SA’s first champion tree proclaimed in Sophiatown
September 7, 2004
South Africa’s first champion tree, in Sophiatown in Johannesburg, was declared a protected tree by an official from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) in a ceremony on Friday.
”The people have spoken and said they want the tree to be protected. The tree is now declared to be permanently protected, which means that no one can cut, damage or transport the tree,” said Luke Radebe, Gauteng manager for forestry operations with the DWAF.
Champion trees are trees that occur across the country that are of “exceptional importance, and deserve national protection”, according to DWAF. A tree will qualify if it is of exceptional size or age (the huge baobab at Sagole in Limpopo); it has aesthetic or landscape value (oak avenues in Stellenbosch and Potchefstroom); or cultural or historic value (the ‘post office tree’ in Mossel Bay); or has tourism value (a paper bark tree shaped like a pancake near Nelspruit, or the Limpopo tree).
The trees, once declared champion trees, are protected under the National Forests Act of 1998.
The Sophiatown tree has historic and cultural value for the former cosmopolitan community, before they were forcefully removed between 1955 and 1963, mostly to Soweto. Members of various gangs living in the ghetto suburb used to use the tree as a meeting place. Poet, writer and former gangster Don Mattera refers to the tree in his book Gone with the twilight. Religious leaders and activists also used the tree to rendezvous.
The tree also gained a sinister reputation as “the hanging tree” when two people hanged themselves from its branches, one objecting to the forced removal from Sophiatown.
The tree, an English Oak believed to be over 100 years old, is partly in the property of 8 Bertha Street, and partly on the pavement. It is a faint shadow of what it was two years, before the former owner, Daniel Mulaudzi, unknowlingly cut off its spread of tall thick branches and left a trunk with six fat sawn-off branches, mutilated fingers sticking into the sky, with thin wisps of new stems boasting sparse spring leaves.
But, ultimately it was the severe pruning that led to the tree’s salvation. In August 2002 Sue Krige of Experience Histourism, was taking a group of trainee tour guides on a walking tour of the suburb when she noticed that two of the branches had been cut. Krige asked Mulaudzi for permission to remove the cut-up branches, and they were stored at the Christ the King Church for use by a group of artists attached to the Trevor Huddleston CR Memorial Centre. The blocks were subsequently stolen before the artists could carve them.
But, within a couple of months the damage had been done – all the branches were cut and the tree had been converted from a glorious tall oak to a stunted monster, around a tenth of its original height. Krige then set the process of protection in place by contacting both the City and DWAF.
Mulaudzi, who sold the property in November 2003, says he wanted to build a wall along the front of his property but the tree was in the way. He moved into the house in October 2001 and made an immediate request to City Parks for help to have the branches cut. After approaching them several more times they cut off a single branch protruding over the road, saying the rest was in his property and therefore his responsibility.
After this branch was removed Mulaudzi hired a company to remove the rest of the branches. It was only after the branches were all cut off, he says, that the ward councillor arrived and said he was not supposed to remove the branches. He subsequently received letters from City Parks, the DWAF and Region 4, the region into which Sophiatown falls, saying it was a protected.
”I received so many letters,” he says, adding that he didn’t know about the history of the tree before having it cut. He admits that before the letters arrived he was preparing to have the trunk removed. But the pressure became too much for him and he put the house on the market.
The tree caused huge sweep-up tasks every autumn, blocking gutters, and shading the house in winter, making it very cold, which affected both him and his neighbour. His neighbours complained about owls and noisy hadedas roosting in the tree at night.
The new owners have built a brick wall around the tree, cutting it off from their property, and handing over responsibility for it to the City. A bed has been created around the base of the tree, planted with perennials. The new owners removed the last of the branches from the bare sand which serves as their garden after taking occupation 10 months ago.
The tree has a girth of around 4m and stands now at about 4m tall. Mike Griffiths, general manager of street trees for the City, says the tree is healthy and that it will be between six to eight years before the next pruning will be required, and up to 25 years before it regains its former greatness.
Sophiatown was established by Hermann Tobiansky in 1897, when he bought a portion of the original farm Waterval, owned by farmer CJ van Schalkwyk, who acquired it in May 1885, a year before gold was discovered on the reef. It’s possible that the oak was planted at around that time, so it undoubtedly qualifies as 100 years old.