The Freedom Park

designed by /

Location: Pretoria / South Africa / Type: Parks / Built: 2007 /
Show on Google Maps / Published on September 4, 2012

GREENinc: The Freedom Park is a project mandated by President Nelson Mandela as the natural outcome of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process that occurred after the fall of Apartheid. Its vision is structured around four key ideas: reconciliation, nation building, freedom of people and humanity. The making of the landscape seeks to recognise the spiritual origins of these ideas, and manifest them symbolically in physical form. The Freedom Park fulfils the cultural role of a Garden of Remembrance – a natural indigenous garden telling the story of South Africa’s progression to freedom. It is intended as a natural symbol for reparation, a symbol of healing, a symbol of cleansing and a place where the souls of those who lost their lives in the quest for freedom can rest. It is also a place of pilgrimage, renewal and hope for all South Africans and mankind.

The Freedom Park, situated on Salvokop in Tshwane, was conceived as a narrative, a ‘journey to freedom’ informed by traditional African culture and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) that have not been acknowledged through past knowledge or records. Five key elements, //hapo, Isivivane, S’khumbuto, Moshate, and Tiva form the basis of this narrative and are linked by a wheelchair friendly pathway system that winds its way up the hill. These elements have been constructed over a number of phases and the entire project is due to be completed by mid 2011.

The site

A quartzite ridge forms the natural ‘foundation’ to Freedom Park and is a vitally important regional asset characterised by a unique composition of plant species, rich in biodiversity. The ecological sensitivity of the site is very high and care was taken to conserve as much of the hill as possible in its natural state. A cultural case in point relates to a session with community leaders held to access indigenous knowledge. The traditional healers put in a special request that Protea caffra trees, isiQalaba in Zulu, be left as they were as they believed that if these trees were removed, it would be the same as saying that the people of KwaZulu/Natal must not speak Zulu. Also, for this reason interventions on the southern slope were kept to a minimum to retain the natural character of this unique system of valleys and ridges that dominate the view as one approaches the City of Tshwane from the south. Where it was inevitable that plants be removed, these were rescued and housed in a holding nursery before being returned to the landscape.


Landscaping the site embraces the concept of a natural, symbolic garden with many different spaces and places, which form the setting for the five key elements mentioned above. In addition to retaining as much of the site’s vegetation, the idea was to bring in plants that have traditional values – wellbeing, medicinal and symbolic. Plants were carefully chosen to relate to the natural plant communities that occur across the site. They were also ‘tested’ by traditional healers for their cultural appropriateness in use and location. Over 250 species of indigenous plants were used in the project and each plant, in addition to its scientific name, has been named in English, Afrikaans and at least one of the official nine African languages of South Africa.

Through rehabilitation and conservation, the landscape intervention heals the original scars of the site and symbolically, of history. As the new planting grows in, the architectural elements of Freedom Park will appear as to emerge from the hill and be one with it – like much of historic African interventions such as Great Zimbabwe and Thulamela. Exotic trees were removed (or are being removed) from the site, and invasive species are being eliminated over time through management. Rare, species were grown at an on-site nursery created specifically for the project to establish a landscape palette that offers a much broader ecology than what the original site had to offer. New indigenous species were used in a bold, dramatic and pragmatic way – again, symbolic healing of the landscape through human expression (design).

The landscape design is also informed by traditional forms, languages and principles of African architecture and space i.e. curved lines and rounded forms are typical elements. Natural and local materials were used as much as possible, and plants transplanted to new locations to avoid construction footprints.

The Narrative

//hapo (‘dream’, which has been drawn from a Khoi proverb “//hapo ge //hapo tama /haohasib dis tamas ka i bo” that translates into “A dream is not a dream until it is shared by the entire community.”), an interactive exhibition space where the story of Southern Africa, dating back 3.6 billion years, will unfold in narrative and visual form, is located at the entrance to the park and ties the urban fabric of the adjacent community into the natural environment of the Salvopkop hill. Sculpted from steel frames and copper sheeting and shaped to resemble boulders at the foot of the hill, the ‘exhibit containers’ were designed to merge into the natural landscape of the hill. To this end the indigenous vegetation already growing on the hill has been be encouraged to ‘embrace’ //hapo and incorporate the containers as one of many elements within a larger garden. In the immediate vicinity of //hapo, a ramped pathway navigates the steep topography around the building, creating spaces within its folds and carrying the ‘boulder’ language set by the containers into the site beyond. The material palette is simple, the lines between architecture and landscape blurred as vertical surfaces fold seamlessly outwards over pathway and wall, allowing the building to ‘root’ itself in place and physically embody the notion of IKS. At its western end, and at the literal and spiritual heart of the buildings the courtyard garden functions as a space that links the various ‘container’ entrances with each other as well as a place where small groups can gather and participate in storytelling. To the east and below lies the Sentlhaga (nest), a walled garden which provides a safe and comfortable space for children to experience the themes of Freedom Park from their perspective. As the walls of the Sentlhaga extend eastward they open into a soft bowl-like space in which an extensive collection of traditional healing plants will be grown to educate people in natural heritage.
//hapo is connected to the other elements of the park by a system of pathways which navigate the slopes of the Salvokop hill. They provide dramatic views in all directions but especially across the city of Pretoria to the Union Buildings which lie to the north. A decked solution was selected for the pathways on the northern side of the hill. This both minimizes the visual impact from the city and touchs lightly on the earth below, allowing the natural vegetation under and around the structure to envelope the visitor, enhancing experience and framing views. Along the pathways a number of quiet spaces, known as the Vhuawelo and composed primarily of natural materials collected and scraped from the immediate vicinity, have been sculpted to allow complete escape into the natural environment. These spaces were carefully identified on site far enough from the main pathway to remain peaceful and where large existing trees could completely shield off views to the city.

Along the southern site of the hill the visitor passes along Mveledzo, a heavier stone and concrete pathway that assumes an atmosphere of contemplation, to reach a pause area created to offer visitors a chance to rest before making the final ascent to S’khumbuto. Water has been used here and extensively across the site because of its vitally important implication in African traditional culture. The symbolism of water is common to all tribes and plays a significant role not only in African belief systems but also in Western thought and religion. Traditionally water relates to healing, there is also the belief that the spirits of ancestors reside in water and that the first person emerged from reeds growing in water. In Christianity, water is used as a symbol of purification or cleansing of sin through baptism, while local tribes people believe that water is the giver of life – that life comes from water i.e. the child in the womb. This metaphor is clearly expressed in this pause area which in plan has a womb like appearance and spatially envelopes the visitor.

S’khumbuto (the Swati word for a memorial or remembering) also has the connotation of honouring, praising and celebrating. It comprises several components: the Wall of Names, Sanctuary, Reeds, Gallery of Leaders and Moshate. On the northern side of S’khumbuto the Sanctuary emerges from the landscape to form the backdrop to the amphitheatre, which flows in grassed terraces onto the roof of the Sanctuary before terminating at a Wild Olive tree (Olea europaea subsp africana) planted by then President Thabo Mbeki in 2002 to signify the beginning of the construction of The Freedom Park. An eternal flame burns at the base of the Sanctuary, sending a warm glow into it and onto the surrounding water. Sweeping down from the President’s Tree to the amphitheatre and comprising succulent plants, largely the aloes of the region (Aloe Africana, Aloe cryptopoda, Aloe peglerae and Aloe pretoriensis), and indigenous veldt grasses (Eragrostis curvula, Eragrostis, lehmanniana and Eragrostis racemosa) is a swathe of natural planting that creates a visual link to the original natural ridge beyond it.

To mark The Freedom Park from a distance a noticeable vertical element was designed into S’khumbuto. The notion behind the element was derived from the African philosophy of creation that acknowledges reeds as the conduit to life. The idea of a rising line of reeds was embraced to give a sense of progress in the struggle for freedom and to celebrate hope for the future. Two inner arcs of reeds symbolize communication between earth and heaven. In African tradition, particularly in the Swazi and Zulu cultures, reeds are used to communicate with the deity through the ancestors.

The reeds are a transparent element encircling the top of the hill and the Wall of Names; drawing a line against the horizon while maintaining the visual outline of the hilltop. The reeds are actually stainless steel ‘masts’ that range in height from 1 m to 34 m. The challenge was that these sculptures had to consider the relationship to landscape, the project’s content and the visual manifestation of ‘monument’. The reeds are perhaps the element of the project that most epitomises the opportunity and restrictions inherent in the blurring of landscape, art and architecture. The reeds are the project’s main iconic component.

The Moshate (the Sotho word that means the residential place of the chief) is located at the western end of S’khumbuto where it forms an entrance for dignitaries. A ‘forest’ of majestic Aloes (Aloe marlothii), a plant often used at the main access points to traditional homesteads. It is a striking plant that emphasises the entrance of Moshate.

The Uitspanplek (Afrikaans word for resting place), which deliberately breaks from the design narrative of the rest of the site, is a picnic area located on the northern side of the hill and which offers beautiful views across the valley to the Union Buildings where President Mandela was inaugurated in 1994. It is a secluded resting place with shade trees (Acacia xanthophloea), water and birdlife, surrounded by existing indigenous bush and veldt grasses inter-planted with rescued herbaceous grassland plants, such as Red Paintbrush (Scadoxus puniceus), Tumbleweed (Boophone disticha) renowned for their medicinal properties and grassland orchid species (Eulophia sp.).


South African landscape architecture has few examples where African culture and landscape design inform each other to create a place that engages people spiritually and confronts them about their perceptions of the past and visions for the future. The design challenge was to introduce people to African culture, symbolism and spiritual meaning through a landscape narrative that expresses the place in an abstract manner – so as not to alienate any one cultural group. In seeking to meet this challenge, the landscape architects integrated The Freedom Park’s physical elements into an already beautiful site to create a landscape that resonates with universal symbolic and spiritual meaning – yet which is unashamedly founded in African cultural expression.

Landscape Architect: GREENinc as part of NBGM (NLA Bagale GREENinc MOMO)
Project team:
Architect: Office of Collaborative Architects (OCA)
Consulting Engineer: Aurecon
Project title: The Freedom Park – Intermediate Phase
Location: Salvokop, Pretoria, Gauteng
Date of completion: 2007
Client: The Freedom Park Trust
Text & photos: GREENinc

*This project received an ILASA Award of Excellence in 2009


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