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A new book traces the 1.4million-year history of the city through its parks, cemeteries and zoo; from hominid finds at Melville Koppies to the graves of the apartheid struggle heroes.

Avalon Cemetery: last resting place of Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph
Avalon Cemetery: last resting place of Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph

THE COMPLEX history and heritage of Johannesburg can be seen all around – particularly in its cemeteries, parks and its zoo.

A richly-sourced book A journey through Johannesburg’s parks, cemeteries and Zoo, looks back to the first settlers some 1.4million years ago, follows the developments of the gold rush and the setting up of the City of Gold, and the devastation caused by apartheid – and the promising steps to democracy.

The 200-page book, written by Lucille Davie and sponsored by the Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), was fittingly launched at the Joburg Zoo on 6 Ocotber.

Managing director of City Parks and Zoo, Bulumko Nelana, stressed that the depth of history covered in the book was significant: from the early peoples of Johannesburg going back 1.4 million years, through to the prospectors, farmers, miners, anti-apartheid stalwarts, and youthful activists like Hector Pieterson and Tsietsi Mashinini.

The book traces the history of Johannesburg through its parks, cemeteries and zoo. That history began at Melville Koppies when groups of hominids roamed the area. It looks at the earliest settlers in Joburg – Tswana peoples lived in groups across the ridges, and down south in Klipriviersberg. Voortrekker farmers then settled in Johannesburg, and not too long afterwards gold was discovered. People flocked to the area, and in 1886, the city was born. The next century or more saw it develop into a vibrant city of four million people, and 10 million trees. Many of the more significant struggle heroes are buried in the city.

Signs of early life amidst the Melville Koppies
Signs of early life amidst the Melville Koppies

“The fight against apartheid in many ways was focused in Johannesburg, and that is reflected in the gravestones in the city’s cemeteries,” Davie said. “A walk through Nancefield, Avalon and Newclare cemeteries in particular is a history book of the struggle.”

The book looks beyond the human influence; identifying rare ecological colonies such as the Roodepoort Copper Butterfly that lives only in a 12ha reserve in Ruimsig. It is found nowhere else in the country or the world, so is under the special protection of the city.

As the speakers talked about the importance of tradition and culture, the dusk-time growls of the lions settling in for the night could be heard in the background, while the gentle calls of the owls lingered under the breeze.

Mayoral committee member for community development, Chris Vondo, noted that “heritage is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture. Most importantly, it is the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviours that we draw from them.”

William Gumede, associate professor at the Wits School of Governance, said the book did justice to the contribution of all of Johannesburg’s communities, “especially those who were written out of history because of colonialism and apartheid”.

“In my ideal world every open space in a township will be converted into parks, with greenery, trees, and the local communities will run and maintain these parks,” he said. Business should contribute to the trees while architects, planners and designers should contribute to landscaping these parks. “These community parks could be dedicated to local struggle heroes of all ideologies, the forgotten artists, and community activists and leaders – many of them forgotten, as we often only celebrate the ‘prominent’ national leaders.”

Concerts and rallies would be organised in the parks, where the work of local artists and sculptors would be celebrated, giving Johannesburg “a new democratic identity”. “South Africa needs a movement to build public parks.”

Gumede added that the book should be made accessible to all, especially those from disadvantaged communities.

Author Lucille Davie
Author Lucille Davie

Secretary-general of the South African Commission at Unesco, Carlton Mukwevho, was pleased to see a programme aligned to Unesco’s mandate of promoting heritage. He said he hoped that the department of education would strengthen its political content in the school curriculum, and the book would contribute to that content, with its profiling of political leaders who are buried in the city’s cemeteries.

“This book is a petition to current and future generations to pay homage to the great achievements of humanity by becoming part of the movement that seeks to educate and at the same time preserve the rich cultural and natural heritage here in the majestic City of Johannesburg, our country and elsewhere in the world,” said Lupi Ncayisa, on behalf of the Gauteng provincial MEC for Economic, Environment, Agriculture and Rural Development Lebogang Maile.

The general manager of the National Heritage Council, Thendo Ramagoma, also spoke, suggesting that funding should be found for doing more books such as this one, as it was vital that history is not lost, particularly to the younger generation. Nelana expressed the wish that the private sector would come on board in similar future ventures.

The book is available at the Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo offices in De Korte Street, Braamfontein, and will shortly be available on Kalahari.com. It costs R159.