The Free State, in the centre of South Africa, is a region of flat, rolling grassland and crop fields rising to sandstone mountains in the northeast. In the southeast the mountain kingdom of Lesotho nestles in the hollow of its bean-like shape, while the Vaal River runs along its border in the north, and the Orange River in the south.
The province is the granary of South Africa, with agriculture central to its economy. Mining on the rich goldfields reef is the province’s largest employer.
The Free State capital of Bloemfoentein forms part of the metropolitan municipality of Mangaung, which also includes Botshabelo and Thaba ‘Nchu. The metropole has an established institutional, educational and administrative infrastructure, and houses the Supreme Court of Appeal, the University of the Free State and the Central University of Technology.
Important towns include:
- Welkom, the heart of the goldfields and one of the few completely preplanned 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 its beautiful handcrafted items
- Bethlehem, gateway to the Eastern Highlands of the Free State
Free State: quick facts
- Capital: Bloemfontein
- Languages: 64.2% Sesotho, 12.7% Afrikaans, 7.5% isiXhosa
- Population: 2 745 590 (Census 2011)
- Share of South Africa’s population: 5.3%
- Area: 129 825 square kilometres
- Share of total South African area: 10.6%
The land and its people
With a total area of 129 825 square kilometres, the Free State is roughly the size of Nicaragua. It’s the country’s third-largest province, only slightly bigger than the Western Cape, taking up 10.6% of South Africa’s land area.
Almost 2.8-million people live there, with two-thirds speaking Sesotho, the language of neighbouring Lesotho, followed by Afrikaans and less than 10% speaking isiXhosa.
A summer-rainfall region, the Free State can be extremely cold during the winter months, especially towards the eastern mountainous regions. The western and southern areas are semi-desert.
A beautiful range of hills near Parys in the northern Free State is actually part of the Vredefort Dome, the largest visible meteor-impact site in the world. Formed 2-billion years ago when a meteorite 10 kilometres wide slammed into the earth, the Vredefort Dome is one of South Africa’s eight Unesco World Heritage sites.
In the northeastern 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 rock art is found in the Free State, particularly in the regions around Bethlehem, Ficksburg, Ladybrand and Wepener.
South Africa’s N1 national road, the artery between Gauteng and the Western and Eastern Cape, cuts through the centre of the Free State.
Before democracy in 1994 the province was known as the Orange Free State. An independent Boer republic in the 19th century, it became a province under the Union of South Africa in 1910.
Mining is the province’s major employer. A gold reef more than 400 kilometres long, known as the goldfields region, stretches across Gauteng and the Free State. South Africa is one of the world’s largest gold producers, and the country’s largest gold-mining complex is Free State Consolidated Goldfields, with an area of 330 square kilometres.
The province has 12 gold mines, producing 30% of South Africa’s output. 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 byproduct.
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.
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.
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.
Other important manufacturing subsectors are food and beverages, textiles, furniture, agriprocessing, jewellery and engineering products. Nearly 20% of the province’s manufacturing sites are devoted to food and beverages.
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.
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.
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.
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