The Free State, a province of wide horizons and blue skies, farmland, mountains, goldfields and widely dispersed towns, lies in the heart of South Africa, with Lesotho nestling in the hollow of its bean-like shape. Between the Vaal River in the north and the Orange River in the south, this immense rolling prairie stretches as far as the eye can see.
In May 2011, Manguang, comprising Bloemfontein, Botshabelo and Thaba Nchu, became South Africa’s newest metropolitan authority. It has an established institutional, educational and administrative infrastructure, and houses the Supreme Court of Appeal. Important towns include Welkom, Sasolburg, Odendaalsrus, Kroonstad, Parys, Phuthaditjhaba and Bethlehem, the gateway to the eastern highlands of the Free State. The N1, which is the artery between Gauteng and the Western and Eastern Cape, passes through the middle of the Free State.
Some of South Africa’s most valued San rock art can be found in the Free State. Other key tourist attractions in the province include the annual air show in Bethlehem, the Cherry Festival in Ficksburg, the Phakisa-Nascar event in Welkom, and the Fauresmith International Endurance Ride equestrian event. The annual Mangaung African Cultural Festival, known as Macufe, is hosted in partnership with the Tourism Authority and the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State. The Vredefort Dome is located in the Free State and North West provinces. The Vredefort Dome, meteorite impact crater 10 km in diameter, about 100 km south-west of Johannesburg, was voted South Africa’s seventh World Heritage Site in 2005. The Vredefort Dome is the oldest, largest, and most deeply eroded complex meteorite impact structure in the world. It is unarguably the world's greatest single, known energy release event. It contains high quality of and accessible outcrop sites which demonstrate a range of geological evidences of a complex meteorite impact structure.
The impact also threw up a trio of crater-like rings covering an area of about 150 km. It had the same effect on the crust of the earth as that of a stone being cast into a pool of water: a series of concentric ripples. In the case of water the surface soon becomes smooth again, but the ripples caused by the meteorite remained as a series of hills.
A comprehensive comparative analysis with other complex meteorite impact structures demonstrated that it is the only example on earth providing a full geological profile of an astrobleme(impact structure or “star wound”) below the crater floor, thereby enabling research into the genesis and development of an astrobleme immediately post impact. This makes the Vredefort dome an excellent research site,it is therefore no wonder that the area has been and continues to be extensively studied by earth scientists from South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world since 1937.
Apart from its natural heritage values, the Vredefort Dome is also rich in ancient art forms. Evidence of early human occupation can be seen in the caves, rock shelters, pottery, rock engravings and rock art. The late Iron Age Stone Walled settlements built by Sotho and Tswana speakers form part of the rich cultural heritage of the Dome.
According to the Mid-Year Population Estimates, 2011, there were over 2,7 million people in the Free State on about 129 480 km2 of land. The main languages spoken are Sesotho, Afrikaans and isiXhosa.
Agriculture dominates the Free State landscape, with cultivated land covering 32 000 km2 and natural veld and grazing a further 87 000 km2 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.
The Comprehensive Agricultural Support Programme seeks to support smallholder farmers – both subsistence and commercial – as well as the beneficiaries of land-reform programmes. To this end, the Free State received R102,9 million in 2011 from government
The Free State is a summer rainfall region that can be extremely cold during winter, especially towards the eastern mountainous regions. The western and southern areas are semi-desert. Known as the “bread basket” of South Africa, about 90% of the province is under cultivation for crop production. It produces about 45% of the country’s sunflower crop, 34% of the total maize crop, 37% of wheat, 53% of sorghum, 33% of potatoes, and almost all of its cherries (90%). Red meat and dairy are also important products and game hunting is a fast-growing industry.
Mining is the Free State’s major employer. A gold reef over 400 km long stretches across Gauteng and the Free State. South Africa is the world’s largest gold producer, and the country’s largest gold-mining complex is Free State Consolidated Goldfields, with an area of 330 km2. The province has 12 gold mines, producing 30% of South Africa’s output and making it the fifth-largest producer of gold in the world.
Gold mines in the Free State also supply a substantial portion of the total silver produced in the country. Uranium occurring in the gold-bearing conglomerates of the goldfields is extracted as a by-product. Bituminous coal is 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.
Manufacturing and industry
The Free State economy is changing. Where before it was very reliant on primary sectors such as agriculture and mining, it is increasingly growing its manufacturing sector, which by 2011 accounted for 14% of the provincial gross domestic product (GDP). The most important manufacturing subsectors, besides chemicals, 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. In 2011, the Provincial Government announced the establishment of three manufacturing facilities designed to create jobs: a tyre-recycling plant in Sasolburg; a potato-chip plant in Industriqwa in QwaQwa; and a Kraft paper plant in Frankfort. In 2011, the Free State Development Corporation was active in attracting new investments and signed a memorandum of understanding with the South Africa-Netherlands Chamber of Commerce with the aim of increasing bilateral trade.
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