On a map it appears shaped like a kidney hugging the tiny kingdom of Lesotho. For many it represents little more than a highway slicing through it, connecting Johannesburg in the north, with Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay in the south – a place through which to rush as quickly as possible.
But situated in the centre of South Africa, the province of Free State truly is the golden heart of the country. Speed through it without stopping or detouring off the N1 highway, and you will miss a delightful world of exploration and discovery.
Because of its centrality and easy access by air, road and rail from every direction, the province, with its multitude of attractions and varied types of accommodation for visitors, is ideal for everything from day trips, to longer road trips, weekend getaways or holidays with a very distinct difference.
The Free State is a province with modern cities and quaint old-worldly country towns, towering mountains and golden plains, lively rivers and tranquil dams, wildlife and cultural diversity, mining and farming, and it played a central role in all of South Africa’s rich and diverse history.
Although equal or bigger in size than most other provinces, it has one of the lowest populations. Some 64% of its population of 2.7-million people consists of Sesotho-speaking Basotho people. The next largest group are Afrikaans-speakers at 12.7%, followed by sprinklings of Xhosa, Tswana, Zulu, English-speakers and various other groups.
Central in SA’s political history
The province has pride of place in much of South Africa’s political history. Its capital city, Bloemfontein, was the birthplace of both the apartheid-era ruling party, the National Party, and the post-apartheid ruling party, the African National Congress. The province and the adjacent Lesotho have been the site of several freedom struggles by different groups in history.
First, in the early 1800s different clans and groups from surrounding areas fled into the mountainous area of Lesotho where King Moshoeshoe I united them into the Basotho nation. Here they defended themselves successfully against the raids of marauding bands associated with the Zulu King Shaka during the infamous Lifaqane, also known as the Mfecane. This spread into warfare across the entire eastern Southern Africa as tribes tried to dominate others, seized territory form each other and were swept away by stronger tribes or absorbed into them, and with new tribes and nations like the Basotho being forged. The Basotho survived this period, and subsequent attempts by the British and Boers to conquer and dominate them, and still live in freedom today in their kingdom. Sesotho-speaking people are also the majority in the Free State today.
The small town of Philippolis founded in the southern Free State in 1823 by the London Missionary Society’s Dr John Philip, became the site where a sub-group of the Griquas known as the Bergenaars, led by Adam Kok II, grandson of Adam Kok I who founded the Griqua nation, found freedom and established their own republic. However, in 1861, Adam Kok III, sold their land to the government of the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State and moved his people to Griqualand East, today part of KwaZulu-Natal.
In the late 1830s, Voortrekkers (Afrikaner pioneer farmers) arrived in the Free State from the Cape Colony, fleeing what they regarded as British colonial tyranny. They established their own republic here, and another in the Transvaal (northern part of South Africa), only to lose their freedom again to the British during the Anglo-Boer War which ended in 1902. But not before 40,000 Boer fighters fiercely resisted the mighty 150,000-strong British Army over three years of bloody fighting.
In 1912 black leaders and chiefs formed the African National Congress (ANC) in Bloemfontein. Three years later Afrikaner nationalists formed the National Party in the same city, and launched a political struggle that would eventually see them regain their freedom as the rulers of South Africa, first in the union and later in the republic. But it was at the expense of South Africans of other races, which led to the ANC launching its own liberation struggle, and eventually gaining freedom and equality for black South Africans in 1994 under Nelson Mandela, now all united in democratic South Africa.
Evidence and testimony to this fascinating political history can today be found all over the province in battlefield sites, monuments, museums, and various historical sites. Visiting these make, on their own, for a captivating tour of the province.
A city of monuments and history
The provincial capital is Bloemfontein, located in the Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality, right in the centre of the kidney. It is a bustling city rich in history, as its many museums, monuments and preserved old buildings attest. One could call Bloemfontein the city of monuments. But the old shares space with the new, and there are also many modern buildings, developments, malls and avenues that house shops, restaurants, offices, hotels, pubs, art galleries, book shops and government offices.
As the sixth largest city, it is also the country’s judicial capital and seat of the Supreme Court of Appeal. As such it is one of the three capital cities of South Africa that represent the democratic philosophy of the ‘separation of powers’, with Pretoria in the Tshwane Metro being the administrative and executive capital, and Cape Town the legislative capital.
A fascinating way of spending a day or two in the city is to go on your own or with a guide on a historical tour or city walk. Among the many places of interest you will be visiting is the National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Research Centre in a Cape Dutch-style building that originally accommodated the government structures of the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State in the 1800s. The museum houses the largest collection of Afrikaans literature and manuscripts, as well as artefacts belonging to well-known Afrikaans writers. Also accommodated here is the National Sotho Library.
A visit to the Old Presidency will introduce you to the world of the old Boer presidents from Josias Philip Hoffman in the mid-1850s, to the last president, Marthinus Steyn, who left office in May 1902 after the Boer republics were defeated by the British in the Anglo-Boer War. After this, in 1910, the Free State became a province of the Union of South Africa under British rule. In 1961 it became one of the four provinces of the Republic of South Africa, and in 1994 became one of the nine provinces of the post-apartheid South Africa.
Remaining in the era of Boer rule, you can next visit the Fourth Raadsaal (Fourth National Assembly), an impressive and well-designed classical building dating back to the 1800s. Then it housed the Boer republic’s legislature; today it houses the Free State Provincial Legislature.
Next we take a step forward in history, visiting Maphikela House, the house and now national monument of Thomas Maphikela, who was one of the founder members of the ANC in Bloemfontein in 1912. Many important and historic meetings of the ANC, which today governs South Africa, were held in this double-storey house. Not far away is the renovated Waaihoek Wesleyan Church where a group of chiefs and people’s representatives founded the ANC on 8th January 1912. The church is now a national heritage site and has been nominated for recognition as a UN World Heritage Site.
Among the many other fascinating buildings in the city – old and relatively newer – are the Tweetoring Kerk, a twin-spired Dutch Reformed Church built in 1880 where the famous Rev Andrew Murray had been a minister and where presidents once took their oath of office; the Anglican Cathedral where the city’s founder, Major Henry Douglas Warden, laid the foundation stone in 1850; the Supreme Court of Appeal building completed in 1929, with its stinkwood-panelled courtroom, impressive judges’ library and a record of major trial in the country’s judicial history; the 1909 Supreme Court building now housing the Free State High Court; the impressive sandstone City Hall designed by Sir Gordon Leith, declared a national conservation area in its entirety; the Bloemfontein Public Library; the Lebohang Building, with its beautiful stained-glass and concrete panel that houses offices of the Free State Provincial Government; and the modern but very impressive glass-constructed Bram Fischer Building where the Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality is housed.
Museums in the city include Freshford House Museum, the National Museum, National Women’s Memorial & Anglo Boer War Museum, First Raadsaal Museum, Wagon Museum, Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Queen’s Fort Military Museum, Choet Visser Rugby Museum, Special Service Battalion Museum, SA Armour Museum, and the Free State Agricultural Museum.
Other monuments and historical sites include the Free State Youth Martyrs’ Monument, for young people who died in the struggle against apartheid; the old residential section of the ‘coloured’ community of New Clare Township before they were forcefully removed; the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Batho where ANC documents were hidden during apartheid; Heroes’ Acre; and the birth house of communist leader and anti-apartheid struggle hero Bram Fischer. Fischer, a lawyer from a prominent Free State Afrikaner family, spent months on the run from security police, heavily disguises, before his arrest and imprisonment.
Other places of interest are Naval Hill with its statue of Nelson Mandela, said to be the largest of him in the world, overlooking the city; the Franklin Game Reserve that forms part of Naval Hill; the more than 4,000 rose trees in the rose garden at King’s Park, which was opened in 1925 by the Prince of Wales, Eduard VIII; the Boyden Observatory; Bloemfontein Zoo with its Loch Logan Waterfront complex; Modenso Park Model Steam Trains at Maselspoort Resort; the Windmill Casino; and the Free State National Botanical Garden. Naval Hill is also home to the very first digital planetarium in Sub-Saharan Africa.
For culture and entertainment buffs the annual Mangaung African Cultural Festival, known as Macufe, has become one of the biggest cultural festivals on the African continent. It features top talent from around Africa and offers craft markets, theatre, dance, poetry, boxing, gospel, film, African music, comedy, jazz, a divas’ concert, an Afrikaans music concert, and the annual Macufe Cup for soccer fanatics.
For sports enthusiasts, apart from the Macufe Cup, the city has a number of outstanding golf courses. It is also home to the VKB Knights at their cricket home ground, the Mangaung Oval, and the Free State Stadium where the province’s Cheetahs rugby team play their home games.
Big Five regional travel routes
For ease of reference and easy travel planning in the province, Free State Tourism has divided the province into the Big Five travel routes: Flamingo, Lion, Eagle, Cheetah and Springbok Routes.
The Lion Route is in the northern part of the province close to Gauteng and Johannesburg. It includes the towns of Parys on the Vaal River, Vredefort and Kroonstad. Parys offers river rafting, berry picking at Bon-Af Berry Farm, the popular Hartelus Market, the Vaal Art and Organic Market, fly-fishing, bird watching and the Kommandonek hike, among much more. Vredefort is the central point of the world famous UN Heritage Site, the Vredefort Dome, a 300km wide crater formed from the biggest meteorite impact yet found on Earth. It is nearly twice as big as the impact that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Kroonstad is the third largest city in the Free State. During the Second Anglo-Boer War, from 13 March to 11 May 1900, the city became the capital of the Orange Free State, and was later the site of a British concentration camp to accommodate Boer women and children. It is the second largest commercial and urban centre in the Northern Free State. There are several Anglo-Boer War related sites and monuments in the area. Attractions and activities include flea markets, fishing on the Vals River or at the Bloemhoek Dam, walking trails, a lion tour and the Boskoppie Lion and Tiger Park. Many of the town’s old Sandstone Buildings have survived.
This route encompasses the north-western part of the province and includes the towns of Welkom, Bothaville, Ventersburg, Virginia and Brandfort. Welkom and Virginia are the main centres of the Free State gold mining fields. It is also a prime sunflower farming region. Welkom is the province’s second largest city. There are a large number of historical monuments, buildings and sites in and around the city. Mine tours are available and there are flea markets, a pan inhabited by a large colony of flamingos, and a gold museum. The city with its Phakisa Raceway is also a motorsport centre.
At Brandfort you can visit the erstwhile home of Nelson Mandela’s former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. In the apartheid era she was banished from Soweto and restricted here under house arrest. The town was also the site of a large British concentration camp for Boer women and children, with the graves of many of those who died still here.
This route, in the east of the province, covers arguably the most beautiful part of the Free State, adjacent to the Kingdom of Lesotho and the snow-covered Maluti Mountains which form part of the Drakensberg mountain range system. The route includes the towns of Warden, Bethlehem, Kestell, Harrismith, Clarens, Foueriesburg, Ficksburg, Clocolan and Puthaditjhaba.
But the region’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly the truly beautiful Golden Gate Highlands National Park, situated in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains. Things to do in and around the park include visits to the Basotho Cultural Village for an interactive tour of traditional Sotho life from the 16th century onwards, Vulture’s Restaurant, Cathedral Cave, the nearby towns of Clarens and Ficksburg, and the awesome Brandwag Buttress. Or you can take a two-hour guided hiking trail to explore nearby rock-art and learn about the area’s medicinal plants.
In Ficksburg you can join the festivities during the annual Cherry Festival in November, or you can sample the local cuisine and arts and crafts in Clarens. You can relax at the Witisieshoek Resort which, at 2286m above sea level, offers spectacular views over the Northern Drakensberg mountains, or you can cross into Lesotho for some skiing in winter.
The Cheetah Route covers the central area and includes Bloemfontein, Botshabelo, Thaba Nchu and Ladybrand. Once you have exhausted the multitude of things to do and see in and around Bloemfontein, head 45km east to Botshabelo, meaning “a place of refuge”. It is a large township established in 1979 by the apartheid government and was once the second-largest township in South Africa after Soweto. There are many attractions in the area and guided tours are available. Nearby Thaba Nchu is home to the Naledi Sun Casino.
This route covers the southern portion of the province and includes Jacobsdal, Koffiefontein, Jagersfontein, Philippolis, Bethuluie and the Gariep Dam. The landscape here flattens out and closer to the border it shares with the Northern and Eastern Cape provinces, it flows into the Great Karoo, an arid, semi-desert region. Yet it remains beautiful country, interspersed every now and again by hills. On the border of the Eastern Cape lies the magnificent Gariep Dam and Gariep Dam Nature Reserve.
The dam is a staggering 100km long and 24km wide and you can go on guided tours inside the passages of its huge wall. Activities at the dam include fishing, windsurfing, sailing, jet-skiing, canoeing, rowing and game-viewing by boat. In February the annual Gariep 500 Rubber Duck Race and Watersport Festival is staged on the dam.
The entire area is dotted with Boer War battle sites, concentration camp sites, war memorials, military graveyards and relics from the war like British forts. The town of Bethulie on the north-eastern shore of the Gariep Damn had one of the largest concentration camps. The town’s most famous son was the actor Patrick Mynhardt, whose one-man shows featuring Herman Charles Bosman’s character Oom Schalk Lourens were very popular in South Africa. His autobiographical show, which also resulted in a book, was called Boy from Bethulie.
Philippolis was of course the seat of the erstwhile independent Griqua state where many buildings from that time remain, as well as a British naval canon on a hill overlooking the town. The town boasts of having the most monuments in the entire Free State, commemorating the Griqua period and the Boer War. Nearby Koffiefontein and its surrounding areas saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Boer war. One of South Africa’s most famous authors, Etienne le Roux, lived here and his homestead and grave can be visited. During the Second World War a second large internment camp was opened in the town, housing 2,000 Italian and some German prisoners of war, as well as 800 South African internees who were suspected of being pro-Nazi.