An index to this series appears on the first post.
August 13, 2017
When I first mentioned to friends that I was planning a trip to culminate in Bloemfontein, several of them asked why I wanted to visit this city. I would summarize it this way:
- Bloemfontein is one of the three national capitals for South Africa.
- It was previously the capital of a Boer Republic.
- It was the birthplace of one of my favorite authors (more in the next post).
- It is the 8th biggest city in South Africa.
- To be a city known for flowers in such a dry land is remarkable!
In person, I see that Bloemfontein does not disappoint. When I drove up President Brand Street, it seemed that every other building should qualify as a national monument! During my last full day of vacation, I visited several of Bloemfontein’s historical buildings, and I was very glad for the opportunity.
When I visited Pietermaritzburg, I commented that the Voortrekkers founded the city only to have it forcibly annexed by the British five years later. Bloemfontein was the same process except in reverse! In 1846, Major Henry Douglas Warden, a British soldier, acquired a farm belonging to a Boer couple, and he began recruiting other British people to build a town he called “Fountain of Flowers.” The town began growing quickly, with the First Raadsaal (city hall) constructed in 1849 (although it was first used as a school). The area between the Vaal and Orange Rivers was declared as British territory. In 1850, a church on the site occupied by the current Anglican cathedral was constructed. The Boers in the area, however, were not thrilled with these developments, and they began a whisper campaign casting aspersions on the way in which Warden had acquired the lands for the town. By 1854, the Boers had won, and the Orange Free State was named as a Boer Republic instead!
I was very happy to talk with Shuping Moeca, who opened the First Raadsaal museum to me. He helped me to understand why the first years of the Orange Free State were so rocky. The first state president, J.P. Hoffman, lasted only a year in office amid taunts about members of his administration needing crutches to walk and because of a scandal involving his gift to King Moshoeshoe of a barrel of gunpowder. The second president, Boshof, lasted four years, fighting a war against the same King Moshoeshoe and being torn between the English (who wanted to be part of the Cape Colony), the burghers (who wanted to become part of the Transvaal), and the republicans (who wanted the Free State to remain independent)!
Imagining these arguments taking place in the First Raadsaal is entertaining. The clay walls were not “cooked” quite right, and the street side wall has a significant slant to it. The floor was made of cow dung, much as the Basotho have been doing for years. At least the thatched roof would allow cool temperatures. The museum also features an interesting assortment of ox and horse wagons. I was very impressed by the stagecoach until Shuping mentioned that this wagon would be a temporary home for its riders for twenty days to get to Cape Town!
Shuping also enlightened me about a mystery concerning two hills in town. One that offers an imposing view of the entire Bloemfontein skyline has been named “Naval Hill.” An eight-meter bronze statue of Nelson Mandela appears at this scenic point (the year after it was unveiled, Pretoria unveiled a nine-meter statue). Why would a landlocked capital have a Navy? He explained that the Free State government sought favor with the Dutch, and so they used the name Orange Free State. Naval Hill borrowed its name from two guns that had been placed there by the British, actually! Similarly, the Free State government copied a Scottish hill by laying out a horse outline on the hill to gain favor with the Scots. The “Signal Hill” district of Bloemfontein seems quite flat, by comparison. Apparently, the citizens demolished much of the hill but retained the name.
Bloemfontein has cycled through several Raadsaals, over the years. The current National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Sesotho Literature Museum are housed in the third Raadsal (1875), featuring a beautiful tower.
The Fourth Raadsal immediately draws the eye. I wandered in through its gate and was taking a photo when security guards stopped me. The hall is now used for meetings of the provincial parliament. They explained that I could take photos outside the gate, but not inside; the building is a “National Key Point.” Oddly, the building adjoins a massive equestrian statue of General Christiaan De Wet (1854-1922), who performed brilliantly in the Anglo-Boer War but rose in rebellion against the government of the Union of South Africa when it decided to join forces with the British in the First World War.
One can certainly have mixed feelings about another son of Bloemfontein, J.B.M. Hertzog, an ardent Afrikaner nationalist. Serving in the Parliament for thirty-three consecutive years, Hertzog bedeviled both Jan Smuts and D.F. Malan. He even served as the Union of South Africa’s prime minister during 1924-1939. Under his leadership, South Africa adopted its prior national flag (1928), promoted Afrikaans as the nation’s second official language, approved women’s suffrage, and denied black citizens the right to vote. His support of the gold standard and of the German side in both World Wars also hindered South Africa. I wanted to visit his house museum on Goddard street, but the museum didn’t open at the time stated on the sign out front. Instead, I looked at his statue near the National Museum. The fountain below is entirely dry, and street people have been using it for a garbage dump. The plinth on which his statue rests carries graffiti. Like several other white politicians of South Africa’s past, Hertzog is being forgotten.
I mentioned that Bloemfontein is the judicial capital of South Africa, and with that role, it is home to two different courts. The High (Appellate) Court is located in a very solid-looking building opposite the Fourth Raadsaal, and the Supreme Court of Appeal is not far away; repairs to offices were underway when I visited.
Certainly, anyone with an interest in institutional architecture will enjoy a stroll down President Brand in Bloemfontein. Whether the buildings have dung floors or sandstone facades, they speak to the centrality of Bloemfontein in Afrikaner history.