PRETORIA, South Africa — After Jacob Zuma was sworn in Saturday as South Africa’s new president, he turned to gaze out from the Union Buildings, the majestic seat of government, and see the country’s history play out on the skyline of Pretoria.
Two hundred slim poles, the tallest 90 feet high, form a curl on top of a hill across the capital city, glittering silvery in the sunlight and flowering in blue-white light at night — Pretoria’s new landscape signature.
The poles evoke reeds — rooted on the ground, soaring into the universe, a metaphor for humankind in African myth. They mark Freedom Park, a new museum and memorial to those who died in South Africa's conflicts: the genocide of its first peoples, the San; slavery; colonization; colonial wars; World Wars I and II; and the struggle against apartheid.
The Freedom park sits atop Salvokop and spreads out over 128 acres.
On a nearby hill stands the somber Voortrekker Monument that commemorates the struggles of the white Dutch-descended Afrikaner settlers who created apartheid — the system of racial oppression. The fortess-like Voortrekker Monument is an impressive if stark example of fascist architecture built in 1938. Its massive, squat volume, like an evil House of Mordoror, is a striking visual opposite of Freedom Park's open, energetic sign drawn by the reed-poles.
So important are these hilltop symbols that Pretoria municipal bylaws forbid any high-rise to obstruct the view from the Union Buildings to the two other monuments, their triangular relation forming a visual emblem of oppression, liberation and democracy.
“Freedom Park conceptualizes indigenous knowledge, the creativity of African science and culture which the Christians and the colonialists tried to destroy,” said Mongane Wally Serote, the South African poet and intellectual who heads the heritage institution.
Stone, water, fire and indigenous vegetation are constant elements in Freedom Park's design. The shapes are organic and round, like African huts and kraals (cattle-holding pens), starting with the spiral path that links all elements
In the African creation story, stone was the first thing to be created and is thus the oldest bearer of memory and spirituality, explained Serote.
Stone reigns supreme in the new park: sand, gray and rose colored quartz and sandstone from the Phalaborwa quarry near the Kruger Park, cut in thin wedges, are stacked up like the ancient masonry walls of Great Zimbabwe, seemingly defying gravity by soaring on the slanted and curved concrete roof of the central hall, the Gallery of Leaders.
The 2,000-foot long Wall of Names has a haunting quality. Split in several sections of different heights, the wall is inscribed with nearly 72,000 names of people who died during the conflicts, and has room for 40,000 more.
Jerry Mathabatha, 28, affixes new names to the wall, as he has been doing for the last five years. He has proudly voted twice in his lifetime, most recently last month in the elections that brought Zuma to power.
“I am proud of what I do, it is like I am writing a book of history,” he said. “It is sad these people died without seeing a free South Africa.”
Here are the San, captured like cattle in the 18th century, nameless but remembered through the reports of colonial officers boasting how many they had killed or enslaved. There are Afrikaner names of victims of the British concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer war of 1899 to 1902. On the longest and tallest wall are the names of those who died in the struggle against apartheid.
Sebastian Matroos choked with emotion at the wall of names when he made his first visit to the park.
“I feel my story intersecting with these walls,” he said. “This is where I stand as a mixed-race South African. My grandfather came as indentured Indian boy laborer in the 19th century. I have Khoi-San blood. I recognize names of people I grew up with who died in the struggle. I own this history.”
Freedom Park was designed to elicit such cathartic feelings. Kgothatso Sebola, 22, a guide, said her eight months at the park have been “an emotional experience”.
“Some are angry, or sad, or relieved that apartheid is over," she said. "Many have a need to tell their story, to share their pain. Here, you find your place in history, in democracy, in nature, in the present.”
Eleven boulders define the circle of Isivivane, a symbolic burial place. In African tradition, the spirits of ancestors cannot rest in peace until they have had a proper burial. Nine boulders came from sacred places in each South African province, the two others represent the national government and the international community.
Here, in plain view of the Voortrekker Monument, traditional African healers perform cleansing rituals, especially on Dec. 16, an apartheid-era national holiday on the anniversary of Blood River battle, when Afrikaner settler Andre Pretorius, after whom the capital is named, led white troops in a battle in which 10,000 Zulus were slaughtered.
The guide asks visitors to remove their shoes and stand among the boulders for a moment of silence, holding hands of friends or strangers, followed by a ritual hand washing.
The design team, chosen from an international competition in 2003, includes South African firms GAPP, Mashabane Rose and MMA Architects, and exhibit consultants Thinc Design from New York, and Visual Acuity from England.
The park includes an open air amphitheatre for 2,000 people, an event hall, spaces for meditation and votive candles, small gardens and conference rooms.
Next year will see the opening of //hapo, an interactive exhibit to tell the story of Southern Africa dating back 3.5 billion years.
//hapo means dream in Khoi, South Africa’s oldest indigenous language, and alludes to a San proverb: A dream is not a dream until it is shared by the entire community.
This dispatch was updated to correct a spelling.
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