James Delaney – The cowboy of The Wilds

James Delaney is a bit of a mystery to me.

I know about his art studio in Victoria Yards, I’ve seen him do Instagram handstands in unusual locations, and I know about his Labrador, Pablo (“He’s named after the artist, not the drug lord”).

I also know he’s the guy who fixed up The Wilds in Houghton – once a dangerous and derelict public park near the Johannesburg CBD, but, thanks to him and his band of volunteers, it’s a now an urban greenspace filled with animal sculptures and brightly-coloured benches.

I know that James’s reclaiming of The Wilds began in 2014, when he moved into his Killarney flat and needed somewhere to walk Pablo. His windows looked out onto the dark, seemingly abandoned parkland: his neighbours had never been inside and he was told (in no uncertain Jo’burger terms) that it was a no-go zone.

“Could it be so bad?” he often wondered to himself.

It also seemed ridiculous that he had to drive to walk Pablo, when there was a huge greenspace, pratically on his doorstep.

One day curiosity got the better of him – James Delaney is a curious man –and he entered The Wilds via a pedestrian gate on his street. Even with Pablo, James was jittery at first. The first few times he ventured in he’d tell his building’s security guard to raise the alarm if he didn’t return. He walked short distances along the pathways, not too far from the gate.

Each day, he felt a little braver and walked a little further. Weeds proliferated the park, benches lay maimed on crumbling stonework, water features had emptied long ago, and greenhouse ceilings had euphorbia-tentacles crawling across them, like flora mimes confined in a glasshouse in a never-ending search for sunlight.

Yet The Wilds, with its old, indigenous trees, felt magical and peaceful – surprisingly so, considering it was so close to the inner city.

On one of his expeditions, James happened upon a small City Parks team mowing lawns near the main entrance. They told James they’d worked at The Wilds for many years and were all hitting retirement. They did basic up-keep for the park, like mowing its lawns and sweeping its paths, but they were too fearful to work near the park’s perimeters.

Bit by bit with a pair of clippers, James would clear some of the dense vegetation on his walks. He recruited Thulani Nkomo to help him and, every weekend for three years, they cut and cleared and pruned. James estimates that the two of them cut 50 truckloads of branches (which City Parks would remove every Monday morning).

Section by section, The Wilds revealed beauty that had long remained hidden: a yellowwood and wild olive forest, wild iris, agapanthus.

James recruited more people to get involved (he held a highly successful Mandela Day in 2017, where he installed 67 owl scupltures in the park, and where hundreds of volunteers pitched up to help).

He also developed relationships with City Parks – and he discovered that some people want to make a difference, and some are disinterested. While a certain official, he says, has tried to thwart his efforts.

WATCH >> James being interviewed in 2018 about reclaiming The Wilds

The ‘no-go zone’ is now a popular weekend walking spot with an overflowing car park. One hundred of James’s animal sculptures feature in the park, including duikers, pangolins, ostriches, kudu, as well as a giant, pink giraffe that can be seen from the M1.

But his oft-told Story of The Wilds still didn’t answer my question: who is James Delaney? Also, were his efforts in The Wilds being curtailed, and if so, why? I wanted to go deeper – so I went to his art studio.

***

I meet James Delaney at his art studio in Victoria Yards on a Friday afternoon. It’s the start of level-three lockdown; a sign on the entrance’s window reads in the artist’s handwriting:

Everyone is welcome here except fear

I’m surprised by his boyish face (he’s 48) and his eye colour (a vivid green or electric blue, depending on where I stand). His jeans are paint-splattered.

“I’ve never seen you up close,” I remark. He laughs.    

There’s a large table in the centre of the studio that’s covered in papers and prints. A Bluetooth speaker pulses German synth pop. Pablo yawns and stretches.

James Delaney's Labrador, Pablo, lies at the entrance to his Victoria Yards studio
Pablo, quite possibly Jo’burg’s most famous dog | Lorentzville, June 2020

It’s the first time I’ve ventured outside my home since lockdown started (that didn’t involve a trip to the PnP or a walk around the block). The world beyond my front door looks like a pink and white ice-cream truck, its ’80s childhood jingle distorted in Bertrams’ streets; a line of the hungry and masked, waiting for a bowl of soup; a man in animal skins; an Americano with hot milk, to collect.

Victoria Yards is fairly quiet: there are a few people with their faces covered, wondering around its vegetable gardens.

“[Victoria Yards] has a raw, tranquil energy; it is the type of energy that even a global pandemic can’t quash,” writes Sanet Oberholzer in an article about the former chop-shop turned creative space on the border of Bertrams and Lorentzville.

James’s art studio at Victoria Yards | Lorentzville, June 2020

James goes to New York once a year, where he wonders its streets and takes photos of doorways. He spends most mornings looking out of the bay window of a café called Grumpy. He says the city used to be very gritty and grungy, but that’s almost all gone now due to wholesale gentrification.

I tell him I’ve never been to New York.

We talk about how much noise is on news feeds and about being gay. The Wilds Facebook group requires him to be attentive to it, all the time, while the gays are all digital now, he laments.

“Social media helps me be visible but it’s a fabricated environment,” he says. “It portrays selective aspects, rather than the whole.”

***

I know that Joburg City Parks changed the locks to The Wilds at the beginning of lockdown – and shut James out (along with the rest of the public, citing COVID-19 concerns). The only reason James could be locked out was because, just before lockdown, he’d finished fencing The Wilds for it to be fully enclosed.

The Wilds reopened to the public on 1 August, but let’s go back to those changed locks.

“City Parks locked me out just before lockdown started,” says James. “The locks on the gate that I use were changed – without a phone call or an email. I went down to the pedestrian gate and there was a new lock on it.” I can hear the irritation in his voice.

“I’m working on several projects at The Wilds: restoring grassland, replanting flowerbeds, fixing pathways… I have my small team of guys who would’ve been in a 40-acre space with plenty of social-distancing, but they weren’t allowed to go and work there.”

The small team of guys comprise Thulani, Alfie, Alex, and Siphiwe. Sometimes Lovemore, who is a plumber, as well as a group of three stonemasons, help out. This small team isn’t funded by the City of Joburg – they are, in fact, paid by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.

Throughout the year James does fundraising; these funds are donated to the foundation, who then disperse said funds to the team and to The Wilds. The foundation is currently in the process of establishing a new MOU with Joburg City Parks, which explains why, despite The Wilds now being open to the public, City Parks is still not allowing his team to do work there.

Thulani, Alfie, Alex and Siphiwe | James Delaney, Houghton, February 2020

City Parks has their own small team of permanent staff in The Wilds, and, according to James, both teams generally keep to themselves and do their own thing.

James has also had to deal with apartheid-era, by-law bureaucracy. The highlights include: not being allowed to move yellowwood saplings to the on-site nursery (only the Department of Forestry is allowed to do that); the park benches must be painted regulation green; a licence is needed to make compost (“Instead of making their own compost, The Wilds trucks it in. I’ve been waiting several years for The Wilds to get a licence”); and no vendors are allowed on City Parks’ property (that includes coffee trucks).

James points out that he generally has a good relationship with City Parks, and he understands that because it’s a government entity it can be difficult for them when it comes to things like procurement. Plus, they do provide services that are already in their system, like mowing lawns, watering, and insurance pay-outs.

But on 30 August things got a bit fraught. James posted on social media that he was approached by two security guards while he was walking in the Wilds. The post was accompanied by a video that James took on his phone. In the video, the guards see that James is holding a pair of hand-clippers, and they tell him that anyone who wants to cut trees in The Wilds requires a permit – James has not needed a permit up to this point.

A minor scuffle ensues when the guards tell James that he isn’t allowed to film them, with one of them shouting, “Delete! Delete!” The post also makes numerous damning allegations against a particular City Parks official.

James also maintains that the guards had seen him arrive at the gate, then half an hour later they went looking for him, leaving the gate unguarded. A social media storm raged and the post has since been taken down; the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation distanced itself via an official statement on their Facebook page. The statement mentions that MOUs between the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and City Parks require that all relevant by-laws need to be followed, and that only work authorised by City Parks may be performed.

The truth is, James would have to break by-laws in order to get anything done at The Wilds. This is a Catch-22 situation: if certain by-laws are adhered to, then it impedes progress at the park; if by-laws aren’t followed then the MOU falls away, and James’s team can no longer work at The Wilds.

This situation raises many questions. When should by-laws be followed? Should they be broken? Can some be amended? In my mind the only way forward is re-looking at some of the by-laws themselves, or, failing that, City Parks reaching some sort of compromise with James and/or the Heritage Foundation.

***

James was born in the Western Cape, went to boarding school in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), and did a Business Science Marketing degree at UCT. When you factor in that he has travelled to 53 countries across five continents – and that he has helped set up game reserves like Welgevonden and Lion Sands – he’s only really got to know Jo’burg in the last 10 years. He’d never been to The Wilds before moving into to his Killarney flat in the early 2000s.

I had no idea he had a marketing background (and that he’s the director of a marketing company called MojaNation). But his success of punting The Wilds – luring a very fearful middle-class back to this urban, public park – is a stroke of marketing genius. He reckoned that if he installed animal sculptures in The Wilds it would make people want to go visit the space: they’d invariably take a photo on their phone of a kudu, owl or an ostrich, and then share it on social media. Which is exactly what happened.

(If you haven’t encountered James Delaney’s sculptures in The Wilds, do you even live in Jo’burg?)
Ostriches in The Wild(s) | Houghton, August 2020

As an artist, he only started painting 10 years after leaving school, but he has managed to build a base of supporters over time. Most of his days are spent making art, like metal sculptures, lithographs, paintings, photographing doorways in the Jo’burg CBD, and even covering naked bodies in paint. His works’ themes focus heavily on human-environmental relationships. These days, he’s also designing gardens.

Inside James’s art studio | Lorentzville, June 2020
City duiker | Lorentzville, June 2020

I tell him that he appears to lead quite a charmed life, at least based on what I’ve seen on Instagram. I feel a little jealous of what he gets up to in all honesty: jetting off to New York semi-regularly to make art, having a studio space in Victoria Yards, living in a huge Killarney flat that overlooks one of Jo’burg’s most beautiful green spaces. Even Pablo – who is always off-leash yet by his side, whether sniffing around The Wilds or in the middle of Marshalltown, seems like the perfect dog.

“Instagram only highlights certain aspects of my life, and of course that can make one’s life look perfect,” he responds. “I don’t think life is ever charmed per se, but I’ve certainly made a life that really works for me.”

“I have an eye for making things pretty,” he continues. “I’ve been to the shittiest cities but I can find the one and only nice coffee shop, take a cool photo, and make a place look amazing. I like finding things of beauty so I seek them out.”

Shitty cities gets us talking about Jo’burg.

“Everyone says Johannesburg is ugly, but fuck, you stand in The Wilds and you feel like you're in paradise.”

James doesn’t buy into the terminology of being out and proud. He was “confused” for a long time, and there was no defining moment of him realising that he was gay. But once he did, there was no turning back.

“It’s great being gay,” he says. “Given the choice, I’d be gay any day!”

We discuss how gayness enables freedom from societal conventions – especially the expectation to get married and have children.

James tells me he’s never had a relationship that’s lasted for more than a year; he tends to choose people because they’re exciting, and not necessarily suited for the long term.

“My mind is always working on several things at the same time, so I get bored quite easily. It’s the same for romantic relationships, too. I haven’t been very good at those.”

***

James had his first seizure on the floor of a safari camp suite in the Eastern Cape. It was 2am, and his boyfriend at the time thought that a wild animal had jumped in the room because of all the thrashing.

“I was going bos,” says James. “Eventually the rangers came rushing to see if we were being chomped by lions but it was just me, in a mess, in the corner.”

That year, he was in and out of ICUs, and he had a seizure while driving his car on the highway. He knew something was very wrong, but his doctors were stumped as to what was causing his seizures. Initially they thought he was epileptic and he was put on medication, but it didn’t help.  

“The doctors were looking at my head, but turns out it wasn’t my head – it was my blood sugar.”

After about a year of tests and scans and seizures and hospital stints, a professor at Wits University finally figured out what was going on. James had a proinsulinoma, a rare tumour that causes the pancreas to make too much proinsulin, a building block for insulin.

(Fun fact: Steve Jobs died from an insulinoma, a similar type of pancreatic tumour.)

“It’s tiny and very hard to detect, but your insulin spikes, which means your blood sugar crashes to very dangerous levels – which was causing the seizures.”

James was often precipitously close to a coma; he’d wake up in the morning and check his blood sugar, which would sometimes measure 0.9 mmol/L (a normal reading should be between 4.0 to 5.4 mmol/L after fasting). He started sleeping with food at his bedside, because if he didn’t eat immediately after waking he’d have a seizure. He’d also have to set an alarm for the middle of the night so he could eat in order to not have a seizure in the night.

“I had to constantly keep my blood sugar above the bare minimum otherwise I’d go into a coma. That year I learnt a lot about how my body metabolises different kinds of food, and how to eat in a healthy way because it was about survival.” 

The tumour itself couldn’t be seen on a scan as it was too small, so the Wits professor worked on a proinsulinoma hunch – the only way he could confirm his hunch would be to cut James open.

“The pancreas is behind a bunch of organs so they have to cut you open in quite a severe way; it’s a big operation that not many people can do.”

The professor’s hunch was right – a proinsulinoma was found on James’s pancreas, it was removed, and his blood sugar returned to normal almost instantly.

The seizures did long-term damage to James’s brain, however, and his memory isn’t great as a result. He still takes a tiny amount of the incorrectly prescribed epileptic medication every morning – if he doesn’t he gets a sensation that can only be described as an electric shock, deep in his brain.

“I came out of this whole thing a different person,” adds James. “I don’t know how exactly, but I don’t think you can come out of a series of near-death experiences and not be fundamentally woken up, or shifted in some way.”

***

I visit The Wilds on a Tuesday afternoon at the start of August. I haven’t been here for months due to it being closed to the public, but it feels just the same: my soul sings as I take mindful steps on its patchwork of stone paths. It’s really quiet – the only other people here are the guards at the gate and a couple with an excitable border collie. I reach into my right pocket every now and then; my fingers grazing my mini-taser. It’s reassuring to know that I have a lightning bolt in my yoga pants.

Despite the inevitable proliferation of blackjacks, as well as empty water features (the water pump was not maintained by City Parks during the lock-out), the urban green space is still magical. I stand under a giant fever tree, its green-yellow branches reach up in a permanent bend to the side. I hear crickets crick-cricking, and the slight din of the M1.

The Wilds | Houghton, August 2020
On the way back to my car I spot a piece of paper on a stone step. It’s a SUPERBETS gambling receipt, bought in Hillbrow (corner of Kotze and Claim) on 14/07/2020. 421 odds.

It reminds me that The Wilds is truly a public park. Some of Johannesburg’s citizens hurriedly traverse it to catch taxis on their way to work; others do movement meditations on its lawns. Some sit in blue overalls on its benches at midday: a loaf of white bread in one hand, and a two-litre Coke in the other. Others, like me, scale its stone staircases over the weekends to marvel at the cityscape below: how its urban vista is half-hidden by trees, and how the Hillbrow Tower is so close.

***

James has raised over R1-million for The Wilds via crowdfunding and sculpture projects. A number of private benefactors have also donated money to the park, including Adrian ‘Adi’ Enthoven (son of South African billionaire Dick Enthoven), as well as South African artist William Kentridge, to name a few.

James has built a volunteer culture at The Wilds, so problems that many other public parks have – like safety, littering and vandalism – are mostly a non-issue. It makes me think of the Broken Windows Theory: the term’s origins come from a 1982 Atlantic magazine article by a criminologist and a political scientist, who wrote:

“Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”

The theory is a highly debated one and mostly deals with policing, but in the 1982 article the authors cite a 1960s Stanford University experiment. It involved parking one car with no plates and the bonnet up on a street in the Bronx, and another on a street in affluent Palo Alto. The Bronx car was completely stripped and vandalised in 24 hours, while the one in Palo Alto was untouched for more than a week. The Palo Alto car was then deliberately damaged in a few places with a sledgehammer. Within a few hours, the car was torn apart by vandals and it was turned onto its roof.

James’s volunteer culture ensures that The Wilds isn’t stripped and turned upside down, and, if it’s already in a good state to begin with, people will naturally want to take care of it.

“People really look after The Wilds: they come with clippers and weed as they walk, they bring a plastic bag to pick up after their dogs. It’s achieved a model for citizens taking ownership of their public spaces,” says James.

The volunteer culture is also informed by a citizen-ownership model which is based on the Friends of SANParks, a volunteer group that supports the South African national parks. For example, when SANParks can’t afford to build a new rest camp they ask the Friends to fundraise the money to get it done.

Along with volunteerism and citizen-ownership, The Wilds is an example of how the reclaiming of an urban space can contribute to the public’s sense of well-being. In the 2019 book Changing Places: The Science and Art of New Urban Planning, the authors talk about how the design of urban spaces, from pavements to parks, impacts the well-being of those who live there. They posit that a sense of public well-being can be approached block-by-block – which is exactly what James has done. He has helped transform a single ‘block’ of 0,16km² – a tiny space in relation to Johannesburg’s 1 645km² – yet it’s made a big impact on how people feel about the city they live in.

As Jo’burgers, we have to start thinking of change on a block-by-block basis – and not waiting for someone else to do something, whether that’s James Delaney or the local municipality. If we want a better city to live in, we have to stop complaining and individually take action. You can moan all you want about rates and taxes and non-service: the reality is that, unless citizens make changes, nothing will happen. It’s not right, but here we are. And only we can shape the kind of urban environment that we want to live in.  

According to James, when it comes to Johannesburg’s public parks, there’s no other option but to have private individuals and non-governmental organisations support them.

“It’s easy to harness that energy, you just have to be open to it,” says James. “It has to change, and The Wilds has shown that it can change. Now you see Friends of Zoo Lake, the James and Ethel Gray Foundation… a lot of people are getting so fed up with nothing being done, so you literally have to just do it yourself.”

The Wilds has now become too big for just one person to champion, so James is in the process of joining forces with the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation to form a committee. I hope this is still on track, despite the recent happenings, as both James and the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation have done a lot of good work for this city.

“What was just me doing things doesn’t really work any longer because I can’t do it all. My cowboy days might be over – but I did try use a bolt-cutter to get into The Wilds when it was locked and the neighbours reported me, so maybe not?”

Find James Delaney’s art studio at Victoria Yards in Lorentzville (open 9am to 5pm on weekdays; 10am to 5pm on Saturdays). Follow him on Instagram @delaneyartist, join the Friends of The Wilds Facebook group, or visit his website at delaney.co.za

*Featured image courtesy @kudzaiking

*Introduction adapted from this TimesLIVE article

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4 comments Add yours
  1. So glad to hear you went; it really is a magical place – it does inspire a sense of awe. James is a rock star.

  2. I went to the Wilds today. The first time since I was a little girl and was stunned by the beauty and the experience. Thank you for all you have done James. This story is beautifully written.

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