Bloemfontein - The judicial capital of South Africa and provincial capital of the Free State and Bloemfontein is also the most centrally situated city in the country. It is a pivotal point for communications and a popular venue for conventions and sporting events.
The name of Bloemfontein originates from a fountain which surfaces on the site of the present caravan park in Victoria Park. This fountain was known to the Africans as Mangaung (‘place of leopards’), but the Europeans who stopped here for water on their journeys across the Free State called it Bloemfontein (‘flower fountain’).
The first person to settle at the fountain was Johannes Brits and in 1840 he started to farm the area but in later sold his farm to Major H. D. Warden in March 1846 for £37. This farm substantially covered the site of the modern city. In January 1848 Sir Harry Smith rode up to Bloemfontein and called a meeting of the pioneer settlers of the Free State. Most of these people were Voortrekkers who had abandoned the Cape colony due to of dissatisfaction with the government but such was the charisma and personality of Sir Harry he won the approval of many of them for his project of proclaiming British rule over what was known as the Orange River Sovereignty.
When Sir Harry had left the pioneers felt uneasy and started having second thoughts about submitting to British rule. On 17 July 1848, an armed commando appeared before Major Warden and ordered him to leave within three days. Major Warden had no alternative but to comply. He and his 45 Hottentot soldiers and 242 civilians packed their belongings and rode back to the Cape colony.
A month later, an annoyed, Sir Harry was back but this time with an army and encountered the Voortrekkers at Boomplaats, south of Bloemfontein. The Voortrekkers were led by commandant general Andries Pretorius and they were decisively defeated. Major Warden was re-established in Bloemfontein and the British continued to control the Orange River Sovereignty until 1854.
During this period Bloemfontein grew into a small town and Warden stationed a garrison of 450 men and housed them at Queen’s Fort which still stands today. In March 1854 the British judged the territory to be useless and handed it back to the Voortrekkers who replaced the Union Jack with the flag of a new republic. A volksraad (‘people’s council’) was elected to sit in the simple little raadzaal (‘council chamber’) which still stands in St. George’s Street. Josias Hoffman became first president of a state.
President Hoffman did his best for the state but after nine months he was accused of high treason for presenting Chief Moshoeshoe with a barrel of gunpowder as a token of peace and friendship. President Hoffman resigned and Jacobus Boshof became the new president, and served the state with notable ability for the next four years.
Bloemfontein in those days was a typical frontier town. The plains around it teemed with antelope, especially springbok, hartebeest and blesbok. The roaring of lions was a common sound at night and the hyenas and jackals scavenged the streets.
On November 1863 Johannes Brand was elected president and his 25-year term of office saw the republic through an eventful but happy period of its history. President Brand was a simple, honest, sincere man whose philosophy of life relied on a conviction that everything would come right providing everybody did his duty. The philosophy saw the state through many of its troubles. Brand died in 1888 and his successor, Frederick Reitz, found himself at the head of a perfectly sound state. By then Bloemfontein was a large town connected by railway to the Cape and possessing several substantial buildings. President Reitz resigned in 1896 and was replaced by M. T. Steyn and on the 15 March 1900 Bloemfontein was declared an open city.
Soon after that the British Army under Lord Roberts marched in and made Bloemfontein their base and supply depot (typical pommies). A naval brigade was included in Lord Roberts’s force and in Bloemfontein the sailors were quartered on top of a koppie which overlooks the centre of the modern city and this hill became known as Naval Hill. Today Naval Hill is a unique nature reserve named after Stuart Franklin, who was mayor of Bloemfontein at the time of the establishment of the sanctuary in 1928.
Among the buildings still standing in Bloemfontein today are the original raadzaal in St. George’s Street. The fourth and last raadzaal stands in President Brand Street, opposite the Court of Appeal. This building was completed in 1893 from a design by L. Canning and today it is the seat of the provincial council.
The impressive buildings of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court with their elaborately designed interiors still stand. Diagonally opposite the Supreme Court is the official residence of the past presidents of the Orange Free State built on the site of the original farmhouse belonging to pioneer settler Rudolph Brits.
Naval Hill provides Bloemfontein with a unique nature sanctuary in the centre of the city and there are several parks. The National Women’s Memorial occupies a commanding site in Monument Road. Designed by Frans Soff and sculptured by Anton von Wouw this memorial was built in memory of the 26 370 women and children who died in concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War.
Below the National Women’s Memorial is the War Museum containing a comprehensive collection of items connected with the Anglo-Boer war and other struggles in South Africa. The Free State archives in Elizabeth Street also contain a museum room and the National Museum has an outstanding anthropological exhibition and many other treasures.
Bloemfontein has turned out to be a beautiful clean city with great a atmosphere and spirit. It’s a city that loves its sport and recreation with all sorts of interesting things to see and do. Situated on the main highway between Cape Town and Johannesburg it makes an ideal stop over because of its warm hospitality.