Veld & Flora Feature



Growing trust Sthembile Zondi

In Pietermaritzburg, a young curator’s energy is helping transform one of SA’s oldest national botanical gardens







Above: “Walking around the garden every morning really inspires my productivity,” says curator Sthembile Zondi.


HERITAGE AND INNOVATION could be an explosive mix but Sthembile Zondi (34) has deftly woven them together along the road she has carved through life. In 2018, this brought her back to her home town of Pietermaritzburg as the newly appointed curator of the KZN National Botanical Garden.

“Every morning I walk around the garden to gather energy and inspiration,” she says.

Originally founded in 1874, it is one of the longest-established national botanical gardens in the SANBI network. Sthembile had not grown up thinking of herself as a garden leader – at first, she had just seen gardening as a natural part of life and a tradition that it did not occur to her to escape.

“I grew up in a rural area where gardening was a routine chore for a girl child, whether you liked it or not,” she recalls.

“We mainly produced crops – food for the table. It made me very aware of being part of the cycle of plant life. I found that I had a passion for sowing a seed and nurturing it to peak growth for harvesting.”


Above: “I absolutely love my job,” says KZN NBG curator Sthembile Zondi – here she checks in on protea propagation with Peter Padayachee, former nursery horticulatural conservation worker.



Her maternal grandfather had chosen her name, Sthembile, meaning trust or belief because, he told her, “We believe you will grow up to be a very courageous woman who chases her goals without fear and that you will succeed and shine bright for this family.”

That seemed a lot to live up to at a young age, especially when Sthembile moved from her rural primary school to a Catholic boarding school 100 kilometres away in Verulam.

“Everything suddenly changed,” Sthembile recalls. “I found things hard to understand and called my folks begging them to let me quit school.” But that would fly in the face of her family’s values. Sthembile’s grandfather strongly believed in education and proper goal-setting and both her parents were teachers. It was the memorable way her parents talked her through her fears and homesickness that turned Sthembile towards becoming the young woman her grandfather had hoped for.



“My parents instilled real confidence in me that, despite your background, nothing is impossible,” she recalls. “From that day, I never looked back.

“It is why I always go back to them for strength and wisdom whenever life seems hard. I do not believe that I would be where I am today without the constant support and unconditional love that I have from them and my younger brother.”

They supported her next journey to study horticulture as a career, when Sthembile enrolled for a national diploma in horticulture at Durban University of Technology. “This is where my passion really ignited and led me to where I am today,” she says. “It was exciting to get an opportunity to learn about plants and their importance and to follow up with visits to nurseries and botanical gardens, and internships to learn more about the practical side. I was certain that I had chosen the right field.”

Inside KZN National Botanical Garden

“We are lucky to have generally good weather conditions,” says curator Sthembile Zondi. “Everything just grows. As one of the very oldest SANBI gardens, we have had problems with ageing infrastructure such as irrigation systems but received funding this year to upgrade.

“One of our key projects is collecting, conserving and propagating threatened species within KZN to protect them against future extinction. The garden also showcases the province’s three key natural vegetation types – grassland, forest and wetland.

“Our environmental education programme hosts schools, communities and other stakeholders in the garden, plus helping teachers upgrade their knowledge and understanding of environmental issues covered in the curriculum. “We have outreach programmes for those who cannot travel or are further away to make sure that the importance of conservation and subjects such as recycling, climate change, anti-poaching, bio-crime and the importance of wetlands reach as many people as possible. We also create job opportunities in conservation for people in under-privileged communities.”

Above: These germinated and bagged proteas are ready to be planted out as part of an educational display in the garden.


Sthembile followed up with a B.Tech in horticulture through UNISA, studying while she was gathering valuable, varied work experience.

First there was Pietermaritzburg’s Jesmond Dene nursery, then working as an agricultural facilitator for the LIMA Rural Development Foundation in Mount Frere, Eastern Cape. She joined SANBI’s Free State National Botanical Garden as a horticulturist in 2010. Two years later, she was transferred back to home ground – the KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden in Pietermaritzburg, where she has now been for a decade.

In 2015, SANBI sent her to London for the Chelsea Flower Show, an eye-opening experience. “I really enjoyed observing the various garden displays through their construction phases to completion,” Sthembile says.

“The huge range of designs and of plants displayed was breathtaking and almost unreal. It seemed to be a huge celebration of just how beautiful well displayed gardens can be.”


Yellow clivia (top; Clivia miniata) and red-hot poker (bottom; Kniphofia species) are among the plants that flourish in this Pietermaritzburg garden.



Sthembile was promoted from horticulturist to curator in 2018 and continued expanding her studies with a MANCOSA postgraduate diploma in business management.

“It is so special to be helping people realise the importance of conserving our natural world.

“Knowing that I am part of the change the world needs for the future keeps me going and pushes me to give my all.”


Above: “Working in such a space of peace and tranquillity is a constant delight,” says Sthembile Zondi.

How to make it in horticulture

My message to any young person considering a career in horticulture is to love and enjoy what they are doing – never be afraid of asking lots of questions and learning new things.

Never be lazy or choosy about any kind of work because it all builds up and eventually leads you to the future you envisage for yourself. Be ready to explore horticulture and conservation, unlocking this broad field with love, energy and dedication to discover where your passion lies. Once you have found that passion, grab it with both hands and an open mind, nurture it and keep developing. You may even find that you will become part of international collaborations. The sky will be your only limit.

The future for horticulture in South Africa is bright – very bright.

Sthembile Zondi ( is curator of the KZN National Botanical Garden in Pietermaritzburg.

This article was featured in Veld & Flora in the September 2022 edition.

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