MARCH 21 was the International Day of Forests, and apart from the few tree-planting events here and there, it passed by without much fuss in Africa.
For African urbanites, trees are not typically something you think about much, except in utilitarian terms: they are nice for shade, useful for pinning posters on, and when they are big and mature, they can make your property appreciate in value – there’s a reason upmarket areas are called “leafy suburbs”, after all.
But in many African cities, trees do more than that. You may not think it, but trees in Africa are very political indeed, quietly demarcating “ownership” of spaces, like flags driven into the summits of mountains.
Take Johannesburg, for example. The Transvaal region, in the north-eastern part of South Africa where Johannesburg is located, is a dry, flat expanse of grassland and shrubs; the climate is too arid to naturally support forest, or even large trees.
But Johannesburg, as seen from the air, is a curious sight. Pockets of dense green canopy demarcated in careful geometric shapes stand out from the brown veld, like someone patched together a rainforest and a desert into an incongruous quilt.
It’s one of the first “facts about Jozi” a first-time visitor to the city is told by locals; that Johannesburg is the world’s biggest urban or man-made forest.
All of 10 million trees
An official from Johannesburg City Parks is quoted to have said a tree census found that there are well in excess of 10 million trees in the greater Johannesburg area. With a population of about 12 million, there are five trees for every six people in Gauteng province. Although the claim of being the biggest urban or man-made forest has not been proven, Johannesburg is nevertheless one of the most wooded cities in the world.
After the fall of apartheid in 1994, black and white South Africans began integrating, going to the same schools, shopping malls and parks.
But Johannesburg’s trees have not crossed over to this brave new world. The green canopies that you see from the air are the wealthy, former white-only northern suburbs, including Sandton, Rosebank and Parkhurst, while the poorer former black townships of Soweto and Diepkloof are closely-packed houses surrounded by the stark, barren veld.
Johannesburg aerial view. (Photo: Flickr/ Michis).
Taxi drivers have an insight about them, and my driver told me, “If you want to understand this city’s history, lift your eyes and look around you – you will see treetops in some areas, and only rooftops in others.”
The Jacaranda tree
A few dozen kilometres away in Pretoria, also known as Jacaranda City, numerous jacaranda trees line the city’s streets; in October and November, the trees erupt in brilliant purple blossoms.
Indigenous to South America, the jacaranda tree and the ornamental shrub bougainvillea were beloved of British colonials across the Empire.
In almost every major city in British Africa, particularly in the eastern and southern parts of the continent, the colonials made an effort of planting the trees.
Along with Pretoria, cities across former British colonies in Africa bear the stamp of jacaranda including Blantyre in Malawi; Harare and Bulawayo in Zimbabwe; Nairobi and Nakuru in Kenya; and Kampala, Fort Portal and Mbale in Uganda, where they are associated with exam season, coming at the end of the school term.
Even in Kenya’s dusty little border town with Ethiopia, the jacaranda tree stands out as a marker of British presence – Moyale on the Kenyan side has jacaranda trees around its administrative centre, while Moyale on the Ethiopian side has none.
But trees can also become contested symbols, sometimes for reasons that have little to do with the environment.
In 2012, there was a fierce debate in Pretoria as to whether its iconic jacarandas should be removed. The trees have an invasive root system and need a lot of water, preventing anything else from growing around them.
It’s the same problem posed by the eucalyptus, or blue-gum tree. Eucalyptus is native to Australia, where its fragrant leaves are the sole source of food for the koala bear.
It became a trusted prong in the colonial-botanist arsenal in the 19th century because it was claimed that the tree could drain marshes and so help eliminate malaria. It was also popular because it grew quickly with a straight trunk and strong wood, thus could be felled for timber.
Nairobi and eucalyptus
Nairobi city, for example, is built on a swamp that was effectively drained by the extensive planting of eucalyptus trees.
But the trees are very thirsty, and have been associated with the drying out of streams and a drop in the water table.
After the Anglo-Boer wars in the 1890s, celebrating South Africa’s natural flora and fauna was an important part of forging the white South African nationalist identity, with laws passed to conserve indigenous wildflowers and game.
By the 1950 and 60s in then apartheid South Africa, there started an outcry against exotic trees like eucalyptus that sapped all the water in what is already an arid part of Africa. A 1959 book, The Green Cancers in South Africa—The Menace of Alien Vegetation, warned against the dangers of exotic trees, calling for a conservation of true South African flora.
The politics of trees
When the ANC came to power in 1994, its environmental policy has been critical of “exotic” trees like eucalyptus, seeking their removal on the grounds that they are “not African”, says this South African environmental scholar, who sees the environmental policies of the ANC mirroring the earlier strains of white nationalism that sought to use South Africa’s unique flora and fauna to create a strong nationalist identity.
Brett Bennett sees trees occupying a contested space, in which the ANC government’s nationalist tones seek the exclusion of “foreign” and “non-African” trees…and people.
It’s been hinted at in Zimbabwe too. One headline in 2013 proclaimed “Foreign trees to be rooted out of Zimbabwe Golf Club”, in which firs, pines and eucalyptus, “planted by early white settlers to remind them of their distant origins” were to be cut down as their insatiable demand for water was lowering the water table.
Although the story said the tree removals had “nothing to do” with the farm-nationalisation policies of President Robert Mugabe, the tangential reference was symbolic enough.
And in East Africa, a weed could be said to have led to the rebirth of a regional economic community. In the 1990s, the water hyacinth, an invasive water plant native to South America, aggressively proliferated in Lake Victoria that straddles Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Water hyacinth clogs the shore in Kisumu, on the Kenyan shore of Lake Victoria. (Photo: Flickr/ Global Environmental Facility).
At its maximum biomass in 1997, it choked boat ports and sucked up the oxygen in the lake, threatening to kill off the lake’s fish, and increasing toxicity of the water.
A weed and a regional bloc
The subject of shrill, daily news bulletins, hyacinth was an apocalyptic scenario for the 30 million people who depend on Lake Victoria for survival. Fishing villages were being abandoned as fish were dying and boats were being trapped in the hyacinth plants; pulling out the weed was of no consequence as the plants regrew very quickly.
The hyacinth was beaten back by a tiny weevil that naturally feeds on the plant, a form of biological control. By 1999 the hyacinth menace was in remission – the same year that Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya, and Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania signed the East African Community Treaty into force, bringing back the EAC as a political and economic body after a 22-year-hiatus.
The three countries shared Lake Victoria, and ultimately their economies, especially Uganda’s and Tanzania’s, were dependent on it. The hyacinth could not be defeated only in one country’s portion of the lake, because it would drift back from the neighbour’s part where it hadn’t cleared.
It could be argued that the weed showed the leaders - and people - of East Africa that the destiny of their countries was inextricably linked to one another.