Welcome to Week 6 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I will visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit Freedom Park, a monument to those who fought and died in South African conflicts.
South Africa, like most countries, has a complicated and tumultuous history. There are many fantastic, thoughtfully designed museums and memorials commemorating this history and I’ve been to most of them. But somehow Freedom Park in Pretoria eluded me until last month.
Freedom Park was founded in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and based on a mandate by President Nelson Mandela, who said in 1999: “…the day shall not be far off, when we shall have a people’s shrine, a Freedom Park, where we shall honor with all the dignity they deserve, those who endured pain so we should experience the joy of freedom.” The park officially opened in 2007.
I’ve been holding off on writing about Freedom Park because it’s a difficult place to describe. Unlike the more popular historical museums like the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pietersen Museum, and Constitution Hill, which present South Africa’s story with huge volumes of information, the story that Freedom Park tells is subtler, earthier. Freedom Park tells its story mainly through symbolism rather than words. Freedom Park is also a bit hard to find and doesn’t do the greatest job of selling itself.
These are some of the reasons why lots of people don’t know about Freedom Park, or like me, took years to finally visit it. That was a mistake though. Not only is Freedom park a beautiful, contemplative place, but it’s just important to go.
Exploring Freedom Park
I went to Freedom Park with my friend Kat, a professional tour guide and blogger who knows a ton about South African history and has visited Freedom Park many times. Kat gave me great insight into the park, but for others I would recommend taking a guided tour. Tours take place every day at 9:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m., at no additional charge over the R50 adult entrance fee (R100, or $7.50, for overseas visitors).
If you go to Freedom Park in summer, please do not go at 11:00 a.m. like we did. Pretoria is hot, people. We nearly melted.
In the words of the Freedom Park brochure: “It stands as a testimony to eight conflicts that have shaped the South Africa of today. These are 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.”
Basically, South Africa’s pre-1994 history was filled with violence. Hundreds of thousands of people died in that violence, which, for better or worse, helped make South Africa the country it is today. Freedom Park seeks to honor all the people who died. Among other things, the park includes a massive “Wall of Names” with space for 150,000 names. 75,000 have been inscribed so far.
A piece of the Wall of Names. This section lists the names of people who died during the South African War, formerly called the Anglo-Boer War.
The Sharpeville Massacre, one of the most well-known examples of anti-apartheid protests that led to carnage at the hands of South African police. 69 people were killed and 180 were seriously injured.
Freedom Park is designed for rambling. Different paths lead to peaceful gardens and water features where you can sit and think. The park also offers great views of both downtown Pretoria and the Union Buildings to the north, and the Voortrekker Monument to the south.
View of the Voortrekker Monument from the top of Freedom Park. It’s no accident that Freedom Park was built in close proximity to the Voortrekker Monument, which commemorates Afrikaner identity and the Great Trek.
If you have a whole day, I would recommend visiting both Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument at the same time. There is a road connecting the two, and visiting them together will provide interesting insight on how South Africa became the country it is today.
My favorite part of Freedom Park is Isivivane, which serves as a sacred and symbolic resting place for all of those who died in South Africa’s conflicts. Representatives of all the country’s ethnic and religious groups came together to design this place, and to cleanse and heal the space to make it welcoming for everyone. Isivivane includes a circle of 11 boulders — one from each of South Africa’s nine provinces, one representing the national government, and one representing the international community — that creates a communal spiritual resting place.
In many ways, Freedom Park represents all of the best things about modern South Africa. As I said, it’s a hard place to explain. Please go see it for yourself.
Freedom Park is located at the corner of Koch and 7th Avenue, Salvokop, Pretoria. (Use a GPS because it can be tricky to find.) More information at +27-012-336-4000.