The Jan Marais Park was created exactly 101 years ago. 1916 was the year BMW (The Bayerischen Motoren Werke) was founded, as well as the year that Albert Einstein published his relativity theory. #trivia
So what is the story behind the park?
Why has there been so much effort to protect the Jan Marais park (for more than 100 years!)
Here are some interesting facts:
A donation for a park
When Mr Jannie Marais (Stellenbosch’s great philanthropist) left money in his will for a park, there was a lot of confusion about exactly WHERE the park should be.
Because a decision couldn’t be reached, the money for purchasing, building and maintaining the “public Municipale Park” (₤ 10,000) remained in the bank. After 10 years it had grown to ₤ 17,000.
At that time Stellenbosch had 3 public spaces / parks:
- the Braak,
- the sporting fields at Banghoek Road (known as Du Toit park)
- a piece of municipal land at the top of Victoria Street
For years there was controversy about the new park’s location and the use of Mr Marais’ money.
What were the options?
One of the first proposals (around 1917) was to transform the Braak into the new Jan Marais park, as part of a larger park scheme. One of the counter arguments was that the soil on the Braak is not fertile enough to make vegetation sustainable (although tested later and found not so bad).
A second option was to create the park on the farm Bergzicht, close to where Klein Libertas theater and the Van der Stel sports grounds later developed.
Another option was to build it on JD Beyers’ farm “Oude Molen” or on JD Krige’s land south of Coetzenburg.
Eventually it was decided (24 votes to 10 votes) to build the park on the open plot at the top of Victoria Street.
Although the present park was inaugurated in 1919, controversy continued for years afterwards.
What kind of park would it be?
The Jan Marais Park was originally planned as a garden park, probably with lawns and pergolas, almost like the original “Rooiplein”.
Fortunately, the rector of the Victoria College at that time had the insight to suggest that it should rather be a “nature park” with indigenous plants; It’s more timeless and would protect local fauna and flora.
Since early on the park was valued by botanists and fynbos lovers. The area was one of the places where AV Guthrie, a young female professor at the University, did her important research on Cape vegetation.
In 1920, the Department of Botany suggested creating a botanical garden in the park. Although it was never built, the park was declared a wild flower reserve in the 1960s and in later years as a nature reserve (in 1980).
Was the park ever in danger of disappearing?
Over the years, there were many suggestions to transform or develop the park into something else.
In 1923 the park almost disappeared. A number of members of the city council wanted to auction off the land as normal residential properties. They had plans drawn up and submitted to the rest of the council.
When it came to a vote on the motion, the city council was equally divided. It was only the mayor Charlie Neethling’s voice that swung the motion in favour of keeping the park.
In the 1960s the university wanted to erect the Langenhoven Memorial Center (the Neelsie!) where the park is now. Negotiations were done with the city council, but was never approved. As we know, the Neelsie is today at the bottom of Victoria Street.
In 1987 it was decided to build an electrical substation in the park opposite Merriman Avenue. Fortunately, the power station did not occupy much of the park’s ground, although it remains a bit of an eye sore.
What interesting people were involved?
When the JS Marais Park was planned, a certain Mr. Simon Cupido was contracted for ground clearing and getting rid of big stones on the site.
A certain Mr. Bloch bought trees worth ₤ 15. There were also three specific oak trees planted at the opening of the garden, dedicated to Jannie Marais, his wife Elizabeth and to Mayor Charlie Neethling at that time.
Piet Roux from Mostertsdrift was approached to indicate the exact location where the park would be.
If you have memorable stories about the Jan Marais park, feel free to share!
Or read this cool blog by Craig Lotter “An Exploring South African” about his experience at the Jan Marais park.
For another one of our heritage blogs, click here.
“‘n Dromer” is a young Stellenbosser who loves writing about the everyday things that often go unnoticed. She likes dusty books and seeing how the past isn’t always what it seems. She has written about Stellenbosch, it’s heritage and it’s people almost every week since 2015.
Article: Y Coetsee 2017
Sources: Nalatenskappe sonder einde, die verhaal van Jannie Marais en die Marais-broers. Pieter Kapp (2015) Het Jan Marais Nationale Fonds
Photo: Craig Lotter