The elderly African poet and I went up the mountain and sat down in the silence of Isivivane, the open church under the African skies, to dissect the soul of our nation.
We were barefoot because we were on the most sacred ground in Freedom Park, a great architectural ode to freedom which has been slowly taking shape on the crest of Salvokop over the course of the past 10 years.
Situated to the south of Pretoria, the park’s stone structures, almost completed now, are dwarfed by a sculpture of nearly 200 ascending metal reeds topped with lights.
These “freedom lights” dominate the skyline; but do South Africans register their meaning? This is what I had come to ask the poet.
From our stone seat under a tree, Mongane Wally Serote looked at the Union Buildings in the blue distance, where a black president now occupies the office of the former apartheid heads of government.
Serote was born in Sophiatown in 1944, 50 years before the nation elected its first nonracial democratic government in 1994.
His place of birth was destroyed by the apartheid regime’s forced removals, so the young Sophiatown boy grew up to be an angry poet whose early poems often expressed struggle themes and carried violent images of revolt.
In June 1969 he was arrested by the apartheid police. He spent nine months in solitary confinement before being released, then started his years of exile in America and Botswana.
After his return he served as a member of Parliament before being given the job of creating Freedom Park, a monument not only to freedom and democracy but also to the need to heal the torn South African nation.
With the job now almost completed, Serote will retire in March this year.
Contemplating his worn-out old toes, the creator of this place where the spirits of all who died in South Africa’s conflicts dwell reflected on the meaning of his creation.
In the newspapers a debate has raged about the fact that South Africa’s racial divisions are still as strong as ever.
So has Freedom Park truly achieved its objectives of reconciliation and forging a single soul for the nation?
In reply, Wally Serote described the time he spent with MK struggle hero General Andrew Masondo at the place where we sat.
At the time, it was rough and almost unreachable. It was before the development of Freedom Park began.
“Masondo stood there and called out the names of people from far back in history to date. And he did that with his clear understanding of nonracialism because he called white people, coloureds, Indians, blacks, everybody.
And he said to their spirits: ‘I am doing this because I want you to come and reside here’.”
Masondo, said Serote, stood there for an hour calling the names, summoning the spirits.
“I must tell you that I was very moved by that,” he said.
If Freedom Park could contribute to reconciliation and nation- building, added Serote, it could be said “that this park achieved one of the most noble aspirations of our people”.
He said he knew that different people had been very sensitive to the park’s different meanings.
“They see it as a space for remembrance; as a space to visit the spirits of the freedom fighters; a place where they can come and pray or dance or sing.
“They see it as a place that is also a sanctuary for their innermost feelings about this country, whether it is sad moments in their hearts, happy moments, questioning moments or moments of doubt.”
But Freedom Park is not visited by a great number of South Africans. And for that, Serote said, the management of the park must take responsibility.
When former president Thabo Mbeki appointed him to lead the process of constructing the park, Serote said, he started a process of “very deep, broad and wide consultations” about how its design could encapsulate the history of the country.
How would the park express, in brick and mortar, the fact that this land was “soaked in human blood spilled so that we can be free?”
And how would the park honour the far-ranging sacrifices by people dead and alive which ensured the freedom of all South Africans?
“I was told three things which, as an African, I knew but, having lived through colonialism and apartheid, had forgotten.”
It was very important to find a symbolic way to cleanse the blood that has soaked the country; to find a way to kickstart the process of healing, to foster closure and bring the spirits of the fighters back to the country.
These were the sentiments at the foundation of the great monument he and his team built, said Serote.
Indeed, the park has many spectacular spiritual elements, including a vast wall commemorating South Africans who died for freedom, an eternal flame honouring unknown heroes and heroines, a gallery dedicated to the legendary leaders of humanity, a museum housing the story of 3.6?billion years of history on the southern-most tip of Africa.
But the most special is Isivivane. According to Serote, this is where “you call the ancestors and talk to them, but also where you can leave your spirit to say: ‘I am one with the people who live here’.”
He came to sit here many times in the years that Freedom Park was under construction.
“I came here to celebrate if we had successes.
“I came here to intercede when I felt there were serious challenges and problems ahead of us.
“I came here when I myself needed guidance as to what I must do, having been given this privilege and honour to lead this process.”
Is Freedom Park his best poem?
“I don’t know if it is the best, but I know I at all times tried to give it my best, the way I was supposed to.
And I am very much aware that a lot of people – the board, managers and staff – also tried to do their best.”
His time at the head of the project was, he said, his “opportunity to reach out to that thing called perfection”.
Will we ever be one nation?
“I am clear about this in my head. There is no other option. We must find each other, hold each other and say: ‘Let us build this country together so we can demonstrate what peace can be for the people’.”
This, said the old poet, would be hard to do.
“But I have never for one minute lost hope. I think it will happen.”