2014 – June 2017
I first visited The Wilds in 2014, despite having lived right next to it for several years. My back windows face the park, but it was so dark and overgrown one couldn’t see in. People in my area regarded it as an extremely dangerous place and none of my neighbours had ever visited.
But I got a dog, and because I live in an apartment I had to walk him regularly. I’d drive to other parks like James & Ethel Grey Park where I’d been pruning the trees into shape for years. But The Wilds always intrigued me. Could it be so bad?
There’s a pedestrian gate into The Wilds on my street, and the first times I went in I’d tell my building’s security guard to raise the alarm if I didn’t return. I kept R100 in my pocket in case I met a robber. I walked short distances along the pathways, not too far from the gate.
Slowly, I ventured further. It was badly overgrown – trees collapsed onto cycads, infestations of weeds, erosion, broken benches, empty water features, crumbling stonework, dead branches hanging off trees.
But there was exquisite beauty. A collection of magnificent indigenous trees which was quite magnificent for an area that was grassland just a century ago. Stone pathways criss-crossed the park. There was hardly anyone there – visitors were rare, but also there were no criminals, no squatters. Just beautiful, peaceful greenery. So close to Hillbrow and downtown, this serene space.
One day I discovered a small City Parks team mowing lawns and chatted to them, they’d worked there for decades and were all approaching retirement. They mowed the lawns and swept the paths, and grew vegetables for themselves in the nursery, which was falling apart and had long ceased to grow plants for The Wilds. The greenhouses were wildly overgrown, euphorbias spreading out across the ceiling. There were patches of tomatoes growing in the flowerbeds. I harvested a bucketload once.
It was like something out of storybook, like The Secret Garden.
The staff were scared of their own park too. They told me they didn’t walk to the extremes of the park. They kept the lawns, but left the rest. New benches lay in a heap at the entrance, delivered by head office but never installed. It was clear that no one from City Parks head office ever inspected this park. The staff were ticking off the days to retirement.
Now that I understand more of the history of The Wilds, I realise I was seeing the benefits of volunteer TJ de Klerk’s work the previous decade. Before him, there had been bad elements and crime. He’d lobbied City Parks and funders to have the park fenced, to install security, to open up overgrown pathways and more. But City Parks had worn him down and he’d stopped.
So walking with my dog, Pablo, I’d take clippers with me. I started with the cycads, because they’re a passion of mine. I’d remove the branches collapsed over them, take off the dead fronds. I found many babies, and showed them to the on-site supervisor of The Wilds, who took them to the nursery. The nursery now has a healthy population of baby cycads.
Once I’d started with those dead branches, I noticed more and more. And I realized that The Wilds felt dangerous because it was so overgrown – I needed to open lines of sight so that walkers could see around them. From years of pruning trees, I also know that removing lower branches helps trees to grow higher, and lets light and water into the plants below.
I recruited Thulani Nkomo to help me, he’s brilliant with pruning trees. I bought more equipment, and we started clearing undergrowth and dead branches every weekend – for 3 years. Every Monday morning, City Parks would find piles of branches. And they were big piles. To their credit, they would always remove them.
I estimate that in those 3 years, we cut and they removed 50 large truckloads of branches, perhaps more.
The plants on the ground got more light and water. Agapanthus, wild iris, wild garlic and more started flowering again and growing back. But they were old and woody, and needed separating, so we began doing that too, re-laying the flowerbeds (we still have a long way to go!).
The Wilds is 40 acres, split in 2 by the road (with a pedestrian bridge linking the 2 sides). I came to understand that the East Wilds wasn’t properly fenced and wasn’t that safe. The West Wilds was safe, and was also the more parklike side – huge plantings of flowers, lawns etc. So we focused on the West.
One of the things which makes The Wilds so remarkable is that it’s all indigenous planting – remarkable for a park that dates back to the colonial era, when people liked planting oak trees and roses. I’m an enthusiast rather than expert on indigenous flora, and so have leaned on the knowledge of many horticultural experts, who have generously given of their time. The Wilds used to have full time horticulturalists, but City Parks had done away with that – hence the neglect of the nurseries.
I tried getting friends to come and help, and sometimes they would spend a few hours on a Sunday. We’d go section by section – it was hard, physical work. I started with the path between the gate I use and Fever Tree Lawn. Then the area around the lawn. Then the Yellowwood forests. It was an extraordinary process – we’d start clearing and then find a Yellowwood tree so big you couldn’t put your arms around it, and then another, until a whole forest came into view.
Then the Wild Olive forest. Then down towards the big lawn. Then up to the sundial. Piece by piece, slowly opening it up. We also trimmed the perimeter, so that residents of the adjoining blocks of flats could see in. I dropped off letters with them all, asking them to become the eyes and ears of The Wilds, to keep it safe. I even put bird feeders up inside the park, to get them to look in. One of them called the police on us one Sunday. We developed a thick skin.
I realised I needed more help. Areas we’d cleared at the start were now coming up with weeds again. Benches and paths needed restoring; I hadn’t even looked at the water features or greenhouses, or begun the East Wilds. But people would still react with horror at the idea of coming “no way, that’s too dangerous!”
I’d started developing better communication with City Parks head office, and started developing some relationships with people who wanted to help. The managers were aware of what I was doing, they’d sometimes contact me, but never inspected my work. So I just carried on going. I’ve still never been able to secure a meeting with their team to plan what we all do, in 6 years.
But I realized I needed more hands, in the form of volunteers, and it was clear I’d need to do some fundraising.
Once people saw The Wilds, they’d fall in love. But how could I get them in?
July 2017 – 2020
I spend time in New York every year, working on my art and visiting galleries, and I’d learnt the story of Central Park. Viewed in the 70s and 80s as too dangerous to visit, overgrown and in poor condition, it was local residents who fundraised and fixed it up. Today, almost 70% of Central Park’s operating costs are paid for by donations, only the minority by the city. Also, they encouraged dog walkers to run their dogs off-leash to make the park safer.
I needed something similar for The Wilds.
I came up with the idea of sculptures of owls, suspended in the forest. I’d never made a sculpture before – but I’m an artist, so applied myself to the new challenge. I made charcoal drawings, each has some interesting quirk or expression, and was introduced to Chris Lenferna who helped laser cut them at his factory. They were painted bright colours to stand out from the dark forest canopy. I hoped they’d draw people’s attention to the trees, and create something that they’d talk about on social media.
I tied it to Mandela Day 2017, when people in South Africa give of their time to a good cause. I cut 67 owls, one for each year Madiba gave in public service.
Hundreds of people came that day, armed with clippers and saws. Kids screamed with delight when they saw the owls, counting them, their parents picnicked, people chopped and cleared and planted. Thulani and I tried our best to direct operations.
And now the real work could begin. It’s been almost 3 years since that day, and The Wilds has been transformed.
I developed some strong relationships with positive people at City Parks, and some politicians, who helped me. Being a volunteer, I was always the outsider and that isn’t easy.
TJ de Klerk arrived at my house one day with a box of all his press cuttings, maps of the park, historic images and a plant list. He was leaving town, and wanted to pass it all on to me.
City Parks hired a team of 10 workers as part of the EPWP job creation programme. This has made a big difference for weeding, mowing and planting. They are poorly trained, and enthusiastic to learn, but City Parks don’t allow me to interact with them.
I partnered with Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and together with them we signed an MOU with City Parks. This legitimised the work I was doing, and enabled me to do fundraising through them – so people could make donations to an official non-profit, and they administer the funds.
My team grew. Apart from Thulani, there’s Alfie Letuku whose salary is paid by a generous benefactor, and he works on planting, path restoration, weeding and other projects full time. Lovemore Chivhunze does plumbing, Alex Nxumalo fixes fences and does all manner of small projects, and Thulane Nkosi (JJ) and his team of 3 do stonework – retaining walls, paths etc.
Here are some highlights of the work that’s been achieved with my team, with volunteers and with the City Parks Wilds staff on the ground;
As the sculptures became popular, I used them to open up sections of the park that people weren’t visiting – they became destinations within the park, allowing people to walk further and spend more time exploring. There are now 100 sculptures – monkeys, a pangolin, ostriches, the red kudu family, klipspringers, duiker and more.
The largest is a 5 metre high pink and yellow giraffe, on what is now known as Giraffe Lawn. This was an important landmark piece as it is visible from the road, drawing the attention of passers-by. I crowdfunded to pay for the materials, which were considerable – it’s so heavy it had to be installed using a crane, and we had to bring a concrete mixer down narrow stone paths to lay the large block of concrete below ground to support it.
More recently, people have donated collections of plants – a group of tree aloes for the Houghton side, hundreds of clivias for the Owl Forest, succulents for the rocky hilltops, Fever Trees and more. The Wilds began in the old days with donated collections, so it’s wonderful to see it happening again.
I’ve had some memorable walks across The Wilds, with benefactor Adi Enthoven talking indigenous plants, with William Kentridge recounting childhood memories of the park and committing funding for the next 3 years, with former mayor Herman Mashaba talking politics. Fellow artist Pat Mautloa told me he had his wedding photographs taken there in the Apartheid years, he says everyone did, no matter their race. This is a place of remarkable memories.
It wasn’t all easy going. The physical work was tough but greatly rewarding, and people donated tools and chainsaws and plants which helped us. But I was offending some people at City Parks; several times they have used obscure bylaws to stop me. Who knew that park benches must be painted green, or that a tiny yellowwood sapling can only be moved by the Forestry Department, even when it’s about to be stood upon, and there is no Forestry Department?
For a few months, young local entrepreneurs ran a fabulous coffee stand in the carpark on Sundays, which brought great energy and a sense of welcome. City Parks never visited on weekends, so they didn’t know about it. Then someone found out, sent in the Park Rangers and cops to shut it down. That was a low point.
But the momentum was established. The carpark now overflowed all weekend – queues of cars trying to squeeze into the small carpark. When I drive to my studio on weekends and pass the little traffic jam at The Wilds, it lifts my heart. I always tell people a well-used park is a safe park. It’s common now to see women walking alone on the West Wilds.
The Wilds has won several awards – Business Arts SA, the SA Institute of Architecture, Caxton’s Best of Joburg, Rotary – and been featured in media all over South Africa and the world. It was awarded an official Blue Plaque for heritage by the City of Joburg, unveiled by the local councilor.
The Wilds inspires a great love for landscape, for plants, for people, for art, and for the city. People give to the park all the time – their time, money, plants and enthusiasm. 2000 volunteers have worked in The Wilds the past 3 years. R1 million has been fundraised and spent on improvements. There are 4000 members of Friends of The Wilds.
It’s a constantly evolving labour of love for so many Johannesburg residents.
May it grow from strength to strength, and the message of restoring green spaces spread along these ridges and across the city.