Telling South Africa’s history at Freedom Park

High on a hill overlooking the nation’s capital, and facing the Voortrekker Monument, sits Freedom Park. Together they two tell the story of the nation, from the beginning of time through colonisation and on to democracy.

The great questions – who am I and why am I here; what comes before birth and after death – are explored at the park, which recounts the history of Africa and celebrates South Africa’s heritage.

But it is more than that. Freedom Park is also a cultural institution housing a museum and a memorial dedicated to chronicling and honouring the many who contributed to South Africa’s liberation. The museum aims to preserve and narrate the story of the African continent, and specifically South Africa, from the dawn of humanity, through pre-colonial, colonial and apartheid history and heritage, to the post-apartheid nation of today. It is a long walk here on Salvokop, spanning some 3.6 billion years.

Freedom Park is a national and international tribute to, and advocate of, liberty, diversity and human rights; it inspires reconciliation and nation-building; encourages reflection on our past to improve our present and build our future as a united nation; and, contributes to better understanding and co-operation among nations and peoples.

And it is a repository for South Africa’s indigenous knowledge. It:

  • Tells the South African story as it unfolds;
  • Honours those who gave their lives for South Africa’s freedom;
  • Is a place to experience the diversity of our history and remember loved ones who played a role in that history;
  • Is a place where South Africa’s unique heritage and cultures can be remembered, cherished and celebrated;
  • Fosters a South African community spirit, by being a symbol of unity through diversity; and, Works with African and other international institutions to tell the story of Africa from an African perspective.

Language is a crucial element in understanding South Africa, and weight is given to the nation’s official tongues. S’khumbuto, the central memorial, is named for the siSwati word signifying a place of remembrance and one to invoke the ancestors’ assistance. Mveledzo is the Tshivenda name given to the spiral path that wends between S’khumbuto and Isivivane, itself named to bring to mind the Zulu and Xhosa practice of paying homage to Earth for good luck.

Uitspanplek is the Afrikaans translation of “a place to relax”, and the //hapo museum pays tribute to the Khoi people.

//hapo

A comprehensive African story 3.6 billion years in the making, from creation through the great struggles faced by the people of the continent is unpacked in //hapo, the museum at Freedom Park. The story starts with African creation legends and combines indigenous African knowledge and contemporary scientific thought.

//hapo is a Khoisan word pronounced with a click, as Xapo. It means “a dream”. It gives a holistic view of the history of the African continent. Speaking at the opening in April 2013, then deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe said //hapo “is the product of our collective history, it also resonates with the imperatives of the present, as well as the edicts upon which our nation is founded”.

Africa’s story is divided into seven epochs: Earth, ancestors, peopling, resistance and colonisation, industrialisation and urbanisation, nationalism and struggle, nation building and continent building. As complex as the story can be, the narrative blends culture, history and spirituality.

The story is brought to life using touch screens with information readily available, flat screen monitors that play pre-recorded interviews with various experts and ordinary people, and use of objects such as fossil and rocks. Story tellers are also on hand, and to enhance the stories films, animation, interpretive and archival, are also used.

Engraved on the walls in the reception area are the words: “//hapo ge// hapo tama // haohasib dis tamas ka I bo”, which means “A dream is not a dream until it is shared by the entire community.”

The epochs give a holistic view of events leading up to liberation, such as Codesa. Pictures of freedom fighters such as Govan Mbeki, Solomon Mahlangu, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and many others are splashed on the walls.

But //hapo is not the only element at Freedom Park; there is also S’khumbuto, Isivavane, Moshate, Tiva, Uitspanplek and Pan African Archives. All of them are designed to blend into the landscape, using stone, copper and natural materials to bring a calm, earthen feel.

Garden of Remembrance

Freedom Park is a place of celebration. Its Garden of Remembrance is a tribute to African and human dignity, and a place for the renewal of the human spirit. The garden symbolises the final resting place of all those who gave their lives in the conflicts which shaped South Africa. It is a tranquil space, filled with monuments, statues and sculptures, and invites reflection and prayer.

It contains soil and a plant from each province, in honour of those affected by each of the conflicts.

The tranquil garden houses S’khumbuto, the park’s main memorial; Isivivane, the boulders; and Uitspanplek.

S’khumbuto

S’khumbuto bears testimony to the various conflicts that shaped present-day South Africa and remembers those who died during these struggles. It comprises:

  • Wall of Names, inscribed with the names of those who played a significant part in the conflicts;
  • Gallery of Leaders recognising international and local leaders who inspire everyday heroism;
  • Amphitheatre, a terraced venue for major cultural celebrations and national events;
  • Sanctuary, a serene space for prayer and meditation;
  • Eternal Flame for the heroes who played a role in shaping the country; and,
  • Reed sculpture, comprising almost 200 ascending metal reeds to signify the rebirth of the South African nation. It is visible from across the capital.

Isivivane

Isivivane is the spiritual resting place of those who played a role in the freedom and liberation of South Africa. It houses the Lesaka and the Lekgotla.

The Lesaka is a burial ground dotted with boulders from each of the provinces. There are another two boulders that represent local government and the international community.

The Lekgotla is a semi-circular structure built around the bole of an uMlahlankosi tree. It is a place to meet and hold discussions in the age-old traditional African way. The uMlahlankosi trees were donated by each of South Africa’s provinces.

Water plays a significant role in cleansing and healing in many belief systems, and visitors to the Garden of Remembrance are asked to wash their hands when they leave each area.

Uitspanplek

Overlooking the city of Pretoria, Uitspanplek’s green lawns and pools offer a place to reflect after leaving the Garden of Remembrance.

The park was built bearing in minds the words of Nelson Mandela: “The day should not be far off, when we shall have a people’s shrine, a Freedom Park, where we shall honour with all the dignity they deserve, those who endured pain so we should experience the joy of freedom,” he said in 1999.

Freedom Park is a monument to human rights, dignity and freedom, and a memorial to those who sacrificed their lives to secure liberty. It focuses on heritage as an essential building block of nation-building and challenges visitors to reconcile the trials of South Africa’s past with its new successes, to nurture understanding and compassion, to foster reconciliation.

It was established as the government’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and took into account the public’s need for a memorial to honour those who sacrificed their lives to win freedom. It also celebrates and explores the country’s diverse peoples and common humanity, through compelling stories, performances, exhibits and architecture.

Thabo Mbeki, as president of South Africa, gave his blessing to the park in June 2008, saying it was “a monumental tribute to freedom”. For all time, it would live on as a representative of:

  • Human freedom from the blind dictates of the forces of nature;
  • Freedom from ignorance and superstition;
  • Freedom born of knowledge that gives birth to technological revolutions;
  • Freedom occasioned by socio-economic advancement;
  • Freedom from political oppression; and,
  • Freedom from the alienation of human beings, one from the other.

SAinfo reporter

Reviewed: April 2015

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