Outsiders turned icons, South Africa’s jacarandas spring into bloom

Why We Wrote This

With the world cooped up at home, this year feels frozen in time. But South Africa’s famous jacarandas are still blooming – a reminder that the planet keeps turning.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
A street in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Saxonwold is lined with blooming jacaranda trees on Oct. 31, 2020.

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As the Southern Hemisphere’s spring withers into summer, South African students have a saying: If the jacaranda trees are already blooming and you haven’t started studying, sorry, but you’re not going to pass.

For a few weeks each October and November, the trees burst into a spectacular display. Their raucous purple blooms have been the backdrop to much more than university exams. In 2015, student protesters marched past them as they demanded a halt to rising tuition costs – a movement that turned into a national reckoning. In 1994, President Nelson Mandela invoked them in his first inauguration speech. And the trees’ own history speaks to the country’s colonial past, as well as its continued struggle with inequality.

But in 2020, for many, the jacarandas’ symbolism has also taken a new form. They’ve become a reminder that nature, in fact, trudges on, even if the human world often feels frozen in time. 

“They show that everything has a season,” says Laurice Taitz-Buntman, the editor of Johannesburg In Your Pocket, a popular events guide that runs an annual jacaranda photo competition. “They were here in 2019, and they’ll be here again in 2021.”

One of the first years that I watched the jacarandas bloom in Johannesburg, their arrival coincided with a revolution.

It was October 2015, and as the lanky trees burst into a riot of lilac blooms, student demonstrators shut down the campus of the city’s major university, known as Wits, demanding a halt to the rapidly rising cost of tuition.

Within days, their movement had grown from the cause of a few thousand college students into a kind of national reckoning. It had been a generation since the end of apartheid, so why, the protesters and their supporters demanded to know, had South Africa only gotten more unequal?

A few days later, every major university in the country had been shut down. And on a 90-degree morning the next week, I followed thousands of young activists and their supporters as they wound their way through Pretoria’s wide, jacaranda-lined boulevards to the Union Buildings, the office of South Africa’s president. They were there to ask that he halt tuition increases nationwide. And he did.

Looking at my photographs, I couldn’t help but notice how many were set against a backdrop of raucous purples. A woman in round sunglasses in front a jacaranda tree at Wits holding a sign that said “WE WERE SOLD OUT.” Another young woman in Pretoria, the jacarandas in the distance smudged by dust and tear gas. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” her poster read. “We are trying to change the world.”

Jacarandas have always made for good symbolism. Their blooming is spectacular and brief. Their flowers last only a few weeks, as Southern Hemisphere spring withers into summer and the year speeds toward its end. In much of eastern and southern Africa, for this reason, they’re seared in the minds of students as a marker that exams are coming. As the urban legend in South Africa goes, if the jacarandas are blooming and you haven’t started studying, sorry, but you’re not going to pass.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
In this October 2015 photo from reporter Ryan Lenora Brown's Instagram account, Nompumelelo Gumbi, then a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, participates in a protest against rising tuition fees in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In 2020, for many, the jacarandas’ symbolism has also taken a new form. They’ve become a reminder that in a year that often feels frozen in time, the natural world, in fact, trudges on. “They show that everything has a season,” says Laurice Taitz-Buntman, the editor of Johannesburg In Your Pocket, a popular events guide that runs an annual jacaranda photo competition. “They were here in 2019, and they’ll be here again in 2021.”

But like the British settlers who first planted them across their African colonial empire, jacaranda trees are also outsiders, and frankly, not always welcome ones. The bulk of South Africa’s jacarandas were imported from South America around the turn of the 20th century.

They are “reflective of a history of colonialism and apartheid,” when foreign trees – like foreign people – were considered superior here, says Adelaide Chokoe, an arboriculturist at Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo. In the early 2000s, the South African government banned the planting of new jacarandas in its cities altogether, warning that they were an invasive species that crowded out local flora.

And access to trees itself has long been a matter of social justice here. Johannesburg’s formerly white suburbs are so flush with greenery that the city has often dubbed itself the world’s “largest man-made urban forest.” (It’s a contestable distinction, experts say, but even still, the city is impressively verdant.) In October and November, the green canopies in those parts of town are lit up with shocks of purple as the jacarandas flower.

But travel to the Black townships that ring the city, and to which the majority of its population was once confined, and you will find few trees of any kind. Ms. Chokoe, for instance, grew up near Pretoria, a city with more than 50,000 jacaranda trees. But she rarely saw them, she says, because “in apartheid, tree planting was only prioritized in white suburbs.” When she became a scientist herself, that fact never left her.

“When you live with that difference, when you see who has parks and green space and access to trees, and who doesn’t, you say, ‘I want to be part of the process of changing this,’” she says.

In 2014, South Africa reversed its earlier stance on planting jacarandas. As far as foreign trees went, they were low maintenance and relatively benign (as long as you didn’t grow them too close to a body of water). In summer, their long branches provide shade; in winter, they let light filter through.

“I have no hesitation in saying that each one of us is intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees,” Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration speech as South African president in 1994.

Never mind that he was technically talking about a tree from someplace else – it had already come, in its own way, to belong.

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