Bloemfontein Things to Do

  • Things to Do
    by CatherineReichardt
  • Things to Do
    by CatherineReichardt
  • Things to Do
    by CatherineReichardt

Best Rated Things to Do in Bloemfontein

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    Emily Hobhouse: the most hated woman in England

    by CatherineReichardt Updated May 5, 2012

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    Emily Hobhouse was an unmarried Englishwoman of noble birth - so how on earth did her ashes come to be interred in the ultra Afrikaaner Women's Monument in Bloemfontein?

    Habitually referred to by General Kitchener - Commander of the British forces during the Anglo Boer War and her arch nemesis - as "that bloody woman", Emily Hobhouse was arguably the most controversial and divisive woman of the Victorian era.

    Hobhouse was a social crusader in search of a cause. Having been confined to caring for her invalid clergyman father until her early thirties, she then cut loose in a spectacular manner and embarked on her career as a social reformer by highlighting the plight of tin miners in her native Cornwall. She then moved briefly onto addressing social ills in the frontier territory of the United States before she found a cause that she could really sink her teeth into: the horrific treatment of the Boer women and children incarcerated in concentration camps by the British.

    Hobhouse was rightly appalled by the conditions in makeshift camps where inmates died in droves as a result of epidemic disease and malnutrition, and recognised that the British army had neither the interests not the skills and resources to look after the internees. She underwent considerable personal hardship to travel personally to the camps to document the atrocious conditions and then leveraged shamelessly off her family's well developed political connections to publicise the conditions in the camps.

    In today's world of instantaneous news transmission and social media, it is hard to imagine how difficult it would have been to raise awareness of a story that the British government would much rather have kept concealed, and it took enormous courage and resourcefulness to publicise this incovenient reality. Through her dogged determination, she was almost singlehandedly responsible for raising consciousness of the existence of (and conditions within) the Boer War concentration camps: as a result, she was dubbed 'Britain's most hated woman' and withstood huge personal abuse. Indeed, Kitchener considered her such a dangerous influence that at one point he had her arrested on her ship's arrival in Cape Town harbour, categorically refused to let her land, and had her deported back to Britain on the next available ship. It's worth reading her biography just for an account of this episode that so accurately reflects the character of both individuals (and is an object lesson in how to make a task as difficult as possible, even if you are the underdog)!

    However, Emily was not without fault - during her life, it was commented that most people liked the idea of her more than they did the reality, and I had the same feeling when reading the biography of a woman whom I regard as a personal heroine. The same qualities of determination, tenacity and forthrightness that made her so effective in fighting for a cause were also her downfall and unfortunately she had an unerring ability to make enemies out of people who could (and often previously had been) useful allies. Like many social reformers, she never really fitted into society herself - she was a virtual outcast in England and even the Afrikaaners whose cause she so vigorously championed recognised her usefulness but regarded her with guarded suspicion.

    After the Boer War, Emily returned to South Africa to establish a number of spinning and weaving workshops designed to provide respectable employment to young Afrikaaner women, but her health failed and she was forced to return to England. As though her status as a social pariah in Britain was not secure enough, during World War I she decided to attempt to personally broker a peace settlement with Germany. As part of this self-appointed peace mission, she slipped into Germany in flagrant disregard of the travel restrictions imposed on her (she had only been issued a passport in order to travel to Italy for the good of her ailing health) which lead the Government of the time to speculate on whether she might be a national security risk.

    Emily retired to a small house in her native Cornwall, which was ironically funded by donations from the grateful Afrikaaner nation that she had fought so hard to support. By the time the Women's Monument was consecrated, Emily - who was due to be the guest of honour - was too ill to travel to the event. However, she was represented by a group of Afrikaaner girls - all of whom had been given the name Emily (and sometimes even 'Emily Hobhouse') in her honour - and her ashes were subsequently interred in the monument. The small town of Hobhouse about 50km outside Bloemfontein was named in her honour, as was the South Africa Navy's SAS Emily Hobhouse, a Daphne Class submarine (which has sadly since been renamed).

    In a nutshell, Emily Hobhouse's life is a movie waiting to be made. Meryl Streep, if you are currently short of a role, then this one's for you!

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    Monument to the forced Boer emigres

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Aug 29, 2012

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    Yet another glorious piece of sculpture from the Anglo Boer War museum/Women's Monument complex, this time to commemorate the captured Boers who were subsequently sent into exile.

    I found the background to this statue particularly interesting, as I wasn't previously aware that there had been a programme of exiling Boer prisoners of war (PoWs). The strategy was to keep them in places from which they couldn't escape and make a nuisance of themselves, and virtually all the Boer PoWs - 26,000 in total - were sent into exile.

    Prisoner of war camps were established in British colonies elsewhere, including places as far flung as St Helena, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and Bermuda, and PoWs were repatriated at the end of the conflict.

    This lovely sculpture depicting an old man and a young boy staring dejectedly over the railing of a ship as their beloved homeland sinks below the horizon is by Danie de Jager and was unveiled in 1983.

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    The tragic Women's Monument

    by CatherineReichardt Updated May 5, 2012

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    The Women's Monument in Bloemfontein is somewhere that I've wanted to visit for a very long time, because I have a particular interest in the way that women and children were treated in the Anglo Boer War.

    It's tempting to think of concentration camps as a practice that was introduced during World War II, but in fact the Nazi camps simply built on a model that had been developed long before by the British in the Anglo Boer War which raged between 1899 and 1902.

    Concentration camps were developed to incarcerate women, children and the elderly and were motivated by a couple of considerations. First and foremost was the desire to take Boer women off the land, where they could produce food and provide other support to their menfolk - a strategy which operated in deadly tandem with the British 'scorched earth' policy to starve out the enemy. It was also intended to demoralise the Boer forces.

    The casualties in the concentration camps were appalling as the army personnel tasked with running the camps had neither the resources nor the experience to do so. The conditions were absymal, leading to frequent outbreaks of epidemic disease, and only meagre rations were available, leading to widespread starvation (see the picture of poor Lizzie van Zyl above). The path from the Anglo Boer War Museum to the monument is lined by 31 small stone plaques, each representing a concentration camp and its fatalities. In all, 27,000 women and 24,000 children died in the concentration camps - a huge number considering the relatively small size of the Boer population at the time, and only just less than the number of Boer soldiers that died in the hostilities (approximately 53,000, as opposed to 22,000 British casualties).

    The Women's Monument was funded by private subscription in response to an appeal by President Steyn. Interestingly (or typically, depending on your perspective) not a single woman was involved in its design - a fact that incensed Emily Hobhouse, the firebrand British activist who was almost singlehandedly responsible for drawing international attention to the appalling conditions in the concentration camps. The sculptures are by the renowned Dutch sculptor Anton von Wouw (who was also responsible for the statue of Paul Kruger in Church Square, Pretoria) and the centrepiece depicts a Boer woman cradling her dying child.

    President Steyn and his wife are buried in front of the monument. By the time the monument was consecrated, Emily Hobhouse (who was due to be the guest of honour) was too ill to travel to the event, but she was represented by a group of girls - all of whom had been given the name Emily (and sometimes even 'Emily Hobhouse') in her honour - and her ashes were subsequently interred in the monument.

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    End your day with sundowners atop Naval Hill

    by CatherineReichardt Updated May 5, 2012

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    One of the nicest things to do in Bloem at the end of a long, hot day is to repair to the top of Naval Hill for sundowners!

    Naval Hill is in the Franklin nature reserve that is located a couple of kilometres north west of the CBD. It commands an excellent view out over the city, and being a couple of hundred metres higher, also tends to be cooler because it catches any breezes. The reserve is also home to an observatory and a number of communications towers, as well as a range of wildlife (including giraffe, ostrich, springbok and hartebeest).

    How you can have a place called 'Naval Hill' in one of South Africa's most landlocked cities was initially somewhat puzzling. However, a little research indicates that the name refers to the British Naval Brigade who were stationed here in the Anglo Boer War.

    Bring your own drinks and snacks with you, as there are no cafes or kiosks up here. On a nice evening, yours is unlikely to be an original idea, so plan on having some company. The evening we visited, there were a few dozen new age nutters chanting, singing and blowing vuvuzelas in competition to the noise rising from the ANC's 100th birthday celebrations at Free State Stadium below ... not quite sure what particular divine force they were trying to engage, but one only hopes that the deity in question was tone deaf!

    After dark, leisure pursuits up here are more likely to be of a carnal nature ... but if that prospect appeals, just make sure that you don't get locked in when they close the gates!

    Naval Hill is a bit far out to get there on foot - especially when you factor in the distance from the entrance to the reserve to the top of the hill, so you'll need a car to get here.

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    General Hertzog gives the world the finger

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Aug 29, 2012

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    I just love it when a statue succeeds in capturing the spirit of the person that it commemorates ... as is certainly the case with this statue of General Barry Hertzog, complete with startling contemporary gesture!

    James Barry Munnik Hertzog was an Afrikaans lawyer who rose to the rank of General in the Anglo Boer War. He was responsible for orchestrating a highly effective guerilla war campaign against the British, and when the might of the British army finally won out against the dogged Boer forces, he was one of the Boer generals who signed the Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902.

    When the pro-British Jan Smuts was ousted from power, Hertzog became the third Prime Minister of South Africa (a position that he held from 1924 to 1939) and presided over the introduction of a slew of social and economic legislation that created a welfare state designed specifically to protect the privileges of the white population. On Hertzog's watch, white women were given the vote in 1930, which was a move that was more aimed at reinforcing the white majority than an enlightened view on gender equality, and the white stranglehold on political power in South Africa was made complete when blacks were completely removed from the voters roll in 1936.

    Apparently Hertzog was renowned for raising his finger as he lectured others ... and maybe when this statue was sculpted, this gesture didn't have quite the same forthright meaning as it does today. However, given that Hertzog was an arch Afrikaaner nationalist and was instrumental in implementing many of the laws and policies that would later consolidate to form the foundation of the apartheid system - which resulted in South Africa becoming a pariah state - it's hard not to suspect that the gesture may have been directed at the rest of the disapproving world!

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    The Cleansing, Healing and Reparation Memorial

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Mar 6, 2012

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    (work in progress)
    The Cleansing, Healing and Reparation Memorial in Bloem was unveiled in May 2003 and is typical of many of the rather self-conscious monuments that have sprung up in post-apartheid South Africa.

    Having said that, in scrutinising the photos that I took, I realise that the explanatory text is well pitched (even though the grammar and sentence structure is even more torturous than my own!), and I think is worth reproducing in its entirety:

    "The Cleansing, Healing and Reparation Memorial is erected as a symbol of commitment of all the people of the Free State, including faith-based organisations, non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations, the Moral Regeneration Movement, political parties and government to break with the past - characterised by the legacy of moral decay and the wounded spirit of our nation as a result of the colonial and apartheid systems, in the struggle against which heroes and heroines were created who fought as freedom fighters in the conflicts/events that occurred in our land. Those events included slavery, genocide, wars of resistance, the struggle for liberation, the Anglo Boer/South African War and the First and Second World Wars. We therefore rededicate our loyalty to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa and unconditionally devote ourselves to live and be guided by its founding values of human dignity; the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedom; non-racialism and non-sexism, supremacy of the Constitution and rule of law; universal adult suffrage; a national common voter's roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness. We do so as a living testimony and monument to remind current and future generations that never, never ever again will our province and country experience the bitter past which, today, we are burying at this site; the ashes of the past with which we collectively cement a future of a better life for all. We further reaffirm that South Africa belongs to all that live in it, united in our diversity, and we honour and remember all who suffered for justice, peace and freedom in our land."

    This monument is located in a little park on the northern edge of the Bloemfontein City Hall. There is good street parking in this area, so this is an excellent place to leave your car if you're planning to stroll down President Brand Street, in which case it's worth a minor detour to take a look.

    As you might have gathered, this really isn't my sort of thing at all, but each to their own. If you are one of those who does like and appreciate this, then be sure not to miss Freedom Park in Pretoria, which is in a similar vein, but on a much grander scale.

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    THE BLOEMFONTEIN TOURIST CENTRE

    by DAO Updated Mar 3, 2009

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    The Bloemfontein Tourist Centre is kind of a ‘One Stop Shop’ for Tourism. It has a large free car park and is located in a mall type set up. In the mall is food, toilets (pay), souvenir shops and several bus companies that use this as a bus station with links all over southern Africa. The staff of the actual Information Office are helpful and will give you a large, free, colourful map that has everything on it you will need. They can also assist with accommodation information.

    Open hours: 8am-4.15pm Mon-Fri; 8am-noon Sat.

    Related to:
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    The heartrending Anglo Boer War museum

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Mar 5, 2012

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    If you do and see nothing else in Bloemfontein, let it be the Anglo Boer War Museum.

    The Boer War Museum (as it is generally known) is the only museum in South Africa that is solely devoted to this conflict - although there are other museums in places like Mafikeng which also document aspects of this war.

    The Boer War is a particularly difficult conflict to be impartial about, because in the 20/20 vision of hindsight, both the motives and the methodology of the occupying force are so difficult to defend. The motive? To further expand the British Empire into the newly discovered gold fields of the Boer Republic, which was to turn out to be the richest gold deposit ever discovered. The methodology? A newly hatched and lethal combination of scorched earth policy and concentration camps that resulted in genocide on a scale that left virtually no Boer family unscathed. Suffice to say that this is not a passage of history that even the most die hard Brit feels much pride in.

    On the face of it, the Boer War was a David and Goliath conflict: the mighty and well equipped British forces pitted against a ragtag bunch of Boer farmers armed with rifles and burning resolve borne of an intense sense of nationalism and a determination to preserve their already archaic way of life. But in reality, it was a much more even match: the Boers were supplied with armaments by the Germans and their brilliant interpretation of guerilla warfare, and the British were hamstrung by their lack of local knowledge and adherance to battle principles that simply didn't translate well to this theatre of operations.

    If you want to know more, then you MUST visit the Boer War Museum ... the only museum in the country which is devoted to the tragic history of this appalling conflict which took place at the dawn of the 20th century. Quite apart for the tale it impacts, it is fascinating, because unusually in the case, history is told from the perspective of the vanquished (not the victor) and reflects the 'verkrampte' (conservative) perspective on Afrikaaner history of the apartheid regime (who went on to rule the country), which has in itself been superceded by a totally different political order. Who says that history isn't dynamic???

    Understandably, the Boer War musuem has received next to no funding since the political transition in 1994 (except the translation of a few captions). Thus, nearly 20 years on, it is inevitable that may of the displays are dated and dogeared, but this doesn't lessen their impact. Like the people that this museum seeks to eulogise, the exhibits are somewhat homespun, which almost adds to their relevance. The various galleries are intended to celebrate the stories of various titanic figures in this conflict: the indomitable trio of Boer generals, Koos de lay Rey, Louis Botha and Christiaan de Wet, President Paul Kruger, Emily Hobhouse and, somewhat retrospectively, Sol Plaatje, founder member of the ANC (whom I am absolutely sure was not reflected pre 1994). Ignore the architectural indistinction and hideous 60s concrete ... if you're looking for the soul of the Afrikaaner, then look no further ...

    This is a place to linger and reflect - my parents spent half a day here and still don't think that they fully experienced the archived film and newspaper stuff. We had our kids with us, and thus couldn't spend as long as we would have liked, but still wandered away feeling punch drunk after the double whammy of the Boer War Museum and the adjacent Womens Monument and its gutwrenching scupture such as the Farewell, the Emigres and the Bittereinder.

    For me, the saddest aspect of an emotionally draining experience was a mock up of an 'average' concentration camp that my kids spent over a quarter of an hour playing with. "Press this button to highlight the school": "Mum, why is the school so small when there are so many tents with so many people in them"?". "Press this button to highlight the toilets": "Mum, did people really have to squat over a trench to go to the loo? Why is it so far from their tents?" "Press this button to highlight the cemetery":" "Mum, why are there so many dead people to be buried? Why are there so many dead kids?"

    My children, I wish I could explain, but I can't, because I don't understand myself ...

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    Be touched by the statue of the 'Farewell'

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Aug 29, 2012

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    This utterly wonderful piece of sculpture is located next to the car park of the Anglo Boer War museum, and depicts a Boer commando bidding farewell to his wife and child.

    Everything about this statue is gorgeous: from the sense of urgency conveyed by the soldier and his spirited horse to the serenely stoic expression of the wife sending her husband off to war to defend the values and way of life that they hold dear.

    The specific date (11 October 1899) on the basal plinth indicates the date on which the Anglo Boer War was declared, indicating that the soldier has immediately heeded the call to arms.

    This statue is surprisingly recent, having been unveiled in 1986. I still need to do some research on who sculpted this, which is proving surprisingly troublesome to find out ...

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    An interesting use of power station cooling towers

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Sep 3, 2012

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    Disused power stations are seldom pretty things, but some South Africans are beginning to view their lack of aesthetic appeal as a bit of a challenge.

    These cooling towers are located on the southern fringe of Bloem's CBD, en route for the Anglo Boer War museum. The weekend that we visited, the ANC was holding its centenary birthday celebrations in Bloem, and some creative soul had come up with the excellent idea of decorating the towers with the images of former ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, John Dube and Chief Albert Luthuli (the first of South Africa's four Nobel Peace Prize winners).

    Unfortunately the execution was less effective than the design, and on the day we drove past (the second day of the birthday celebrations), workmen were still trying to complete the artwork ... a sterling example of Africa Time in action!

    For another innovative idea on what else to do with defunct cooling towers, read my tip on bungee jumping at the Orlando Towers in Soweto.

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    The unexpectedly splendid Bloemfontein City Hall

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Mar 5, 2012

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    If you stroll down President Brand street from the northern fringe of the CBD (where there is good, shady street parking), the first major building that you come across on your right hand side is the Bloemfontein City Hall, which was designed by Sir Gordon Leith and completed in 1935.

    I had been anticipating some pretty impressive architecture in Bloem, but I certainly hadn't been expecting something that looked like this. It doesn't resemble any other public building that I've seen elsewhere in South Africa, and has a distinct Mediterranean feel. Although the interior is described as being Italianate, the heavy wooden shutters reminded me more strongly of buildings that I've seen in Spain. Whatever influences were brought to bear in its design, it is a beautiful and imposing building, and sets the tone for the surprisingly varied and attractive architecture that characterises the rest of President Brand Street - well worth an appreciative stroll!

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    The imposing Fourth Raadsaal

    by CatherineReichardt Updated May 5, 2012

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    The Fourth Raadsaal is an imposing hunk of Renaissance-inspired classicism which forms a stark contrast to its homely predecessor, the pocket-sized, thatch roofed First Raadsaal. It was intended to serve as the seat of government and is clearly a building that was designed to impress and reflects the growing self confidence of the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State at the end of the 19th century. The architecture of the Fourth Raadsaal clearly inspired the design of the Supreme Court building further down the street, although this was constructed nearly four decades later.

    Ironically the Fourth Raadsaal was completed in 1893, barely six years before the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War, which would see the defeat of the Boer Republics, and result in their reluctant incorporation into the British Empire. For a time, the building also housed the Appellate Division (which became the Supreme Court of Appeal after 1996) before the Supreme Court building was constructed.

    Today this building is the seat of the Free State provincial legislature.

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    Bloem: one of South Africa's three capitals!

    by CatherineReichardt Updated May 5, 2012

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    Supreme Court, Bloemfontein
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    Once you've spent any amount of time in South Africa, you realise that the country is profoundly influenced by our complex political history, which means that things are seldom quite as simple as they seem!

    Take the issue of capitals for instance. Anywhere else, it would stand to reason that one country = one capital (even if it's a rather unexpected one, such as Canberra or Ottawa) ... but no, in South Africa, we have three capitals, of which sleepy Bloemfontein is unexpectedly one!

    This odd situation dates back to 1910, when four colonies with very different histories and ethnic makeups were welded together into the Republic of South Africa. The different groups vied for political influence in this uneasy arranged marriage, and the choice of the national capital was a highly charged issue.

    In the end - as is so often the case in South Africa - the outcome was a well meaning but somewhat impractical compromise. In terms of this arrangement, Pretoria was designated the adminstrative capital, Cape Town (where Parliament sits) became the judicial capital and little Bloem was awarded the honour of serving as the legislative capital and home of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa. This arrangement was not to everyone's liking: the first Chief Justice, Lord Henry de Villiers, was so unimpressed by the prospect of spending any more time in provincial Bloem than he had to that he (and his successors over the next twenty years) did their level best to hear as many cases as possible in the more congenial surroundings of Cape Town!

    South Africa's Roman Dutch legal system is in itself a compromise, being a hybrid of Roman law and Dutch customary law, with influences of British case law and indigenous African customary law thrown in for good measure. Since the transition to democracy, South Africa has created a Constitutional Court (which was established in Johannesburg in 1996) but as this deals solely with matters relating to the Constitution, so the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloem remains the highest court in the land to which citizens can bring their case.

    Just in case you're not already confused enough, it may be of interest to know that during periods of its history, the Supreme Court in Bloem also served as the highest court of appeal for South West Africa (now Namibia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

    The Supreme Court is housed in a splendid building which is more than a little influenced by the Renaissance style of the older Fourth Raadsaal just down the road - the link is unsurprising, as until that time, the Supreme Court was housed in that building. The building was completed in 1929 and since its completion, virtually all Supreme Court appeals have been held in Bloem.

    The interior of the Supreme Court - particularly its library - are reported to be magnificent, but are seldom, if ever, accessible to the public.

    The entrance to the building is flanked by a fine pair of Boer War field guns ... much loved by small boys such as my son!

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    The spot where Tolkien was baptised

    by CatherineReichardt Updated May 5, 2012

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    One of the main reasons for us visiting Bloemfontein is that we wanted to follow in the footsteps of John Ronald Reuel (better known as J.R.R.) Tolkein, the author of 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit', who was born in Bloem and spent about three years here before moving back to England with his family.

    Sadly, there is little remaining evidence that he ever lived here and the initiative to set up a Tolkein Trail seems to have stalled in the starting blocks. The house in which he and his family lived was washed away years ago in a flood, and about the only trace that we could find of Tolkein was the font in the Anglican Cathedral where he was baptised, which is commemorated with a discreet little bronze plaque on the wall.

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    'Bittereinder': the embodiment of Boer resistance

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Feb 13, 2012

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    The Anglo Boer war museum/Women's Monument complex is a mecca for sculpture lovers, but of all the wonderful statues on offer, my absolute favourite is Die Bittereinder.

    This statue sits on a koppie adjacent to the museum and the Women's Monument and looks out wearily over Bloemfontein. It is a larger than life bronze sculpture that depicts a 'bittereinder' - one of the diehard Boers who fought the British to the bitter end, even when defeat was certain. His threadbare clothes, emaciated horse, unkempt appearance and hunched shoulders speak volumes on the sacrifices that he has made to resist the enemy and his defiance despite the inevitability of defeat.

    In a whimsical moment, I hoped that the Bittereinder was not the same vibrant man depicted in the Afskeid ('Farewell') statue further down the slope ...

    Sadly this spectacular statue has had to be heavily fortified, presumably to protect it from damage at the hands of metal thiefs.

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