Burgerspark, Pretoria’s oldest park

Burgerspark, Pretoria

The Edwardian ‘folly’, a bandstand, against New Zealand kauri tree

Burgerspark is at its best in early spring - famous for its magnolias, then flowering peaches and roses and its grand pergola with a bignonia cultivar not planted anymore, flanked by the city’s jacarandas. It is dominated by shades of pink, a pretty park, light and cosmopolitan in feeling.

Its genesis wasn’t that cosmopolitan: the brainchild of Pres TF Burgers in 1874 who appointed his friend the Scot John Hunter McLea as gardener, but the Boer Republic’s parliament didn’t approve of the choice and McLea and his ‘‘native helpers” quit after 2 years. At one point Pres Burgers even offered to pay for plants from his own pocket to get the project moving. Then the Republic was annexed by the Brits led by Theophilus Shepstone who envisioned the budding park as an experimental farm but by now the Boers were complaining that the park’s site was poor and that the Brits were neglecting it (I find that hard to believe; Sir Shepstone was a keen gardener).

To cut a long and convoluted story short: the park was officially called Burgerspark in 1894, when Pretoria was under Boer control again. Fittingly, the proclamation was accompanied by a ream of rules and regulations, like that ‘‘natives” were unwelcome unless they were childminders accompanied by employers, that cyclists may not ride two abreast and no lolling about on the grass.

There is a remnant of this old rancour between Boer and Brit in the entry on South African parks by Prof Donal McCracken in the The Oxford Companion to the Garden (2006): ‘‘Up in the Transvaal Republic a small botanic garden was established in 1874, but the vagaries of the mining republic soon reduced it to what it is today - Burgers Park.” Ouch!

‘‘Parks that can give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity,” Jane Jacobs ends her essay on what constitutes successful parks. Burgerspark, despite its low profile*, is a park that gives grace and delight. But it needs - and merits - the boon of appreciation.

*I ask George Zietsman whether the mayor or any high official in the Tshwane Municipality ever mentions how good the park looks. I needn’t have asked; I rightly suspected what the answer would be.