Location: 680 kilometres from Port Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela Bay in the Freestate Province, South Africa
Date Visited: 10 – 12 February 2012 (Summer)
Where we Stayed: Emtonjeni Country Lodge
Recomendation: Bloemfontein is an amazing city to visit, but it is not a weekend destination, not if you travel from Nelson Mandela Bay. Because of the distance you need at least a long-weekend. There are no direct flights from Nelson Mandela Bay to Bloemfontein on weekends and at this time a lot of infrastructure redevelopment is being done on th eroad between our two cities, extending traveling time consideraby. We would however recomend you take time to spend here. It is a city filled with surprises, drenched in history.
I was surprised.
When I read about the ANC Centenary being celebrated in Bloemfontein.
I did not know it was in this city that the ANC had its origin.
It does not bring to mind the pictures often conjured by names such as Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay or Africa.
South Africans know where this city is.
As they travel from Cape Town to Johannesburg, they often pass on its outskirts or stop there for a moment’s respite, before continuing their journey.
It is not regarded as a ‘holiday’ destination.
And it wasn’t for holiday that we made this journey.
There is a difference between ‘holidaying’ and ‘traveling’.
Traveling is about discovery.
It is about ‘becoming’.
As we connect with people and places outside of our little bit of world.
We wanted to investigate, for ourselves, our country’s rich and diverse history.
Bloemfontein: the place where an obscure Wesleyan Church hides in the shadow of an Apartheid-era power station’s 3 cooling towers and the obelisk of a monument reaches to the sky to hide the shame of a president’s obstinacy.
The University of the Freestate was kind enough to make a historian available to our tribe for this weekend-trip.
Not a young junior lecturer.
One of the members of their senior management who works in the Rector’s Office.
‘Our perspective influences what we deem important’, he says. ‘If you read English history the war of 1899 – 1902 is insignificant and obscure. In South Africa of the 1940’s and 1950’s it was elevated to a core moment in our country’s history. And to us it probably was. To the BaSotho the destruction of mission stations & the looting of schools & the redistribution of land wich preceded this war was probably more significant.’
Cooling towers of an intrusive power station are a more significant monument to some than an obelisk surrounded bemtionaly charged bronze statues.
On Saturday the historian takes us up Naval Hill from where we have a panoramic view of the city.
He shows us the Bloemfontein of 1854 & walks us through the arival of rail transport & poverty as people lose their jobs to industrialised new transport systems. He shows us where a people lived & where they were moved too, like pieces on a chess board, or objects, when their homes needed to make space for a new power plant.
He shows us the Churches and schools of a city which really started out as an English setlement.
He shows us the trinity of power in juxtaposition to the memorial obelisk.
We look to the site of a refugee camp, later known as a ‘consentration camp’.
The ‘auswitz’ of Afrikaners.
Who did not learn from opresion & war & death.
Who replicated the atrocities visited upon them.
We drive to that memorial.
‘What motivated the errection of such a memorial’, I ask.
‘Guilt, perhaps’, he says.
It seems the war of 1899 – 1902 could’ve ended a few months after it was declared, in the summer of 1900 after the two capitals were siezed.
There would’ve been no burnt earth.
No 27 000 women & children dead.
How different a future can be, if our leaders choose differently.
‘Was there a reason for this war’, my son enquires.
‘Is there ever a good reason for war’, the historian suggests.
The men who gathered in that little Wesleyan Church did not seek war.
They were teachers, ministers, lawyers – educated men who received exceptional training from french and english and german missionaries.
“Althoug, as a race, we possess the unique destinctionof being the first born sons of this great and beautiful continent; although as a race we can claim an ancestry more ancient than almost any round about us, yet as citizens of the glorious British Empire , we are the last born children … we must still be careful ever to seek out the way where wisdom (not mere sentiment or desire) leadeth … the bright path illumined by rightiousness and reason …”
Rev. John L. Dube
Principal of the Ohlange Native Industrial School.
He presents himself, with the acceptance of the presidency of the South African Natve National Congress, somewhat different than how he and his kind was presented by a history rewritten after 1948.
On Saturday afternoon we take a respite from the challenges to our mind.
We visit the Cheetah Experience.
We hold wild cats and fondle baby lion.
We are amazed by these resilient animals, perhaps the first inahbitants of our continent, now dependant on our kind’s grace for survival.
They have been slaughtered.
For that is what we do.
And then in gracious benevolence we conserve & rebuild.
And make attractions of what was once free.
‘We must breakfast together’, the historian insists.
And that we do.
And then we’re off to that Wesleyan Church.
We drive through the city’s historical section.
We see the old presidency.
The court of apeals.
The deserted Church is overshadowed by that trinity of power.
We drive through Batho.
We see the homes built in the 1920’s in stark contrast to the characterless boxes of apartheid and post-apartheid.
Praises eminate from churches on the corners of every street.
I wonder about the influence of Churches in our little bit of world.
I wonder what the Rev Dube would be preaching this morning.
No mere desire.
I wonder if we will be mature enough as a people to discover a different history.
Before lunch we start the journey home.
We travel past the magnificent Gariep Dam through deserted towns called ‘Hofmeyer’ and ‘Steynsburg’.
We stop for lunch in Cradock.
Who were assassinated.
Of whom Nelson Mandela said: ‘The death of these gallant freedom fighters marked a turning point in the history of our Struggle. No longer could the regime govern in the old way. They were the true heroes of the struggle.’
Everywhere our history is dark as the setting sun.
Yet, bright as the break of dawn.
If only we could see past ourselves.
Past the perceptions incubated in a misplaced social experiment.
It is dark when we reach our home.
Our stay at Emtonjeni Country Lodge was exquisite. One of those undiscovered gems. A country ‘hotel’ on the outskirts of city. Filled with beautiful original art, antique furniture and warm people.
Our journey through history was unsettling.
We’ve traveled 1360 kilometers.
We’ve discovered more than words can describe.
Perhaps we should travel more & holiday less.
Taking responsibility for a future which will unfold, regardless of our own prejudice.
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