Bloemfontein, City of Roses, in the strategic heart of South Africa
A country in turmoil
In the first half of the 19th Century the interior of Southern Africa was in turmoil. To the east the the Zulu Kingdom under King Shaka was a rising power with expansionist ideas. The expansion of the Zulu Kingdom was driven by economic and ecological factors – there were huge trade opportunities opening up while an extended drought brought tremendous suffering to the Zulu people.
To take advantage of the first and obviate the problems of the second factor King Shaka aggressively and violently attacked his neighbours, deposing their rulers and absorbing their territories into the Zulu Kingdom. This time was known to the Nguni speaking people as the mfecane (crushing) and to the Sotho people on the Highveld as the lifaqane (hammering).
The destabilising factor to the west was the massive uprooting of whites from the Cape Colony in the Great Trek, which started in about 1834, a large-scale infiltration of the interior by people with superior arms and a firm belief in a God-given mission to establish themselves in Boer states independent of the authority of the British Colonial power.
In all this turmoil a young prince of the royal house of the Basotho used his considerable diplomatic and political skills to protect his people from the effects of the lifaqane. His name was Moshoeshoe and he saw the implications for his people and his country of the two infiltrations, that of whites from the south and of amaZulu from the east.
The area between the Orange and Vaal Rivers had been annexed to Britain as the Orange River Sovereignty,.
A British Resident in the region, Major Henry Douglas Warden, bought the farm “Bloemfontein”, literally “Flower Spring” in Dutch, from one Johannes Nicolaas Brits, in 1846. Warden wanted to set up a military post in a place convenient to route from the Cape to Winburg, the oldest town in the province now called Free State, which was formerly the Orange River Sovereignty and then became the Orange Free State Republic. Bloemfontein also had the advantage of being free from the horse sickness then ravaging the country.
The strategic role
Bloemfontein is almost in the middle of South Africa and so has played some significant roles in the history of the country.
One of the earliest of these roles was the Bloemfontein Convention which was signed on 23 February 1854 and which marked the first withdrawal of British Colonial Sovereignty from a previously annexed territory. It also marked the end of the Great Trek, by giving the Trekkers what they had sought – independence in their own land. The reason for the British withdrawal was that they had to cope with frontier wars in the Cape Colony, seriously over-stretching their resources, and their troops had suffered two humiliating defeats at the hands of Moshoeshoe's soldiers in battles at Viervoet and Berea Mountain.
With the signing of the Bloemfontein Convention the Republic of the Orange Free State came into being with Josias Philippus Hoffman as president, though his presidency was short-lived and he was succeeded by J.N. Boshof.
War clouds gather
In 1899 tensions between the Boer republics and the British Colonial authorities were rising, fuelled by the imperialistic ideas of the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain and the man he sent to represent his ideas in South Africa, Sir Alfred Milner.
The main cause of the tension was the perceived unfair treatment of the so-called “uitlanders” (foreigners) in the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR - South African Republic, later the Transvaal) who had flocked into the Boer republic after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886. Arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes became Prime Ministers of the by-then self-governing Ape Colony in 1890 and he dreamt of an Africa under the British flag. Obviously the two Boer republics were obstacles in his way and he looked for was to overcome these blocks to his dream.
In order to get his way Rhodes, with the tacit assistance of Chamberlain, fomented an uprising of the uitlanders and planned an invasion of the ZAR from the western border with the British protectorate of Bechuanaland. The invasion took place in January 1896 but the uprising fizzled out and the invaders were captured. But it had done the damage of inflaming Boer sentiment against the United Kingdom and Rhodes, with tensions reaching boiling point. Rhodes lost the 1898 election in the Cape and W.P. Schreiner (brother of the famous South African author Olive Schreiner, who wrote The Story of an African Farm) became the Prime Minister. He intervened, with the support of President M.T. Steyn of the Orange Free State Republic, to try to mediate a resolution of the crisis. They arranged a meeting between Milner and Paul Kruger, President of the ZAR, in Bloemfontein, which began on 31 May 1899. Milner went into the conference with little intention of giving up and so his demands were firmly rejected by Kruger.
As one writer has put it: “In Bloemfontein, two worlds had passed each other by: that of the sophisticated, imperialistic Milner who increasingly wanted a confrontation, and that of the unaffected, nationalistic Kruger who preferred peace, but not peace at any price.” (A.M. Grunglingh: Prelude to the Anglo-Boer War, 1881 – 1899, in the wonderful An Illustrated History of South Africa, edited by Trewhella Cameron, Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1986).
And so the opportunity to prevent the war had come and gone and before the year had ended the two Boer republics were pitted in a painful and bitter contest with the might of the British Empire.
But this was not the end of the strategic and historic roles Bloemfontein was to play.
The Fourth Raadsaal
The Orange Free State Republic, which had come into being in 1854, needed new buildings to house its Volksraad (legislature) and so in 1882 tenders were issued for a suitable building. Architect Lennox Canning won the design competition and President F.W. Reitz laid the foundation stone on 27 June 1890. The beautiful, classically styled building was opened in 1893.
During the Anglo-Boer War it was used as a hospital and after the war it served as the Legislative Assembly of the Orange River Colony. After Union in 1910 it housed the country's Appeal Court.
In front of the building is an equestrian statue of Boer War General Christiaan Rudolf de Wet (7 October 1854 - 3 February 1922) who, at the end of that war was, for two whole days President of the Orange Free State. He was also a delegate to the Closer Union Conference which culminated in the creation of the Union of South Africa in May 1910.
The Union of South Africa
When negotiations on closer union between the four British Colonies started during the first decade of the 20th Century the colonies vied for various prestigious concessions. Each colony (except Natal) was given something – the Transvaal got the administrative capital in Pretoria, the Cape got the legislative capital with Parliament being situated in Cape Town and Bloemfontein got the status of Judicial Capital, with the Supreme Court being located there.
A competition was held for the design of this impressive building. The competition was won by a Cape Town firm of architects, Hawke and McKinlay, who specialised in public buildings. The firm was influenced by the fin de siècle Arts and Crafts movement which advocated the use of local materials and a certain simplicity, almost austerity, of design.
This building, called by one writer, “a solidly secure 'citizen' of the Edwardian period.” (Desiree Picton-Seymour, Historical Buildings in South Africa, Struikhof, 1989). It was completed in 1906.
The building is still in use, now as the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in South Africa.
The African National Congress
After the four colonies of South Africa, Natal, the Cape, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State came together in union in 1910, the new parliament set about dealing with what was called “the Native question.” The four colonies, which were now provinces in the Union of South Africa, had very different legal dispensations regarding Blacks in their territories. In the Cape Black males had a limited franchise based on property holdings and were accommodated in schools which used the Cape Education Department's curriculums and examinations. But the same did not apply in the other three provinces.
One of the earliest Acts of the Parliament of the Union of South Africa was the now-infamous Land Act of 1913, which limited Blacks to 13% of the country's land area, although they made up more than 80% of the population.
In order to try to influence this Act and other measures planned, a group of Blacks got together in Bloemfontein in 1912 to discuss the best way to respond to the planned measures. Out of this meeting, attended by mostly middle class and professional people, was born the South African National Native Congress, officially formed on 8 January 1912, with the John Langalibalele Dube (1871 - 1946) as its first president. Dube was a man of great learning who had travelled to the United States in the
1890s where he had come under the influence of Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute.
The African National Native Congress became the African National Congress in 1923 and was in the vanguard of the struggle against apartheid after the Second World War, becoming the ruling party after the first democratic elections in April 1994.
Bloemfontein today is a thriving city of almost 700000 citizens of all races. The city is also known by the Sotho name Mangaung. It is also the seat of the Provincial Government of the Free State.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010