Veld & Flora Feature



hill of dreams

One man had a dream in Tshwane’s Mamelodi – and helped preserve a natural gem overlooked by botanists


Mamelodi’s hill of dreams



Above: Looking past common wild elder (Nuxia congesta) to Mamelodi, locally known as Mams.


AMID THE HUGE, BUSTLING TOWNSHIP of Mamelodi in the City of Tshwane rises a green hill, one of a series of mountain ridges. Mamelodi’s thrusting energy means that it is built up to the foot of this series of mountain ridges that extend from the Magaliesberg. Mamelodi and nearby Eersterust jostle against two ridges separated by a lower neck through which Tsamaya Avenue runs.

A third ridge further east runs almost as far as Rayton, Cullinan and Bronkhorstpruit – an area known as Donkerhoek. What is quite widely known is that there were several skirmishes in the area during the second Anglo-Boer war, as well as the pivotal battle of Diamond Hill. To this day, remnants of military fortifications remain on these ridges and also the extraordinary Telperion shelter, with ancient and 19th century rock paintings, as well as the scratched initials of Boer women who hid there from the British. Botanically, however, much of these ridges is undocumented and unknown.

On the doorstep of South Africa’s capital, where several botanical research organisations are headquartered, lies an underexplored natural area where only about 250 plant specimens have ever been collected. In the National Herbarium database, just over 200 plant specimens have the locality given as Donkerhoek but fewer than 45 specimens as Mamelodi, the name that has been used since 1945 – three-quarters of a century ago.


Left: Red mistletoe (Tapinanthus rubromarginatus) is semi-parasitic – its host here is the common sugarbush. Right: Bushveld crossandra (rooiblom; Crossandra greenstockii) is a very hardy perennial that thrives in full sun.


Saved by a dream

What has gone missing during this botanical inaction? Fortunately for botany and the protection of natural resources, somebody had a dream. That person was Dr Ephraim Mabena, a renowned and well-respected traditional healer who lives and works in Mamelodi. He is passionate about conserving the biodiversity on which his trade in medicinal plants is based. Dr Mabena’s dream from his ancestors prompted him and his wife to take it upon themselves to clean up and revitalise part of the ridge. They have established Mothong African Heritage, a peaceful botanical garden and nursery where culturally valuable and important plants are cultivated and protected.

Dr Mabena has received many accolades for his work and over the past few years, University of Pretoria Department of Plant and Soil Sciences staff have been collaborating with him on aspects of medicinal plant science research. In the past two years, together with staff from the National Herbarium, Pretoria, we also launched a project to collect, identify and document the diversity of plants along these ridges.


Above: Dr Ephraim Mabena (third from left) shows his medicinal plant nursery to visiting researchers and Mamelodi community members.


Pristine delight

Dr Mabena facilitated and guided several visits to the ridge during the flowering season of 2019/2020. So far, we have explored only the westernmost ridge, which runs north of Mamelodi’s oldest section. The indigenous plants on the Eersterus/Mamelodi ridge are similar to those of the Magaliesberg – not surprising as the geology is identical. We have been particularly excited to find a parasitic plant from the Loranthaceae family, red mistletoe (vuurhoutjie; Tapinanthus rubromarginatus), also known as boletswa in sePedi and nzunzu in tshiVenda.

We were delighted to find that this ridge is in almost pristine condition – virtually no litter, very few invasive alien plants, little sign of excessive harvesting for fuel wood or any other plant-based products and little erosion or other indicators of poor land use. With Dr Mabena’s help, we will continue the exploration of these ridges and hopefully this will develop into an area for biodiversity research projects. There are indications that the area has previously been cultivated in some places and kraals for cattle allowed to graze on the ridge. As in many areas of ‘vacant lands’ in and around Pretoria, however, household, garden and building rubble has been dumped, especially in areas with road access.


Left: The flowers of this plane tree (Ochna species) glow golden in the sun. Right: Cat’s whiskers (Ocimum obovatum) thrives in a waterwise garden.


Conserving Gauteng

The Magaliesberg – which stretches from Rustenburg in the west to Bronkhorstspruit dam in the east – has a complicated history of protection. It is not even clear how the limits of the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve were decided. We hope in future to motivate for the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve to be extended. It currently ends at the poort where the N1 heads north through the Magaliesberg, which excludes the Eersterus/Mamelodi part of the ridge – so even extensive studies on this biosphere reserve do not seem to examine or document this easternmost section where we are exploring.

Not enough of Gauteng is dedicated to conservation – only 2.3% of the province is under formal conservation. Recognising more areas as valuable biodiversity assets is vital within the province. While our exploration is still in its early stages, we want to begin raising awareness of this botanical gem on a green hill often just seen in passing from the N4.


Above: This view south west has bobejaanstert (Xerophyta retinervis) in the foreground in the foreground and another Magaliesberg ridge in the background. 

Keep in touch

Keep in touch with the project’s progress at:

Nigel P. Barker, Kenneth Oberlander and Gary Stafford are members of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, University of Pretoria. Stoffel P. Bester is a scientist at the National Herbarium, Pretoria, and a member of the Unit for Environmental Science and Management at North-West University. Ephraim Mabena founded and runs the Mothong African Heritage Trust & Village, Mamelodi.


Above clockwise: African medlar (Vangueria infausta); common sugarbush (Protea caffra); botanists (from left clockwise) Pieter Bester, Lufuno Makwarela and Arnold Frisby confer on their collections during a break; a xerophyte species in flower; inkplant (Cycnium adonense).


This article was first featured in Veld & Flora in the March 2021 edition. Veld & Flora is only available to BotSoc members.

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