‘Why?” was the usual exclamation, accompanied by a narrowing of the eyes and a quizzical expression ...“Why on Earth would you want to move to Pretoria?”
Most South African friends, acquaintances and passersby could not quite grasp why a couple of Londoners, who had been living in a rural central African paradise for the previous two years, would choose Pretoria as their next destination.
To them it seemed incongruous, that after sampling the opposing extremes of an urban, vibrant, multicultural, behemoth European metropolis and a laid-back beachside lifestyle; we would choose to settle in a boring landlocked administrative capital.
“Oh ... you’ll love South Africa, it’s a great place,” they’d say enthusiastically. “You’ll be able to travel loads ... the peaks of the Drakensberg mountain range, the waves on Durban’s beaches, safari in Kruger National Park, Table Mountain, the Garden Route, even Joburg has some cool places to go and that’ll be just down the road.”
Pretoria was like a dirty word, as gems of the Southern African tourist circuit were thrown out to placate our inevitable displeasure of having to spend our working weeks in such tedious surroundings.
Occasionally, someone would have something pleasant to say, but more often than not in a conciliatory manner, to stem their pity at our impending doom: “Oh yeah, Pretoria ... ?ummmmm ... loads of students, so a cracking nightlife if you’re 18, enjoy Jagermeister shots and like dancing to Afrikaans pop.
And plenty of Jacaranda trees too, so for two weeks of the year it looks pretty.” Great.
Surely it couldn’t be that bad. We started scouring regional guidebooks to prove those doubters wrong. No such luck I’m afraid.
In all aspects, Pretoria was overshadowed by it’s richer, more metropolitan, less safe and larger neighbour Johannesburg.
It had been consigned to little more than a footnote as the ‘bastion of Apartheid’ during the formative ugly years of South Africa.
In one popular guide it had been granted a mere paragraph hidden within a bulbous 50-page chapter boldly entitled Africa’s Big Apple: Jo’Burg and Safari Getaways.
The paragraph itself had emasculated the capital city of Africa’s most influential nation, by commencing with the sub-heading “A Side Trip to Tshwane (formerly Pretoria)”.
So in spite of Pretoria still actually being Pretoria and only the municipality being officially known as Tshwane, it had been shorn of its name and was only worth a ‘side trip’.
We arrived with the usual trepidations of a new country, city, job and life. Before we had a chance to properly explore our chosen city of residence, the strangeness of deciding to live in Pretoria was again compounded.
In the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg, old South African friends warmly paraded us at parties as both foreign guests and obvious eccentrics for deciding to live 45km further north.
Despite our glaring defining difference being our British nationality, ‘from Pretoria’ had become our identity, the determining factor that set us apart.
A few months on, a little more settled, and after exploring this city I can justifiably stand up and fight against those Pretoria doubters.
You see Pretoria is not just an administrative capital lacking flair and flavour.
No longer should it be boxed in with Australia’s Canberra, Brazil’s Brasilia and Belize’s Belmopan.
Though clearly not a heaving capital with the vigour of Paris, Nairobi or Buenos Aires, there are plenty of words that can be added to the oft-quoted and vaguely patronising ‘quaint’, ‘leafy’ and ‘retiring’ adjectives that are lazily chosen to describe Pretoria.
One would be ‘perfect’. Well, the climate anyway, a topic which is always foremost on an Englishman’s mind.
Guaranteed to consistently be two degrees warmer than Johannesburg, the weather in the northern tip of the Gauteng province is phenomenal.
The winters are without a cloud in the piercingly blue sky, as the low sun warms the days and gas heaters the occasional cold nights.
The short, sharp and regular tropical downpours break the heat of the summer and provide a breathtaking spectacle of natural beauty when combined with electric storms.
And they weren’t lying about the Jacaranda bloom.
For a couple of glorious weeks in October, the streets come alive with the simultaneous purple blossoming of 70?000 trees, as the city welcomes and embraces spring.
There is also plenty to see and do.
The Voortrekker Monument, erected over half a century ago by the Afrikaner National Party, commemorates the indomitable spirit of the Boers’ Great Trek northwards and celebrates overwhelming and brutal victories over native tribes.
Overlooking the city centre from its imposing perch, this dominant structure represents much that was terrible about the old regime.
It also symbolises the past; an important strand that contributes to the fascinating weave of this country.
Rightly it has been left to stand as a monument to what was and is no more, a symbol of sadness, joy and reconciliation. More representative of modern day South Africa is what is being built on an adjacent hill. Freedom Park embraces the multicultural roots and nature of the Rainbow Nation.
It embraces and celebrates the rich tapestry of all official cultures that make up this Republic.
Standing proudly alongside the Voortrekker, it is the antithesis in both meaning and architecture. Subtle in its landscaping, Freedom Park is proudly constructed from rock and earth hauled from all corners of this land.
It is a perfect foil to its formidable neighbour. Symbolically, a harmonising plan exists to physically join these areas via a land bridge over the bisecting road.
Clearly visible from both, across the city skyline, are the iconic and statuesque Union Buildings. The seat of government is of prestigious architecture and sits atop a large swathe of perfectly manicured lawns with aplomb. No building in South Africa is as visually representative.
The image of Mandela giving his presidential acceptance speech from its balcony is etched into the mind of millions.
Historically, a city by-law ruled that no building should restrict the view of the Voortrekker Monument from the Union Buildings, presumably so that National Party bureaucrats could be reassured of their zeal at anytime.
The reasoning of this law may be dubious, but a positive by-product has been the restriction of high storey skyscrapers in the city centre.
The picturesque low green hills within which the nucleus of the capital nestle are visible, and add to Pretoria’s reputation as a garden city.
Perhaps a ‘safari city’ would be more suitable.
A stone’s throw from the central business district and just off a main access road, Groenkloof nature reserve is easily accessible.
With several kilometres of walking, 4x4, horse riding and cycling trails, Groenkloof is a pleasure whether for a lunchtime stroll or an afternoon’s activities.
Game is plentiful and unnervingly tame.
Thankfully, no predators call Groenkloof their home, but it is not uncommon to stroll into a family of giraffe, impala, zebra or wildebeest as they chew on the abundant foliage.
Such an experience, in my mind anyway, is more intimate and profound than viewing more exotic game from further away.
A wealth of weekly farmers’ markets dotted throughout Pretoria’s suburbs provide a welcome alternative to sanitised supermarkets.
They cater for those keen to stock up on locally grown fruit and veg, sample homemade cheese or buy tat.
Drinking and eating isn’t just confined to the student areas, with plenty of safe bars and eateries in the suburbs surrounding the city centre.
The burgeoning diplomatic and international NGO community have ignited the local atmosphere and economy, while bringing a cosmopolitan feel to Pretoria.
Next time I’m asked “why, Pretoria?” I certainly won’t be short of reasons to give.