When you think of a garden, it most likely conjures up thoughts of a retreat – a place of repose and restfulness – an escape from the more frenetic world of public life that lies beyond the boundaries of that space. The Company’s Garden in Cape Town is no different. It is the city’s green lung – an oasis right in the centre of town and a favourite for locals and tourists alike – a thriving urban space where buskers strum guitars while office workers sun themselves during lunch hour.

CEO Provincial Manager for the Western Cape, Stephen Kirsten, has a special connection with the ‘Gardens’. He grew up in the City Bowl, on the slopes of Signal Hill. “It was a magical place to grow up, playing on the slopes of the mountain as a kid was really special,” he recalls. “I went to school at Cape Town High – an inner-city school located on the edge of the Gardens. During our lunch breaks, we would spend time in the lanes, feeding the squirrels.” He returned to university at the age of 30 to complete his law degree. At the time, he was working and married with two young children. Quite an achievement. “I like to take my family to the Gardens now and then so that the children can share a little of what that place meant to me.”

Why do the Gardens have such significance for Stephen? “I believe that balance is important. Work, leisure and family commitments are all critical for mental well-being,” he explains. “I can always do with the motivation to be the best at what I do in all of those areas. The Gardens remind me to stop, reflect, find cause and passion – and to take care of the little things; the ‘squirrels’ if you like.”

The Gardens are even more emblematic in that it was first built as a refreshment station for the trade route that rounded the tip of Africa between Europe and the east. Ships sent by the Dutch East India Company would stock up on fresh produce grown in the garden—hence, “The Company’s Garden”. Over time, it has stood at the junction of the political and cultural evolution of South Africa’s inhabitants. Each side of the garden is flanked by contrasting symbols like art exhibitions, a natural history museum, slave lodge, holocaust museum, an anti-apartheid church (St. George’s), legal chambers and the country’s parliament building. “The garden has straddled a time of restless history, yet it is still a place of sanctuary where workers find rest, children explore its creatures and tree-lined lanes, and newlyweds take photos against the floral backdrops as a reminder of their happiest day,” says Stephen. “I believe that this is like the benefit we (CEO) offer to our members. Amid labour disputes and rifts, we offer a stopgap where we can genuinely assess the issues and then pursue the resolution of those disputes to the fullest extent.”

Stephen maintains that CEO is perfectly positioned to assist their members in the sphere of collective bargaining in various industries in which it organises as well as resolving labour disputes between employers and employees. “As a multi-industry organisation, we have the ability to operate in numerous sectors and industries.”

More than ever before, businesses need the support and protection of organisations like CEO in navigating labour issues that are the result of the pandemic economy. “I think the financial strain businesses are experiencing because of COVID-19 and the lockdowns cannot be underestimated. There are many sectors that have been subjected to virtual lockdown for more than 18 months. Take the tourism sector, for example, which relies on international visitors. The effect on the sector has filtered to most ancillary services which remain unable to operate.”

In the hothouse of labour relations, Stephen and his colleagues carry a spade and a watering can. “We’re playing our part in developing a better labour environment. It’s not easy, but CEO is doing its part to get the job done.” His namesake, the renowned South African horticulturalist, Keith Kirsten once said about change and resolution; “I am an outrageous Africa optimist! So let us roll up our sleeves!”