1. Bloemfontein from 1846 to 1910

Bloemfontein was founded in 1846 by Major Henry Douglas Warden as a British outpost for the Cape Mounted Riflemen as well as other soldiers. Major Warden and his soldiers built houses of thatch and turf, and later a fortified barrack called Fort Drury. Gradually a village came into existence. In 1850 the first municipality was founded, with the right to control the affairs of the village. After 1852, the population expanded rapidly. This resulted in the erection of more dwellings and necessitated plans for the future development of the town.
The British government, however, decided that the territory was not worth the trouble of maintaining, and in 1854 the Bloemfontein Convention was signed, granting independence to the land between the Orange and the Vaal Rivers.

Since the establishment of the Free State Boer republic in 1854, Bloemfontein has not only been the administrative headquarters of the province, but also a stronghold of Afrikaner tradition. From the outset, black people and coloureds were drawn to Bloemfontein, hoping to find work as unskilled labourers. They were either accommodated on the premises of employers or in peripheral locations. In 1864, a curfew bell was introduced; no natives or coloured people were allowed in the streets after 9 p.m. without a pass. After World War II, a siren was introduced for this purpose.

In the meantime, the city continued to grow and a town hall, schools, government buildings, telegraphic communications, a hospital and a library came into being. Bloemfontein was transformed from a primitive village into a thriving town; the Free State as a whole became a model republic. “The authorities were dedicated to building up a strong and prosperous nation based on co-operation between the two sections of the European population and fair treatment of the natives.”

The table illustrates the population growth in the city of Bloemfontein from 1880 onwards.

Bloemfontein Population Growth (1880 – 1989)
Year Whites Blacks Coloureds Total
1880 1,688 879 2,567
1890 2,077 1,302 3,379
1904 15,501 18,383 33,884
1911 14,720 10,475 1,730 26,925
1951 49,074 56,574 3,719 109,367
1980 90,900 115,420 14,760 221,080
1985 99,349 118,523 18,591 236,463
1989 108,000 140,000 22,000 270,000

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Bloemfontein experienced a period of large-scale urbanisation between 1890 and 1904, when the number of residents in the town increased tenfold. The rapid population growth was mainly the result of two events, namely the completion of the Cape Town-Johannesburg railway line via Bloemfontein, and the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), which brought thousands of labourers from white farms to Bloemfontein, where a refugee camp had been set up.

2. Greeks and the Anglo-Boer War

Greeks entered the area of Bloemfontein for the first time during the Anglo-Boer War. It is perhaps not such a well-known fact that Greeks were also involved in this war.

Many young Greek immigrants residing in the Cape Colony joined the Hellenic Company, an integral part of the British Army, to fight against the Boers. A photograph of this company shows 27 young people of Greek origin who resided in Cape Town. Of course, there was conscription in those days, but most of the Greeks joined the British Army voluntarily.
There were notable exceptions, namely a number of idealists who fought on the side of the Boers because they believed that the Boers were fighting for their land and their dignity.

The names of these Greeks, as a matter of interest, are:

George Artemios, Anthony Avouris, Spiros Arvanitakis, George Caralampides, Stephanus Charalahedron, George Colyvas, John Costas (Papacostas), John Karavas, George Lovarides, John Michos, Constantine Phitides, Christos Vagiacos, Constantine Vranas and M. Xippas.
John Costas (Papacostas) in particular deserves more attention. Like all the other volunteers, he joined the Boers out of his love for freedom. He was called “the hero of Modder River” because of his invaluable contribution to the Boer cause during that battle. South Africa honoured him for his services by erecting a statue of him in his village in Greece.

A picture in either a newspaper or a magazine shows some of these Greek volunteers. Unfortunately, no-one remembers when and where this picture was published. Furthermore, no-one knows whether these people used to live in the Free State or whether they went there to fight for their beliefs.

3. Bloemfontein in the twentieth century

After the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging the government strove to reconstruct South Africa’s economy, and they succeeded in this aim. During the decade that followed (until 1910), farmers went back to the land, railway communications were built up and gold mining returned to its pre-war production level. The demand for white labour was greater than the supply.

Bloemfontein continued to expand, and in this regard the construction of the Cape-Transvaal railway line that ran through the city played an important role. Yet this line also represented a symbolic division between the white western and the black eastern region.
When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, Bloemfontein became the judicial capital of the country. By 1928 it was a model city in a model state. Every desired service was available. The city council was “especially anxious to help newcomers in the wholesale and manufacturing lines, and was always glad to assist with information those who doubt(ed) as to where they may best place their business.” Indeed, Greeks declare that, in those days, South Africa was one of the few countries that could provide Greek immigrants with certain jobs.
By 1954, for instance, the city was a hive of activity as new buildings and dwellings were erected and large-scale industrial and railway development took place. The main commercial streets were Maitland Street, West and East Burger Streets, and Elizabeth, Aliwal, Charles, Voortrekker and Zastron Streets. The city was supplied with abundant water and electricity, while every house was connected to a sewerage system.

In 1960, the Mayor of Bloemfontein could be proud of “his” city. Bloemfontein was an auspicious commercial and industrial area. Its importance was based not only on its industries, but was also due to its prominence in the spheres of education, culture, sport and recreation.

On the other hand, Bloemfontein continued to present the image of a divided city. On one side there was the white city of Bloemfontein, a microcosm of the First World, and on the other the Third World communities, which offered cheap labour. Between them there was a dividing line. In 1982, Bloemfontein was one of the cheapest places to set up and run a business, and many local and international investments were attracted.

After 1986, the population pressure on Mangaung and Botshabelo brought many black people to the eastern boundaries of Bloemfontein, to such an extent that it has led to white flight.
South Africa’s first non-racial election in April 1994 caused even more fear, but the following years proved these fears to be unfounded. The transformation of Bloemfontein into a post-apartheid city took place peacefully, as was the case in the rest of the country.

In the course of the last twelve years (1994-2006), many changes have taken place in Bloemfontein. The influx of black people into the traditional whites-only areas, although in much lower numbers and at a slower pace than in other South African cities, led to the creation of new, upmarket neighbourhoods such as Heuwelsig, where the majority of the inhabitants are whites, with only a few blacks that can afford these properties. The central business district has lost its former glory: some 85% of businesses have moved to the western parts of the city, leaving many buildings dilapidated, and Hoffman square in the centre of the city is now a neglected place.

The main issue in this city today is “security”. Most properties now have high walls, fences and security systems, while a few years ago this was not the case. People are afraid to walk in “dangerous” areas, and in most conversations this matter comes up first. But there are also optimists. They say that Bloemfontein does not suffer from crime to the same extent as other South African cities, and that the World Soccer Cup of 2010 is “a golden opportunity” for the whole country.