Many regard the KwaZulu Natal battlefields as the premier destination in South Africa for battlefield tours. But the Vredefort Dome, one hour from Johannesburg, has been the crucible of conflicts that fundamentally shaped this country.
Visit the Dome battlefields with expert military historians and social commentators to appreciate the complex history of South Africa. Throughout the Dome and surroundings, heroes of the past have fought and fallen. Learn how South Africans have gone to the brink of civil war and yet found the courage to settle with each other for the greater good of all.
The amazing origins of the landscape in a huge asteroid blast is only part of the Dome story. A colourful tapestry of peoples, ideologies and issues makes for an unfolding tale of conflict and co-operation that is woven into the fabric of the modern state.
Because it lies centrally within South Africa, and is well-watered, rich in agriculture, and wealthy thanks to gold and other minerals, the Dome has been a crucible of conflict for many centuries. Invasions, war, rebellion, revolution and racial clashes have characterised the region. It has also been the setting for peace negotiations, reconciliation and land restitution.
The Vaal is the River of Diamonds, but more significantly it lies at the centre of the so-called “Arc of Gold” from Johannesburg to Welkom.
The Vredefort Dome and surroundings contain three major landscape elements that have always attracted people to the area: water from the Vaal and its tributaries; grasslands for wildlife and domestic herds; and mountains to provide shelter from one’s enemies (with the promise of mineral riches too). These environmental factors have ensured that hunter-gatherers and herders, migrants, armies, settlers, traders and miners have been drawn to the crater in the heart of South Africa.
So all the elements for human conflict have been present in the region for centuries.
This has produced historical events of major importance, leaving traces in many battlefields and sites of interest. In the very distant past the ancestors of modern human beings lived on the landscape, which lies just south of the Cradle of Humankind. Because the Dome has no limestone caves it does not have fossils of early humans, but we can be sure that the same creatures inhabited this area. Later came the Bushmen or “First People” who hunted and gathered across the plains which were stocked with all of Africa’s game species. The mysterious Ghoya people built stone corbelled huts from the central Free State and into the mountains.
The story of past battles and peace settlements is highly dramatic with a cast of characters ranging from renegade Zulus to fortune hunters from abroad. The Dome battlefields are lesser known than those of Northern KwaZulu-Natal (traditionally the focus of battlefield tours in South Africa). Yet the Dome has had more to do with central events in South African history that have shaped the way the country is today.
The peace settlement at the end of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 is symbolic of the way reconciliation has been brought about through negotiation and compromise. In 1993, the apartheid system was consigned to the graveyard of history when whites and blacks sat down to agree on a new democratic constitution granting equal rights to all. These events were preceded by bloody battles that led nowhere and finally brought the warring parties to the table.
Even before written history began there was probably friction between the Bushmen occupants and Khoi herders arriving from the north to occupy the land. Later, the arrival of Bantu-speaking migrants from Central Africa brought further struggles over land and resources, leading to inter-tribal wars. Finally, from the east came the impis (warrior regiments) of the Matabele, and from the south came trekkers, colonial outlaws, missionaries and capitalists, accelerating the pace of change and inevitably spawning further wars.
In 1815 came the renegade Zulu chief Mzilikazi, escaping from King Shaka with some of his cattle. Mzilikazi led his band of Matabele across the northeastern Free State, laying waste in the Mfecane (the great winnowing) and finally incorporating elements of the broken clans of Tswana and Sotho into his new nation.
In 1836 the Voortrekkers arrived and fought the first battles against the Matabele: the Battle of the Vaal and the “Blood River” of the Free State at Vegkop. Finally, together with their allies, the Griquas, and Sothos from the south, a Voortrekker-led army drove Mzilikazi out of the old Transvaal into what is today Zimbabwe where he founded the Ndebele nation.
Landscape and struggle
The convergence of the Vaal River, the Witwatersrand gold fields, and the financial capital of Africa in Johannesburg, has ensured that this area would be hotly contested politically, economically and militarily. Without the Dome crater event – which preserved the gold in the ground – and without the river, South Africa would not be Africa’s economic giant as it is today.
Gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1887 and simultaneously also in what is now called the Dome Bergland, or ring of mountains surrounding the Dome core. The deposits around Venterskroon, in the heart of the Bergland, were few and far between – but sufficient to draw miners who believed in their luck. By hand, pick and shovel, and with dynamite, they hollowed out tunnels in the very hard quartzites of the Bergland.
The local gold rush soon fizzled out although some hardy types continued to scrabble for a living until the late 1920’s when all finally gave up. The prospector diggings and actual mine tunnels have recently been catalogued and a few are open to the public today. The jail where rambunctious miners were thrown in the clink to sober up and cool off is just behind the Venterskroon Museum, a stop on our tours. It may seem picturesque today, but the gold rush harboured the seeds of major war.
In 1887 the Transvaal gold rush brought miners from the Klondike, Europe Australia in search of their fortunes, a development that soon produced the “Uitlander” problem. Afrikaners who had settled in the Boer Republics resented the intrusion and it led to anti-colonialist wars. Many of the skirmishes and some of the major battles of the first and second Anglo-Boer wars were fought across the Dome landscape and in surrounding areas of the larger crater.
The Vaal River with its many islands and surrounding Dome Bergland provided commandos with refuge, from which they could launch attacks on the British. Potchefstroom, Vredefort and Parys lay at the centre of guerilla operations led by the redoubtable general Christiaan de Wet. Boer war concentration camps – the first genocide of the 20th century – were situated in this area.
In the new century, South Africa was declared a “Union” but blacks were excluded and due to bitterness and continuing divisions within the Afrikaner nation, rebellion was never far away.
In1914 a rebellion took place against the government of Botha and Smuts led by, amongst others, Christiaan de Wet who finally served 2 years in jail and died soon afterwards. Right wing resistance to government – the SAP government between the world wars, and later the ANC government – has carried on into the present. Recently, rightwingers have been accused of planning to foment a revolution by blowing up the Vaal Dam!
During the apartheid era, Sasolburg was bombed by ANC insurgents. From Parys came Stompie Sepei, a young activist who was later murdered during murky developments in Winnie Mandela’s Soweto Soccer Team. Stompie is buried in Parys. Do we need any further proof that the Vredefort Dome with its history is truly a Crucible of Conflict?
The industrial hub of the country, the province of Gauteng, depends entirely on the Vaal River. Its water keeps alive the farms, mines and industries of the surrounding areas. Because water is an extremely scarce resource on the Highveld, water transfer schemes involving massive dams projects in Lesotho and KwaZulu/Natal supplement the flow of the Vaal. The supply and control of water is increasingly a political issue and there has been conflict over the resource.
Land issues are likely to dominate the politics of the area as traditionalists look for their heritage. Meanwhile, the fact that the Dome is ringed by the Arc of Gold (from Johannesburg to Welkom) ensures that it will remain at the centre of political debates over mining policy and nationalisation.
We have devoted several years to researching tour routes around the battlefields of this unique area, consulting military experts and going over the ground in detail. There are many marked and unmarked battlefields, which it would take weeks to see in detail. We can show you what there is and help you to plan your routes.
We range over a very extensive landscape. We explain the origins of conflict and lead you to the terrains where battles were fought. We have identified battlefields prior to and during the Voortrekker / Matabele period (1815-37); the two Boer Wars of 1880 and 1899-1902; the 1914 Rebellion; the 1922 miners’ strike; the Ossewag Brandwag resistance to the Smuts government’s support of Britian in World War 2; the Sharpeville massacre and the struggle against apartheid with sabotage directed at the oil refinery at Sasolburg. As recently as 2002, rightwingers allegedly hatched plans to blow up the Vaal Dam and start a white revolution.
See where events happened and learn about the personalities, the technologies and the outcomes of key historical moments, including:
- prehistoric conflict and co-operation between Bushmen, Khoi and Bantu tribes
- the “Cat Queen” MaNtatisi and her refugee army
- the Difaqane (”the crushing”): a period of extreme suffering
- the arrivals of Mzilikazi and then Voortrekkers – wars and alliances
- the diamond- and gold-rush eras and conflicts over land and minerals
- the two Anglo Boer wars (1880 and 1889-1902)
- the Rebellion of 1914
- the Rand Revolt of 1922
- Trade unions struggles of the 1930s-90s
- The Ossewa Brandwag and rightwing radicalism, 1930s-present
- The anti-apartheid era, Sharpeville 1960
- The Soweto Uprising 1976 and its aftermath
- Guerilla attacks on Sasolburg oil plant
- Post-apartheid rightwing insurgency
Contact us to discuss your interests.