When the Voortrekkers arrived in the region, they set up settlements in various locations. One of the earliest settlements, in 1836, was in the Zoutpansberg, north of Pietersburg.
Two groups under Boer leaders Hans van Rensburg and Louis Trichardt first arrived in the area. Relations between them were tense, and they moved off in different directions. Trichardt’s group settled near salt pans in the Zoutpansberg for a year before moving to Delagoa Bay.
Andries Hendrik Potgieter set up the first Afrikaner settlement in Ohrigstad in 1845, some distance from Pietersburg, Later, in 1848, he led a group that settled on the site Trichardt’s group had abandoned, just outside present day Louis Trichardt, and established a town, Zoutpansbergdorp.
In 1852 Potgieter was a delegate at the Sand River Convention, where the Transvaal was granted independence as the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek. But the conflict between Potgieter and Pretorius, who was based in Potchefstroom, crippled the ZAR. Potgieter rejected the centralised authority that Pretorius was trying to impose, and he refused to ratify the treaty. They eventually agreed on peaceful relations on 6 March 1852.
Meanwhile, the Volksraad, acting on a request from Potgieter, founded a town in Makapanspoort called Vredenburg. Later renamed Potgietersrus, it became the neighbour of Pietersburg, a town of similar size some 60km to the south, and part of the ZAR.
The constitution of the Republic excluded Black, Indian and Coloured people from exercising equal rights in both Church and State, and the official language was Dutch. The Transvaal tended to rely on Holland for guidance in religious and educational matters, and many teachers and ministers migrated to the ZAR from Holland.
Potgieter died in December 1852, and his son Piet Potgieter succeeded him. In 1854 Hermanus Potgieter, brother of Piet, was killed during clashes with Chief Makapaan. Piet mobilised a command and drove Makapaan into hiding in a cave, where he was besieged. Both Makapaan and Piet Potgieter were killed in the episode, and Vredenburg was renamed Pietpotgietersrus in honour of the leader.
Potgieter’s widow married Stephanus Schoeman, who became Acting Commandant General of the Zoutpansberg in 1855. He renamed the area Schoemansdal, after himself.
The Venda under Magato challenged the Boers’ over grazing and hunting territory and Paul Kruger and his troops were forced to abandon Schoemansdal, which was razed to the ground in 1867.
Many living in Pietpotgietersrus died of malaria, and by April 1870 the town had to be abandoned. They returned in 1890, and made Marabastad, the northernmost point of the ZAR, the seat of the landdrost.
When gold was discovered on the farm Esrsteling in 1871, the first gold rush in the Transvaal followed. An influx of uitlanders (foreigners) began to pose a political problem. President Burgers sought to end the isolation of the Transvaal by developing relations with non-English colonial powers, and in 1875 began a round of negotiations with Portugal to secure access to the sea via a rail link to Delagoa Bay.
The British annexed the Transvaal in 1877, rendering the Boers British subjects. The increasingly hostile relations with the Zulu and Pedi became a problem for both the Boers and the British. A bloody war between the Boers, British and Pedi broke out on 28 November 1879, lasting until 2 December of the same year. A white army in alliance with a 12000-strong Swazi contingent defeated the Pedi standing army of 10000, with King Sekhukhune I losing his brothers and sons.
The Boers, unhappy with British domination, rallied and the first Anglo-Boer War broke out from 1880 to 1881. The victory of the Boers, sealed after the Battle of Majuba, led to the granting of self-government – under the suzerainty of the Queen. The victory was celebrated in the Zoutpansberg district on 16 December 1881 initiated a renewed gold rush, with prospectors converging on the village of Marabastad.
With Potgietersrus and Schoemansdal abandoned, the Boers had to decide where to establish a new capital. In 1883 General Petrus Jacobus (Piet) Joubert was appointed to find a site to compensate the Boers who had been forced to leave Schoemansdal 16 years earlier, and the farm Sterkloop was chosen as an appropriate site. Joubert presented his findings to the Executive Council in Pretoria and a land surveyor was appointed to map out the new town, which was called Pietersburg.
The site, the property of BJ Vorster and Gert Emmenis, was bought by the government on 29 January 1884, and land surveyor GR von Wielligh set out 150 plots, 94 of which were given free of charge to people who had lost land in Schoemansdal. The remainder were sold for six pounds each.
The Magistrate’s Office was moved from Marabastad to Pietersburg on 26 July 1886, and Pietersburg was officially proclaimed on 31 July 1886. By 1888, the railway from Pietersburg to Pretoria was completed.
The inhabitants of New Smitsdorp moved en masse to Pietersburg in 1888, and the population began to increase at a faster rate. In 1889 there were 200 whites, and by 1893 the white population quadrupled to 800.
Church politics played a significant and formative role in the area. The Hervormde Kerk, a Calvinist body linked to the mother body in The Netherlands, was the official church of the Transvaal Republic, and a congregation had been established in Schoemansdal in 1853 with Reverend Warmelo presiding. The more Scottish influenced Dutch Reformed Church, also Calvinist and based in the Cape, sought to unify the churches throughout the various colonies, and sent Stephanus Johannes Gerhardus Hofmeyr to the area to undertake missionary work.
A church was established by the Hervormde Kerk about 10km west of present-day Pietersburg in Marabastad. The Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk wanted the structure to be moved to Pietersburg, a plan opposed by the Hervormers. Following various legal battles, the Hervormers reconstructed the original church in Church Street in Pietersburg in 1891. Meanwhile, the Dutch Reformed Church was erected in 1889, on the site that today houses the photographic museum.
The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand proved to be the undoing of the Boer Republic. It intensified the influx of uitlanders and the subsequent political problems of the Republic. The homogeneity of the Boers was destroyed by the influx, and British influence increased, not least with the influx of foreign capital and a new class of British capitalists. President Kruger was greatly threatened by this development, and refused to make concessions to the British in his midst. The Volksraad tightened the franchise qualifications to limit the number of British voters, while the British Colonial Office began to sponsor the uitlanders, the tensions resulting in the abortive Jameson Raid in 1895.
The development of rail links to Cape Town, Durban and Delagoa Bay also saw a heightening of tensions, bringing tariff and customs rivalries.
When Alfred Milner met Kruger at a June 1899 conference in Bloemfontein, his terms were so uncompromising that no agreement could be reached, and war became inevitable. The South African War broke out in October 1899.
The capitulation of the Boers came on 31 May 1902. Sixty representatives of the two Boer states had met to discuss the terms of surrender offered by Britain.
The Afrikaans Movement
Even when Dutch was the official language of the republics, in Church and State, it was a High Dutch spoken nowhere in South Africa. Instead it was “Cape Dutch” that was the dominant dialect, a “despised patois” according to DW Kruger.
The defeat of the Boers saw a new national spirit emerge, and poet Eugene Marais gave birth to an Afrikaans literature. He was followed by Totius, Liepoldt and Celliers. Together they “gave expression to the tormented soul of the people”, and “taught the people the glory of their own language” (DW Kruger, The Age of the Generals).
The initiative was part of a broader awakening of a cultural, political and nationalist consciousness. Louis Botha started a new party, the Het Volk movement (Our People), based on a reconciliatory spirit, forgiveness for those Afrikaners perceived as traitors as well as good relations with English South Africans. Botha achieved victory in elections after Transvaal was granted self-government in 1905.