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Freedom Park: a most perplexing place
I have put of writing up Freedom Park until last, because it's such a polarising monument that is difficult to provide a fair and balanced perspective on.
Well, let's start with the positive. Freedom Park is a long overdue monument to South Africa's indigenous heritage, and from an architectural and aesthetic point of view, it is a beautiful space. It is located on a koppie (little hill) which commands a lovely view over the city and also looks over the highway to the glowering Voortrekker Monument. Its location, 'facing off' against the bastion of Afrikaaner nationalism appears absolutely deliberate, and symbolises the provocative nature of this monument.
The monument was designed by the same architects responsible for the Apartheid Museum (and several other recent museums and monuments) and makes extensive use of natural construction materials which make it impressively sympathetic to its setting. The monument is set amid pretty hills, and one of the high points of the design - and a condition of the environmental authorisation for its construction - is that there be as little disturbance as possible to indigenous vegetation. As a result, it provides a welcome opportunity to appreciate the lovely grassland and shrubs in a safe environment - if you visit in winter, you will catch the aloes in flower, and in summer, the proteas (South Africa's national flower) should be in bloom.
Some of the symbolism employed is very powerful - for example, the Isivivane section, which is a circle of standing stones, representing each of the nine provinces. To quote the website, "these boulders were used to construct the Lesaka – the burial ground where the spirits of those who died in the struggles for humanity and freedom have been laid to rest. To emphasise cleansing and purity, the centre of the Lesaka is shrouded in mist" (see the photo opposite).
Now, onto the nitty gritty. In my personal opinion, whereas the Apartheid Museum has skilfully managed to maintain a delicate balance between historical fact and cultural sensitivity, that same balance is sadly not apparent - at least to me - at Freedom Park
A good example of this would be perhaps the most sensitive part of the monument, the Wall of Names. This series of walls engraved with the names of people who have given their lives in the pursuit of freedom is extremely moving and bears witness to the tragic number of people who died to bring about political change. I was particularly moved by the fact that the names are not organised alphabetically because new victims are being identified all the time, and touched by the fact that many of the pre-20th century casualties (for example, during the earlier colonial period) can be mentioned only by number, race and sometimes gender. Extremely poignant and very well done.
The website explains that the wall commemorates, "those who died during eight conflicts within South Africa’s history: Pre-Colonial Wars, Slavery, Genocide, Wars of Resistance, the South African War, the First World War, the Second World War and the Struggle for Liberation." However, it does not recognise those who fought in the South African Defence Force (SADF) between the founding of the Republic in 1961 and the transition to democracy in 1994. Thus, for example, this excludes those who fought in the Border War in Nambia during the 1980s (many of whom were conscripts, since military service was compulsory for white males, and the punishment for resisting the 'call up' was punitive). Not only whites were involved in this war - there were, for example, a significant number of Coloureds (notably trackers of Khoi San origin) who fought and died in this conflict. However, these casualties were deemed 'inadmissible' by the authority who vets potential candidates for inclusion.
This was the subject of a very heated debate at the time that Freedom Park was in the planning stages, but The Powers That Be stuck to their guns, and a similar wall of remembrance for those who died on the Border was instead proposed for the Voortrekker monument. In a country that is still striving to heal the divisive scars of a racially segregrated past, this seems insensitive, and a huge missed opportunity for reconciliation. When I raised the omission of the Border war casualties with the tour guide, he smiled and brushed off the question with a dismissive comment that "this issue is often raised". He clearly expected me to drop the subject, and only when I asked for clarification did he offer the information about the other wall of remembrance at the Voortrekker Monument.
So, if the issue is "often raised", why isn't it included in the standard tour? Well, my personal interpretation is that it doesn't fit with the politically correct agenda that Freedom Park is trying to project. Our tour guide was pleasant and articulate, but the tone of the tour was condescending - verging on the patronising - and sections could have been taken almost verbatim from former President Thabo Mbeki's "I am an African" speech (no great surprise as this was, after all, the monument whose establishment Mbeki promoted vigorously). There was a lot of esoteric waxing about the need for South Africans to learn to speak all of the country's 11 official languages in order to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation - which coming on the back of the Wall of Remembrance exclusions, frankly rang hollow. I felt that the monument did more to emphasise divisions than it did to foster a unified future, and I cannot believe that this should be the intent of a place like this.
My overall emotion as I drove away from Freedom Park was profound irritation at what I consider to be a missed opportunity to promote understanding and reconciliation. It has all the elements in place to be an excellent and thoughtprovoking monument, and the fact that this opportunity was wasted by what I personally consider to be excessive political correctness struck me as sad. Having said that, I would recommend it as being well worth a visit, but my suggestion would be that you do so in conjunction with the Voortrekker Monument (see my other travel tip about the mooted combination of these two into a single complex, which will hopefully go some way towards addressing my misgivings).
Incorporation: Freedom Park & Voortrekker Monument
As of 2010, there has been public discussion about the possibility of incorporating Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument into a single precinct. This would make sense, as the two are very close to one another, and could be integrated into a single space.
Even if this doesn't happen, it is defintely worth visiting both monuments together to get two very different perspectives on South Africa's turbulent and racially charged past (see my travel tips on both).
Freedom Park (Part 2 - 2008)
This museum is now partly finished and is open for visiting. It is one of the better experiences on offer in Pretoria. The area covered is quite big. It is very well designed, with some outstanding features. There are walls of rememberance, an eternal flame (in a bed of water), It is also described as 'A mirror image of the nation's historical consciousness'.
It is best to take a guided tour, as it gives much more understanding of the symbolism depicted in so many of the feautures. The Park should be completed at the end of 2009. At this stage, entrance is free! This Park is not just about the struggle against apartheid, but it is about the complete history of South Africa.
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Freedom Park (Part 1-2007)
This huge undertaking is still in the making. The first phase is completed and the rest should be completed this year (2007).
It is built on Salvokop, one of the hills surrounding Pretoria.
The monument/park will tell the history of South Africa, including the Anglo-Boer War (now called the 'South African War), slavery, apartheid etc.
It is truly something to look forward to.
I will update as soon as it is completed.
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