The Dark and Fascinating History of South African Lawns

A new book about South African lawns by Jonathan Cane does a deep dive into the complicated past of grass on the Highveld.

David Goldblatt/Supplied

It goes almost without saying that there may be no garden plant more ubiquitous than lawn grass – especially in southern Africa’s more affluent suburbs – but that doesn’t mean we should stop paying it attention.

In fact, as author and art historian Jonathan Cane argues in his new book, we need to start reconsidering our relationship with the seemingly ordinary lawns of our past. 

South African Lawns | House and Leisure
Saturday Afternoon in Sunward Park, Boksburg, April 1979 by David Goldblatt.


In Civilising Grass: The Art of the Lawn on the South African Highveld, Cane looks at the lawn landscape, particularly within the South African context, and asks very eye-opening questions about it.

He goes back to the history of how the lawn arrived in South Africa — a history full of painful colonial truths — and then investigates how influential gardeners such as Joane Pim and Patrick Watson, as well as everyday gardeners, have used lawn grass in their spaces, thereby shaping our view of the lawn irrevocably. Cane also explores the most prominent species of South African grass, Pennisetum clandestinum, or kikuyu (which was botanically classified as an ‘excellent coloniser’), and then goes on to look at how grass features in the work of important South African artists like Moses Tladi, David Goldblatt, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Lungiswa Gqunta and others, asking what the lawn is doing to the psyche of the next generation. 

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House and Leisure caught up with Cane a few days after the launch of this important title to learn a bit more about the fascinating story of grass in South Africa. 


5 Minutes with Civilising Grass author Jonathan Cane

South African Lawns | House and Leisure

Why did grass, as an idea, become a focus of your study and a personal interest in the last few years? 

I was sitting at the Zoo Lake Bowls Club, probably drunk, and a colleague pointed out that the neurotic flatness of the lawn and the obscene but unseen effort required to keep it that way, would make a weird and provocative study. I had been looking for an unexpected, supposedly non-political, ubiquitous and most of all ‘natural’ phenomenon that I could trace over time in several media, and the lawn became my obsession. Now that Civilising Grass is out, I’ve become obsessed with concrete.

In the book you reveal some really eye-opening history about how the lawn became such a central part of South African garden design. When did the lawn become so entrenched in landscape design in South Africa? 

The lawn arrived in South Africa along with the British. The climate of the Cape and KwaZulu-Natal allowed the recreation of the rolling fields of the 18th-century lawns that the settlers carried with them in their mental baggage. The interior, however, with its rainless winters, made sweet green pastures almost impossible, until the ‘discovery’ of kikuyu grass that is. Taken from the British East African Protectorate in the early 1900s to Kew Botanical Gardens in London, this robust grass was propagated on the Highveld and, after that, all over the world. Very few landscape architects (even Joane Pim and Patrick Watson) or home gardeners have made much effort to reject, rework or resist the lawn. Rare and outstanding exceptions of veld gardening include Watson’s Apartheid Museum landscapes and his work at the Isibindi gardens in Johannesburg

South African Lawns | House and Leisure
Site of the garden of the Western Deep Levels before Joane Pim's landscape intervention in 1964.
South African Lawns | House and Leisure
The Western Deep Levels garden, by landscape architect Joane Pim, three years after the previous photograph was taken.

Why does the lawn remain so popular here? 

We seem addicted to the lawn. No rational argument appears able to dislodge our peculiar affection for the ‘freshness’, ‘healthiness’ and ‘safety’ the lawn seems to embody. Some Social Darwinians argue that lawns remind us of the savannah environments of our evolutionary history. I think an analysis of the ways the lawn allows expression of respectability, control of nature and mastery of colonial ideas of ‘civilization’ are more compelling explanations and these are the ones I pursue in my book.    

What do you hope people see in South African lawns once they have finished reading your book? 

Even though it's almost impossible to be ethically and ecologically for the lawn, I myself am not necessarily against the lawn. Pulling up your lawn and planting a veld, having a smaller or water-wise garden or perhaps not even having a garden might be a good start. However, I hope readers would take a second look at the set of practices and assumptions which make such a nonsensical landscape seem normal. Further, we could also ask what other taken-for-granted practices, patterns or power imbalances — in the garden, in the home and in the civic realm — we assume are just natural and neutral.

For more about Civilising Grass: The Art of the Lawn on the South African Highveld, and to order your own copy, visit the WITS University Press website

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