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Pretoria's new symbol of freedom

Freedom Park shows South Africa's shared dreams of pain and liberation.

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A new miniseries is being produced to tell the story of Nelson Mandela's life. Here, Mandela and wife Graca Machel wave to the crowds prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Clive Mason/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”