Freedom Park: celebrating peace

[Image] Surrounded by steel reeds, the amphitheatre overlooks the sanctuary with its ever-burning flame, and also offers an impressive view of Pretoria.
(Image: Janine Erasmus)

[Image] The wall of names honours those who gave their lives for freedom.
(Image: Jenny Tennant)

[Image] Citizens may submit names to the Freedom Park Trust for verification and inclusion on the wall of remembrance.
(Image: Jenny Tennant)

[Image] Eleven stones in the Isivivane, the spiritual resting place of the ancestors, represent South Africa’s nine provinces, the national government, and the international community.
(Image: Janine Erasmus)

The Voortrekker Monument is located on neighbouring Monument Hill.
(Image: Janine Erasmus)

MEDIA CONTACTS
Ilse Posselt
PR, Freedom Park Trust
+27 12 336 4103 or +27 79 515 3371

Janine Erasmus

As you drive into Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, two structures can be seen on two adjacent hillsides, silhouetted against the sky. Both are monuments to historical struggles for freedom in the country, although they’re different in character.

To the left, on Monument Hill, stands the square outline of the Voortrekker Monument, a granite-like edifice inaugurated in 1949 and filled with heroic sculptures commemorating the Great Trek – the difficult 19th-century journey the Boers took into the country’s interior in a bid to escape the grip of British colonialism in the Cape. It was declared a national monument in 2011.

First seen from the highway as poles that seem to move against the sky, the monument on Salvokop Hill, to the right, is more thoughtful, less imposing. This is the 52-hectare Freedom Park, inaugurated in 2002 and opened in 2007, a place celebrating liberation from the apartheid system put in place largely by the descendants of those same Voortrekkers.

The two sites were directly linked on 16 December 2011 – the annual Day of Reconciliation – when President Jacob Zuma opened a road that had been built especially for the purpose. The connection between the two is also intended to symbolise the reconciliation taking place among the people of South Africa.

“The access road linking Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park, appropriately named Reconciliation Road, marks a poignant milestone of our young democracy,” said arts and culture minister Paul Mashatile at the time.

South Africa’s democracy is celebrated every year on 27 April, a public holiday known as Freedom Day. It marks the country’s first-ever democratic elections which took place on this day in 1994, and reminds all citizens that the freedom enjoyed today was hard-won and should not be squandered.

“We celebrate, cherish and honour the memory of 27 April 1994 as a culmination of many years of people’s struggles to liberate themselves, both nationally and internationally,” said Zuma during the 2012 celebrations. “It is a day that represents peace, unity, and the restoration of human dignity of all South Africans. In doing so we want to ensure that our people never take our freedom for granted.”

Belonging to all South Africans

Designed as a place for pilgrimage and inspiration, Freedom Park represents the vision for which so many South Africans fought and died. It is a key presidential legacy project and was established in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which saw a need for symbolic reparation of South Africa’s tumultuous history.

Officially handed over to South Africans on Youth Day, 16 June 2002, the park was described by then-president Thabo Mbeki as “the fulcrum of our vision to heal and reconcile our nation”. Youth Day commemorates 16 June 1976, when schoolchildren in Soweto, and soon across the country, rose up to protest against the forced use of Afrikaans in their schools.

The Soweto uprising was one of many fatal conflicts that could have taken South Africa into a civil war – but democracy won the day and Freedom Park calls upon everyone to acknowledge this phenomenon and be inspired.

“Clearly, one of the most practical ways of doing this is through a monument such as the Freedom Park,” said Mbeki at the handing over.

The park is run and developed by the Freedom Park Trust, a parastatal organisation that receives funding from the Department of Arts and Culture. Freedom Park belongs to all South Africans, says the Freedom Park Trust, and it is essential that they take ownership of the project and participate fully at various levels.

Construction started on Freedom Park in 2003. Every element has been chosen for its symbolism and meaning, and names of elements are drawn from all 11 official languages of South Africa.

Phase One saw the building of the access road and ring road, parking area, the information centre, ablution facilities, Isivivane, and the Mveledzo (Venda, meaning “success”) spiral path that takes visitors around the park.

During the intermediary phase, the S’khumbuto memorial area, comprising the gallery of leaders, amphitheatre, line of poles, sanctuary and eternal flame, and wall of names, as well as the Moshate hospitality and exhibition area were completed.

Phase Two is also complete. This includes the interactive exhibition area //hapo as well as the Vhuawelo (Venda, meaning “nesting place”) garden and walkway, parking lot, curio shop, restaurant and kiosk. In the later stages of the phase, the office building and access road to the Voortrekker Monument were completed.

//hapo is a Khoi/San word that means “dream”. The Khoi believe that a dream cannot be a dream until it is shared with the community, and this area will share the history of South Africa with the world.

A place of remembrance and contemplation

Visitors to Freedom Park can wander around on their own, or opt for a guided tour, which sets off every day at 9h00, 12h00 and 15h00, except for Good Friday and Christmas Day. Music can be heard at intervals, revolutionary songs which were sung during the struggle.

S’khumbuto (a Swati word meaning “memorial”) is the venue’s major element and is located right on the top of the hill with a panoramic view of historically important sites, including the majestic Union Buildings, Fort Klapperkop, Fort Skanskop, and the Voortrekker Monument. The multi-purpose amphitheatre can accommodate about 2 000 people for national events and commemorations.

The area is replete with history. The Union Buildings house the office of South Africa’s president, and form the governmental seat. The buildings were designed by eminent architect Sir Herbert Baker and built in 1910 – the year that the Union of South Africa was established.

The forts on Klapperkop and Skanskop were built by Boer forces during the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War) to protect Pretoria from the British.

The 200 steel poles – the tallest of which is 32m high – that almost completely encircle S’khumbuto symbolise the reed, because in African culture reeds imply birth and regeneration. White lights at the top of each signify clarity, peace, unity and tranquillity. Initially these lights were red to create awareness of the construction that was going on, but because red also means danger the lights were later changed to white. Now there are just three red lights, for aviation safety.

Honouring those who fell

Other elements in S’khumbuto include an ever-burning flame to honour unsung heroes and heroines who made sacrifices for their country. There is also a sanctuary, where visitors can light candles, honour their loved ones, or simply sit in solitude to reflect on past events in South Africa.

A wild olive tree, planted by President Mbeki as a symbol of peace, looks down on the amphitheatre. The plaque reads “Motho ke motho ka batho” which means “A person is a person because of others”, the core principle of the African philosophy of ubuntu.

The gallery of leaders honours exemplary men and women who were instrumental in shaping our world for the better – and not necessarily South Africans.

The impressive wall of names, 697m in total length, is inscribed with the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the conflicts.

The wall is divided into separate sections for each conflict and has space for about 120 000 names. The wall is far from full and people are encouraged to submit names on the Freedom Park website for verification. This will ensure that those who struggled for freedom are deservedly honoured. Names are not arranged in alphabetical order in order to simplify the inscription process and to avoid having to rearrange the whole wall should a name be submitted later than others.

To date, about 75 000 names of the South African fallen have been verified for inscription.

Next to S’khumbuto is Moshate (a Pedi word that refers to the place where the king resides), a top-level hospitality suite that can be used for negotiations and the signing of agreements, as well as presidential and diplomatic functions.

Paying homage to tradition

Further down the Mveledzo path, the visitor comes across Isivivane, the symbolic resting place of all those who died in the many significant conflicts that helped to shape South Africa. Among these are the precolonial conflicts, slavery, genocide, wars of resistance, the South African (Anglo-Boer) War, the first and second world wars, and the liberation struggle.

The area has been cleared of alien vegetation, leaving only indigenous plants in the soil, making this a truly South African place.

Isivivane is situated on the eastern side of the hill. It is surrounded by tumbling waterfalls and packed layers of stones, symbolising the traditional practice of placing a stone when visiting a graveside. It’s logistically impossible to accommodate every visitor in this way, so stones have been neatly packed to symbolise their laying on a grave. And water is the symbol of everlasting life – it also helps to diffuse the noise that drifts up from the freeway below.

Isivivane is a holy place. During its construction religious leaders from all faiths performed cleansing rituals in the nine provinces of South Africa as a closure to conflicts from the past, and to lend their weight to the call for symbolic reparation and healing that came out of the TRC proceedings.

The central feature of Isivivane is a ring of eleven standing stones, the Lesaka. Nine of these stones have been brought from the provinces – one from each – and the other two, which were lifted from the Freedom Park construction site, symbolise the South African nation and the international community, which supported the country through its years of struggle.

The stones were carefully chosen. The Northern Cape stone comes from the battlefield of Magersfontein, a South African War site where the Boers defeated the British in 1899. The KwaZulu-Natal stone comes from the place known as emaKhosini, the Valley of Kings where Zulu rulers are buried. The Limpopo stone comes from Mapungubwe, the site of one of the earliest kingdoms on the subcontinent and one of South Africa’s eight world heritage sites.

Mpumalanga’s green verdite stone comes from the Barberton Greenstone Belt, where fossils dating back 3.6-million years have been found. The stone from the North West is taken from Monthibestad, an area of historical importance. The Free State boulder comes from Winburg, where women marched in 1913 under the leadership of struggle heroine Charlotte Maxexe, in protest against pass laws.

Gauteng’s stone was taken from Mamelodi in Pretoria, where police reacted in 1986 with brutality against marchers who were demonstrating peacefully, killing 13. The stone represents similar incidents around South Africa. The stone from the Eastern Cape comes from Bulhoek, where the Israelites, a religious sect, were set upon by a government artillery unit in 1921. And finally, the stone from the Western Cape was lifted from Table Mountain, another world heritage site.

Steam seeps from beneath the stones at intervals of two minutes. The steam stands for cleansing and purity, and also acknowledges the burning of incense, used by many religious groups in their rituals.

To the side stands an umlahlankosi tree, also commonly known as the Apiesdoring or monkey thorn tree, beneath which is a semi-circle for seating. This is the Legotla, a place where issues of the community traditionally are dealt with. Here visitors can sit in the presence of the ancestors and discuss and contemplate various topics.

Once the tour experience is concluded, the Uitspanplek (Afrikaans, meaning “resting place”), serves as a picnic site for visitors, and a place to relax afterwards.