Famous Free Staters

There is a long list of exceptional people who were either born or nurtured somewhere in the Free State. Humble beginnings, it seems, often inspire men and women to go far.

Is it really so surprising that the ANC itself started its struggle from the oh-so-humble beginnings of a small church in a Bloemfontein township, when so many sons and daughters from these parts have gone on into world and, against all odds, succeeded?

The barefoot world champion Zola Budd is another example of an unlikely champion.
The slim and shy farm girl carried in her limbs something that Free Staters easily recognize as the vital ingredient for our success: grim, dogged determination. And, it must be said, a dream.

For the Free State’s lonely veld seems to inspire love for God or passion to excel in those who live here. Two excellent gentlemen worthy of a detailed account are Thomas Mtobi Mapika and Henry Selby Msimang.

Thomas Mtobi Mapikela (1869-1945) came to Bleomfontein in 1892. At first he lived in Waaihoek, where he owned two houses, one of which was situated very close to the Wesleyan Church school mentioned above. Despite lacking a formal education and training, Mapikela was an accomplished carpenter and an unselfish, God-fearing servant of his community.

But this was a difficult time for Mafikela, who witnessed the disappearance of 80 years of Bloemfontein’s history and heritage with the removal of Waaihoek, and at the same time, both of Mapikela’s properties. Due to restrictive new laws on black ownership, Mapikela was not allowed to build more than one house in the new township of Batho.

For this reason Mapikela built a double storey house at the corner of Community and Magothi Streets in Batho. This house, also known as ANC House, soon played an important role as ANC headquarters, and Mapikela has since been recognised for the role he played as a true community leader during the Struggle.

Mapikela was also involved in forming the Bloemfontein Native Vighilance Committee, the Orange River Colony Native Vigilance Association and was a member of the South African native Convention to London in 1909 (he traveled as part of a group hoping to persuade the British Parliament to oppose the Native Land Act of 1913). He was also the ANC’s first speaker, a position he maintained for 28 years.

Sakhiwo Tobias Belot (MEC for the Free State) describes Mapikela as follows: “In spite of adversity and deprivation, he managed to selflessly avail himself to the promotion of his people’s interest. His contributions and sacrifices are made more significant when it is considered that he did not come from a wealthy family, nor did he rise to an affluent status.

He did not receive any advanced education nor did he belong to an elitist group within society. By any other standards, he was a more average citizen who did everything in the name of humanity.”

Henry Selby Msimang (1886-1982) was another prominent leader and former resident of Waaihoek. The son of a preacher, and a Christian (like Mapikela) Msimang was a gifted English speaker who was also one of the ANC’s founders in 1912. He was jailed under dubious charges in 1919, a charge that was subsequently withdrawn by a high court judge in the same year.

During his life Msimang opened a market for black traders (without permission from local authorities) and launched a newspaper (The Messenger) dealing with the concerns of blacks. In the first issue Msimang wrote: “—we consider that the European race, especially in this province, has not had the opportunity to know what the Natives think, do and say—we feel the time is fast approaching for the reconstruction of governments and for a general reform of politicies in the government of the Native people.”

Msimang was able to organise blacks into a resistance movement against poor wages, and paved the way for furthering other civil liberties denied to his people. There were many other prominent leaders and contemporaries of Mapikela and Msimang involved in the founding of the ANC and the restoration on equitable rights for all.

Beyond the ANC, the Free State has produced many more famous names. Briefly, these include:

  • Top international cricketers such as Allan Donald, Hansie Cronje, Nicky Boje and Morne van Wyk.

  • Top international rugby players such as Juan Smith, Os du Rand, Heinrich Brussow, Morne Steyn, Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis and Francois Steyn.

  • World champions such as Zola Budd (athletics), and Ryk Neethling (swimming).

  • Accomplished sports stars such as Kate Roberts (international triathlete), Willem Jackson (Bafana Bafana player) and professional cyclists John-Lee Augustyn, Hanco Kachelhoffer and Reinhardt Janse van Rensberg.

  • World famous writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Magna Kruger and Maretha Martens.

  • Popular international filmmakers Jamie Uys (The God’s Must Be Crazy), Leon Schuster (Schuster did his BA degree at the University of the Free State) and the musicians Steve Hofmeyr and Lucas Maree are all strongly associated with Bloemfontein.

  • World famous artist (‘the painting priest’) Vader Claerhout immigrated to South Africa from Belgium. Claerhout settled in Thaba Nchu and Tweespruit before retiring in Bloemfontein. Victor Geduld is another well known contemporary artist from Heidedal.

  • Sir George Grey started one of South Africa’s oldest and most famous schools, Grey College, in Bloemfontein in 1855.

  • MT Steyn, Jan Brand and Christiaan de Wet were some of the Free State’s most popular leaders.



It is interesting to reflect the prominent role some of the above Free Staters have had in recent history. In rugby, the Free State’s Cheetahs are well known as a tough, spirited force, and as Springboks the likes of Morne Steyn and Francois Steyn are some of the most feared and respected ‘game changers’. Free Staters are also often ‘show stealers’.

John-Lee Augustyn in 2008 reached the top of the Col de la Bonette (Stager 16 of the Tour de France) before suffering a spectacular crash, falling 30 metres after overshooting a hairpin bend. Despite falling, Augustyn picked himself up and finished the stage.

By far the most popular and successful filmmakers in this country, Jamie Uys and Leon Schuster both have a pedigree rooted in Free State culture and ethics. These down-to-earth qualities (working hard and staying honest) come from an indomitable faith that stands our folk in good stead wherever else they go in the world.

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement

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