The Free State lies in the heart of South Africa, with the Kingdom of Lesotho nestling in the hollow of its bean-like shape. Lying between the Vaal River in the north and the Orange River in the south, the region is one of flat, rolling grassland and crops fields, rising to lovely sandstone mountains in the northeast.
History of The Free State
When the Voortrekkers move away from the Cape Colony in the great Trek, some of them settled just north of Orange River, which formed the border between the Cape Colony and the rest of South Africa. There they founded many towns and farms. But they soon came into conflict with some of the black groups, especially the Basotho. The Basotho were a black nation which was found by Moshoeshoe after the mfecane. Their capital was at Thaba Bosui, which means Mountain of the Night in Sotho. In 1853 the Boers (as the Voortrekkers who had settled in the new republics were now called) declared the area the Orange Free State, a Boer republic like the ZAR.
They fight against Moshoeshoe many times, mostly over who owned what land and where the border between the OFS and the Basotho- kingdom actually was. During the protracted Second Basotho War of 1864 to 1868, Moshoeshoe asked for British protection to protect his Kingdom. The Basotho kingdom became a British protectorate and the Second Basotho War came to an end. As a measure to appease the Boers, the British granted most of the Basotho’s fertile land to the Orange Free State creating the current Lesotho borders with the Free State.
When the Anglo- Boer War broke out in 1899, the Orange Free State helped the ZAR to fight against the British. But in 1902 the Boers lost the war and their republics became the British colonies. The name of the Orange Free State was changed to the Orange River Colony. In 1910, it became one of the provinces of the new Union of South Africa, and the name was changed back to the Orange Free State. After South Africa’s transition to democracy the Orange Free State became a South African province and the name was changed to Free State.
The province is the granary of South Africa, with agriculture central to its economy, while mining on the rich goldfields reefs is its largest employer. In May 2011 Manguang, comprising Bloemfontein, Botshabelo and Thaba Nchu, became South Africa’s newest metropolitan authority. It has an established institutional, educational and administrational infrastructure, and houses the Supreme Court of Appeal, the University of Free State and the Central University of Technology.
Important towns include Welkom, the hearts of the goldfields and one of the few completely pre planned cities in the world; Odendaalsrus, another gold-mining town; Sasolburg, which gets its name from the petrochemical company Sasol; Kroonstad, an important agricultural, administrative and educational centre; Parys, on the banks of the Vaal River; Phuthaditjhaba, a vast and sprawling settlement known for its beautiful handcrafted items; and Bethlehem, gateway to the Eastern Highlands of the Free State.
The Free State is situated on a succession of flat grassy plains sprinkled with pastureland, resting on a general elevation of 3,800 feet only broken by the occasional hill or kopje. The rich soil and pleasant climate allow for a thriving agricultural industry. With more than 30,000 farms, which produce over 70% of the country’s grain, it is known locally as South Africa’s breadbasket.
The province is high-lying, with almost all land being 1,000 metres above sea level. The Drakensberg and Maluti Mountains foothills raise the terrain to over 2,000 m in the east. The Free State lies in the heart of the Karoo Sequence of rocks, containing shales, mudstones, sandstones and the Drakensberg Basalt forming the youngest capping rocks. Mineral deposits are plentiful, with gold and diamonds being of particular importance, mostly found in the north and west of the province.
Fauna and flora
The flats in the south of the reserve provides ideal conditions for large herds of plain game such as black wildebeest and springbok. The ridges, koppies and plains typical of the northern section are home to kudu, red hartebeest, southern white rhinoceros and buffalo. The Southern African wildcat, black wildebeest, zebra, eland, white rhinoceros and wild dog can be seen at the Soetdoring Nature Reserve near Bloemfontein. The South African cheetahs has been reintroduced in the Free State for the first time in June 2013 after a hundred years of regional extinction, at Laohu Valley Reserve near Philippolis. Following the reintroduction of an adult female South African cheetah in early 2016, three wild cheetah cubs has been born for the first time in Laohu Valley Reserve in February 2017, making the three new cubs the first cheetahs born in the wild since their disappearance from the Free State province in over a century.
The Free State experiences a continental climate, characterised by warm to hot summers and cool to cold winters. Areas in the east experience frequent snowfalls, especially on the higher ranges, whilst the west can be extremely hot in summer. Almost all precipitation falls in the summer months as brief afternoon thunderstorms, with aridity increasing towards the west. Areas in the east around Harrismith, Bethlehem and Ficksburg are well watered. The capital, Bloemfontein, experiences hot, moist summers and cold, dry winters frequented by severe frost.
The province is the granary of South Africa, with agriculture central to its economy, while mining on the rich goldfields reef is its largest employer.
Agriculture dominates the Free State landscape, with cultivated land covering 32,000 square kilometres, and natural veld and grazing a further 87,000 square kilometres of the province. It is also South Africa’s leader in the production of biofuels, or fuel from agricultural crops, with a number of ethanol plants under construction in the grain-producing western region. South Africa is one of the top ten Maize producers in the world (12,365,000 tons as of 2013) whereby all of the crops come from the Free State. The Free State is well known for its Mielielande (corn-fields).
Field crops yield almost two-thirds of the gross agricultural income of the province. Animal products contribute a further 30%, with the balance generated by horticulture. Ninety percent of the country’s cherry crop is produced in the Ficksburg district, which is also home to the country’s two largest asparagus canning factories. Soya, sorghum, sunflowers and wheat are cultivated in the eastern Free State, where farmers specialise in seed production. About 40% of the country’s potato yield comes from the province’s high-lying areas.
The main vegetable crop is asparagus, both white and green varieties. Although horticulture is expanding and becoming increasingly export-orientated, most produce leaves the province unprocessed.
The Free State’s advantage in floriculture is the opposing seasons of the southern and northern hemispheres. The province exports about 1.2 million tons of cut flowers a year.
The Free State is also rich in mineral wealth, gold representing 20% of the world’s total gold production. Mining is the province’s major employer. The province has 12 gold mines, producing 30% of South Africa’s output and making it the fifth-largest producer of gold in the world. The Harmony Gold Refinery and Rand Refinery are the only two gold refineries in South Africa.
Gold mines in the Free State also supply a substantial portion of the total silver produced in the country, while considerable concentrations of uranium occurring in the gold-bearing conglomerates of the goldfields are extracted as a by-product.
Bituminous coal is also mined, and converted to petrochemicals at Sasolburg. The Free State also produces high-quality diamonds from its kimberlite pipes and fissures, and the country’s largest deposit of bentonite is found in the Koppies district.
Since 1989, the Free State economy has moved from dependence on primary sectors such as mining and agriculture to an economy increasingly oriented towards manufacturing and export. Some 14% of the province’s manufacturing is classified as being in high-technology industries – the highest of all provincial economies. The northern Free State’s chemicals sector is one of the most important in the southern hemisphere. Petrochemicals company Sasol, based in the town of Sasolburg, is a world leader in the production of fuels, waxes, chemicals and low-cost feedstock from coal.
In the north-eastern Free State, nestled in the rolling foothills of the Maluti mountains, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park is the province’s prime tourist attraction. The park gets its name from the brilliant shades of gold cast by the sun on the spectacular sandstone cliffs, especially the imposing Brandwag or Sentinel Rock, which keeps vigil over the park.
The sandstone of this region has been used for the lovely dressed-stone buildings found on the Eastern Highlands, while decoratively painted Sotho houses dot the grasslands. Some of South Africa’s most valued San (Bushman) rock art is found in the Free State, particularly in the regions around Clarens, Bethlehem, Ficksburg, Ladybrand and Wepener.
GOLDEN GATE HIGHLANDS NATIONAL PARK
The Golden Gate Park lies at the foot of the Maluti Mountains, and offers visitors over 11000 hectors of true highland habitant, and is home to an array of animals, including black wildebeest, eland, springbok, Burchell’s zebra, the rear bearded vulture and bald ibis. The park gets its name from the bright rays of golden sunlight cast on the park’s sandstone cliffs – truly a sight to behold.
BASOTHO CULTURAL VILLAGE
Nestled in the heart of the QwaQwa national park lies the Basotho Cultural Village, a place that time forgot where the Basotho still practice their traditional ways today. Explore the traditions of the village as you step to the ‘khotla’, the gathering place of men, or enjoy a taste of traditional African beer. Alternatively hear the wise words of traditional healer before watching the women grind maize in their decorated huts.
BLOEMFONTEIN BOTANICAL GARDENS
The botanical gardens consist of a mix of planted and indigenous environments, with two dams, reeds, small hills and indigenous Karee and Wild Olive trees. It also includes an Orchid house said to be the most modern of its kind in the southern hemisphere. The park is also home to over 100 species of birds, and is a perfect place to spend a relaxing day enjoying the scenery.
WAR MEMORIALS AND MONUMENTS
The Anglo Boer War, which broke out in October 1899, was a turning point in South Africa’s history, and the last full scale war fought on South African soil. The Free State offers a number of war monuments and memorials, including battlefield site monuments, museums and war and concentration camp cemeteries.
STEAM TRAIN EXCURSIONS
The Sandstone Steam Rail Company has made it its mission to restore steam trains for tourists to enjoy excursions along the historic Bethlehem-Bloemfontein Rail road. Enjoy timeless travel through unique African destinations such as Maseru or Ladybrand, with many stops to explore and enjoy the scenery- an unusual yet relaxing way to explore vistas and history of the Free State.
OLIEWENHUIS ART MUSEUM
Originally a residence for Governor Generals and State Presidents of South Africa, the museum collects only South African arts and has an excellent compilation of historic and contemporary paintings, sculptures and graphic art. The underground reservoir, built in 1904, is now a general space for workshop, exhibitions and conferences. Visitors can not only enjoy the fine artworks on display, but also will be entertained on weekends by local musicians while enjoying light lunches or walking trails through the surrounding area.