The Free State (Afrikaans: Vrystaat, Sotho: Foreistata; before 1995, the Orange Free State) is a province of South Africa. Its capital is Bloemfontein, which is also South Africa's judicial capital. Its historical origins lie in the Orange Free State Boer republic and later Orange Free State Province. The current borders of the province date from 1994 when the Bantustans were abolished and included into the provinces of South Africa. It is also the only one of the former provinces of South Africa not to undergo border changes, excluding the incorporation of Bantustans.
The Free State is situated on flat boundless plains in the heart of South Africa. The rich soil and pleasant climate allow 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.
The grassy plains 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, white rhinoceros and buffalo. The African wildcat, black wildebeest, zebra, eland, white rhinoceros and wild dog can be seen at the Soetdoring Nature Reserve near Bloemfontein.
The Orange Free State (Dutch: Oranje-Vrijstaat) was an independent Boer republic in southern Africa during the second half of the 19th century, and later a British colony and a province of the Union of South Africa. It is the historical precursor to the present-day Free State province. Extending between the Orange and Vaal rivers, its borders were determined by the United Kingdom in 1848 when the region was proclaimed as the Orange River Sovereignty, with a seat of a British Resident in Bloemfontein.
In the northern part of the territory a Voortrekker Republic was established at Winburg in 1837. This state merged with the Republic of Potchefstroom which later formed part of the South African Republic (Transvaal).
Following the granting of independence to the Transvaal Republic, the British recognized the independence of the Orange River Sovereignty on 17 February 1854 and the country officially became independent as the Orange Free State on 23 February 1854, with the signing of the Orange River Convention. The United States and the Orange Free State mutually recognized each other in 1871. The new republic incorporated both the Orange River Sovereignty and the traditions of the Winburg-Potchefstroom Republic.
Although the Orange Free State developed into a politically and economically successful republic, it experienced chronic conflict with the British (see Boer Wars) until it was finally annexed as the Orange River Colony in 1900. It ceased to exist as an independent Boer republic on 31 May 1902 with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging at the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Boer War. It joined the Union of South Africa in 1910 (which became the Republic of South Africa in 1961) as a province under its former name, along with the Cape Province, Natal, and the Transvaal.
The republic's name derives partly from the Orange River, which in turn was named in honour of the Dutch ruling royal family, the House of Orange, by the Dutch settlers under Robert Jacob Gordon. The official language in the Orange Free State was Dutch.
The country north of the Orange river was first visited by Europeans towards the close of the 18th century. At that time, the population was sparse. The majority of the inhabitants appear to have been members of the Tswana people (also spelled Bechuana), but in the valleys of the Orange and Vaal were Koranbas and other Khoekhoes, and in the Drakensberg and on the western border lived numbers of Bushmen.
Early in the 19th century Griquas established themselves north of the Orange. Between 1817 and 1831, the country was devastated by the chief Mzilikazi and his Matabele, and large areas were depopulated. Up to this time the few Europeans who had crossed the Orange had been chiefly hunters or missionaries.
In 1824 farmers of Dutch, French Huguenot and German descent called Trekboers (later shortened to Boers) from Cape Colony who were seeking both pasture for their flocks and to escape governmental oversight settled in the country. They were followed in 1836 by the first parties of the Great Trek. These emigrants left Cape Colony from various motives, but all were animated by the desire to escape from British sovereignty.
The leader of the first large party of emigrants was A. H. Potgieter, who concluded an agreement with Makwana, the chief of the Bataung tribe of Batswana, ceding to the farmers the country between the Vet and Vaal rivers. When Boer families first reached the area they discovered that it had been recently devastated by a section of the Zulu tribe under a brilliant, but ruthless and cruel leader named Mzilikazi (sometimes spelled Moselekatse) and his people afterward called the Matebele.
The Matebele had swept the country, destroying the fields, carrying off the cattle, and slaying the people - saving only the young boys and girls whom they would bring up as members of the Matebele. The Boers could not escape these bloodthirsty warriors and soon came into collision with Mzilikazi's raiding parties who attacked Boer hunters who crossed the Vaal without seeking permission from that chieftain. Reprisals followed, and in November 1837 Mzilikazi was decisively defeated by the Boers and thereupon fled northward.
In the meantime another party of emigrants had settled at Thaba'nchu, where the Wesleyans had a mission station for the Barolong. The emigrants were treated with great kindness by Moroka, the chief of that tribe, and with the Barolong the Boers maintained uniformly friendly relations. In December 1836 the emigrants beyond the Orange drew up in general assembly an elementary republican form of government. After the defeat of Mzilikazi the town of Winburg (so named by the Boers in commemoration of their victory) was founded, a Volksraad elected, and Piet Retief, one of the ablest of the Voortrekkers, chosen "governor and commandant-general.
The emigrants already numbered some 500 men, besides women and children and many servants. Dissensions speedily arose among the emigrants, whose numbers were constantly added to, and Retief, Potgieter and other leaders crossed the Drakensberg and entered Natal. Those that remained were divided into several parties intensely jealous of one another.
Meanwhile, a new power had arisen along the upper Orange and in the valley of the Caledon. Moshesh, a Batswana chief, had welded together a number of scattered and broken clans which had sought refuge in that mountainous region, and had formed of them the Basotho nation. In 1833 he had welcomed as workers among his people a band of French Protestant missionaries, and as the Boer immigrants began to settle in his neighborhood he decided to seek support from the British at the Cape.
At that time the British government was not prepared to exercise effective control over the emigrants. Acting upon the advice of Dr John Philip, the superintendent of the London Missionary Society's stations in South Africa, a treaty was concluded in 1843 with Moshoeshoe, placing him under British protection. A similar treaty was made with the Griqua chief, Adam Kok III. By these treaties, which recognised native sovereignty over large areas on which Boer farmers were settled, it was sought to keep a check on the emigrants and to protect both the natives and Cape Colony. Their effect was to precipitate collisions between all three parties.
The year in which the treaty with Moshesh was made several large parties of Boers recrossed the Drakensberg into the country north of the Orange, refusing to remain in Natal when it became a British colony. During their stay there they had inflicted a severe defeat on the Zulus under Dingaan (December 1838), which, following on the flight of Mzilikazi, greatly strengthened the position of Moshoeshoe, whose power became a menace to that of the emigrant farmers.
Trouble first arose, however, between the Boers and the Griquas in the Philippolis district. Many of the white farmers in this district, unlike their fellows dwelling farther north, were willing to accept British rule, and this fact induced Mr Justice Menzies, one of the judges of Cape Colony then on circuit at Colesberg, to cross the Orange and proclaim (October 1842) the country British territory, a proclamation disallowed by the governor, Sir George Napier, who, nevertheless, maintained that the emigrant farmers were still British subjects. It was after this episode that the treaties with Adam Kok and Moshesh were negotiated.
The treaties gave great offence to the Boers, who refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of the native chiefs. The majority of the white farmers in Kok's territory sent a deputation to the British commissioner in Natal, Henry Cloete, asking for equal treatment with the Griquas, and expressing the desire to come under British protection under such terms.
Shortly afterwards hostilities between the farmers and the Griquas broke out. British troops were moved up to support the Griquas, and after a skirmish at Zwartkopjes (May 2, 1845) a new arrangement was made between Kok and Sir Peregrine Maitland, then governor of Cape Colony, virtually placing the administration of his territory in the hands of a British resident, a post filled in 1846 by Captain H. D. Warden.
The place chosen by Captain (afterwards Major) Warden as the seat of his court was known as Bloemfontein, and it subsequently became the capital of the whole country.
The Free State is divided into five district municipalities (districts), subdivided into a total of 20 local municipalities.