. Earlier this year he donated more than 500 indigenous plants to Mothong to help his “brother” achieve his mission.

“There is a lot that I’m gaining from him and he’s gaining from me,” says Mabena. “He’s got passion. He doesn’t only want to end up by donating trees. He wants us to develop an information centre to educate people about conservation and indigenous knowledge systems. Our friendship is strong because of our passion for nature conservation and the environment.”

Last week, Wentzel accompanied a group of students from the architecture faculty at the University of Pretoria (UP) to Mothong. They went to help to lay out plans for planting trees.

“If you grew up on a farm or rural area your parents taught you about indigenous plants, but in the city nobody teaches you that and in the long term this knowledge will disappear,” says Wentzel, explaining the importance of a place like Mothong.

Mothong has partnerships with Unisa, UP, Tshwane University of Technology, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the department of science and technology.

The partnerships include programmes in which botany and natural sciences students share knowledge and study indigenous plants and medicine to help with research into HIV, tuberculosis and related diseases.

Grants from government’s extended public works programme have allowed them to give temporary employment opportunities to dozens of locals. But, this is not sustainable.

“We want to sustain ourselves. We want this project to bring in revenue to help workers get stipends and the community must also benefit from this,” says Mabena.

Failure to protect the area, especially near residences, will lead to trees being chopped down, pollution and general destruction of the environment, says Wentzel.

Hopefully, this brotherhood in conservation will help to avoid this. ­— Mukurukuru Media

Lucas Ledwaba
Lucas Ledwaba
Journalist and author of Broke & Broken - The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa.
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