EARLY DAYS: A picture of members of the Mountain Club of SA, taken at Kirstenbosch in 1920, forms part of a 40m banner of early photographs on display in the botanical gardens, which are celebrating their centenary this week.

LOVE him or hate him, Cecil John Rhodes left a very big footprint on southern Africa. We are reminded of this daily by the glowering Cape granite monument, Rhodes Memorial, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Francis Macey and featuring the George Frederic Watts statue, Energy.

Affectionately known as Rhodes Mem, the monument on the slopes of Devil’s Peak was unveiled on July 5, 1912. But almost exactly a year later – a century ago yesterday – what is perhaps a more fitting memorial to Rhodes was founded from humble beginnings just along the mountain: the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens.

Originally inhabited by Stone Age man – hand axes and stone implements have been found in the Dell – the forests and fynbos of pre-settlement Kirstenbosch gave shelter and sustenance to the Khoikhoi people.

Indeed, the history of Kirstenbosch is the history of Cape Town – a history of pre-colonial settlement, colonial dispossession and conquest as Dutch settlers and the Khoikhoi clashed over grazing routes. It was Jan van Riebeeck who, in 1660, ordered the planting of a hedge of wild almond trees and brambles to separate the settlers from the indigenous people. Part of that hedge still survives today.

Rhodes bought Kirstenbosch in 1895. On his death in 1902, he bequeathed the derelict farm, overrun with feral pigs, to the government of the day. And this was perhaps his greatest gift to the people of Cape Town and South Africa.

Over the past century, from its humble beginnings in July 1913, when Harold Pearson and Neville Pillans first surveyed the site, many people have contributed to making Kirstenbosch what it is today – one of the finest (Capetonians like to believe it is the finest) botanical gardens in the world.

Kirstenbosch, the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSoc) are to be warmly applauded on this auspicious anniversary. And it is fitting to note that the gardens today are not only a natural refuge and a haven for the Cape Floral Kingdom’s fauna and flora, but also a peaceful and joyful gathering place for the descendants of all those diverse South Africans – from Stone Age man to Khoikhoi herders and settler colonialists – who have helped shape its history.