Local gardener farewells Embassy

NOT many high ranking international diplomats would be prepared to plant a tree in one of their employee's backyard, but then again most of Canberra's power brokers have never met a man like William Hopkins.

The mild-mannered Queanbeyan man served the South African government for 43 years as a gardener at its Australian Embassy.

As the seasons changed so did the world.

He watched on as shrubs became trees and the oppressive Apartheid give way to the Rainbow Nation, all the while tending to Mother Nature.

His handy-work was second to none and when he retired at the end of last week, South African High Commissioner Koleka Mqulwana not only presented him with a certificate of appreciation but came to his home and planted a Pink Ice Protea (the nation's floral emblem) in his back garden.

Mr Hopkins, Uncle Billy as he is better known, has always had a green thumb. He completed his education at age 15 and worked Mann's Nursery for five years.

At 20, he left the garden to do two years national service before returning to work in a saw mill but the lumber game wasn't for him.

So, when his old boss Burt Martin offered him a job at the embassy, he jumped at the opportunity and never looked back.

For 40 years he oversaw the up keep of the 2.8 hectare block. He served under 12 different Ambassadors/High Commissioners and a change in the political landscape usually signalled change in the physical one too.

"You got the occasional one who would just go with the flow and leave it all up to you but most of them wanted to leave a mark," Mr Hopkins explained.

"So, some would have things pulled out, some would have things put in, change things around, put in bigger beds, all sorts of things ... Lots of things changed."

Working at the embassy wasn't always easy. During the Apartheid there were often demonstrations and it wasn't uncommon for the protestors to direct their angst toward the garden staff. While he was never fearful for his safety, Mr Hopkins remembers having his vehicle spat at and copping verbal abuse.

"It was like a different world. For us who worked in the garden ... all we were concerned about was the garden and the people who were demonstrating and whatever didn't think about that," he said.

"They just thought because we were there we were supporting that regime but we weren't. We weren't thinking about politics, we were just there to do our jobs and maintain a garden and its beauty."

The South African government always appreciated his efforts. In 1989, they paid for him to visit the country and in 1999 they gave him a gold watch.

However, the highlight of his career was when he got to meet Nelson Mandela during his speaking tour in 2000.

Mr Hopkins shook his hand and said the experience was so amazing he found it hard let go.

"He was an incredible man," he said.

"How many people could be imprisoned for all those years and come out with the sense of life that he had? We all expected there to be bloodshed and that type of thing but it didn't happen because of that man. He was generous in his ways and a very kind man, gentle-speaking, soft.

"I actually saw him on stage before (I got to meet him) and it's funny, you know how people sometimes say that somebody has an aura around them? Well he certainly did have an aura around him."

Mr Hopkins will miss the embassy, by the end of his career it felt more like his home away from home, but he'll be making the best of his retirement.

He told the Age he would fill in his days by volunteering within the community and tending to his own garden.

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