From the sky above this kidney-shaped province appears gold-coloured because of the colour of the grass that covers its veld, and because of its vast fields of sunflowers, wheat and corn, all bathed in golden sunlight. In some parts, beneath its surface, are some of the richest goldmines in the world. But above all, it is the people here that have hearts of gold. All of which truly makes this a province made of gold.
The Free State’s other distinguishing characteristic is that, like Rome, all roads lead to it and its capital, Bloemfontein. Situated at the very centre of the country, one can hardly travel from one part of South Africa to another without passing through the Free State, or through Bloemfontein which in turn sits in the centre of the province and is South Africa’s judicial capital.
The Free State’s central location is both an advantage and a handicap. While the province is easily accessible from any direction, many travellers also view it only in terms of a highway that slices through it, whether from north to south or east to west. Many such travellers speed through it and have never taken the time to turn off and explore the byways and the backroads, and to discover the fascinating goldmine of surprises that awaits them. It’s truly their loss.
The Free State is also the province that shares a border with the most other provinces in South Africa – 6 provinces in total. They are Gauteng, North West, KwaZulu-Natal, Northern Cape, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape. Limpopo in the far north and Western Cape in the far southwestern corner of the country, are connected by the N1 highway that runs right through the middle of the Free State.
In addition, the Free State is also bordered by another country, Lesotho. A fascinating position which makes for a fascinating variety of people and goods that pass through this hospitable province. And that’s not all. Two of South Africa’s biggest rivers also border this province; the Vaal in the north and the Orange in the south.
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 smallest 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.
Centre of political history
The province has pride of place in much of South Africa’s political history. 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 throughout the country’s history.
First, in the early 1800s different clans and groups from surrounding areas fled Zulu King Shaka’s raiders during what was known as the Lifaqane or Mfecane, taking shelter in the mountainous area of Lesotho. Here they defended themselves successfully from the raiding Zulus and other attackers, while King Moshoeshoe I united them into the Basotho nation. The Mfecane 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 as well as 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.
In the far south of the province, the tiny town of Philippolis founded in 1823 by the London Missionary Society’s Dr John Philip, became the capital of an independent republic established by a sub-group of the Griquas known as the Bergenaars. They were led by Adam Kok II, grandson of Adam Kok I who founded the Griqua nation. 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 from the Free State and Transvaal fiercely resisted the mighty 150,000-strong British Army over three years of bloody fighting. The erstwhile Transvaal is today the provinces of Gauteng, North West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
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 they are all united in freedom in democratic South Africa, the roots of which go all the way back to Bloemfontein.
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, provides for a captivating tour of the province all by itself.
City of monuments and museums
The provincial capital Bloemfontein is centrally located in the Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality. 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 in South Africa, 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 Literature Museum in a Cape Dutch-style building that originally accommodated the government 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.
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. Later, in 1910, the Free State became a province of the Union of South Africa within the British Commonwealth. In 1961 it became one of the four provinces of the newly declared Republic of South Africa, and in 1994 became one of the nine provinces of the post-apartheid South Africa.
Also dating to the era of Boer rule, is the Fourth Raadsaal (Fourth National Assembly), an impressive and well-designed classical building dating back to the 1800s. Back 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, now national monument. Here had lived Thomas Maphikela, 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 trials 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 disguised, 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, Edward 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.
Bloemfontein is also a sports and culture hub, hosting major international and national sports events as well as the annual Mangaung African Cultural Festival, known as Macufe, which has become one of the biggest cultural festivals on the African continent.
The Big Five 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, the second largest commercial and urban centre in the Northern Free State 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.
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 gold mining centres of the Free State. 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, the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela where she was under house arrest during apartheid.
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.
The region’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly the truly beautiful Golden Gate Highlands National Park, situated in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains. There is plenty to do and see here. And in nearby 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.
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.
Useful Contact Information
Free State Tourism: Tel +27 (0)51 409 9900
Cheetah Route: Tel +27 (0)51 405 8328
Eagle Route: Tel +27 (0)58 713 0012
Lion Route: Tel +27 (0)16 970 8600
Flamingo Route: Tel +27 (0)57 391 8925
Springbok Route: Tel +27 (0)51 713 9300
Golden Gate Highlands National Park / SANParks: Central Reservation +27 (0)12 428 9111
Bloemfontein Tourism: Email via their website at www.bloemfonteintourism.co.za
Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality: Tel toll-free 0800 111 300
Philippolis Tourist Information: Tel +27 (0)84 805 0145, +27 (0)82 89 24680, +27 (0)82 892 4680, +27 (0)51 773 0063 or +27 (0)51 773 0063