Harrismith - Intabazwe

Wits BAS(Hons) Research Project
Led by Melinda Silverman
with Catherine de Souza, Robyn Arnot,
Karabo Masia and Michelle Wecke

<< <  >

This intensive group and individual research project was focussed on the small town of Harrismith, half-way between Johannesburg and Durban. The research and mapping conducted resulted in an extensive publication that analysed the existing and historical processes at play in the town, with a specific focus on its development and the reasons for its urban form today.

The following text is an extract from the publication, it includes an introduction to the Movement and Transport chapter, which my group was tasked with writing:

“Harrismith’s urban structure and character are a function of its intertwined relationship with various forms of movement. Wagons, the railways, and the growth of motor vehicle travel have left their marks on the town.

Movement and accessibility, apart from physically structuring the landscape, stimulate economic development which, in turn, shapes the built environment.

It is clear that Harrismith’s economy is – and has always been – based to a large extent on transport-related business and industry. It is critically located, 270km from Johannesburg, 295km from Durban and 345km from Bloemfontein. It is thus located within a 350km radius of 70% of South Africa’s economic activity (PLAAS: 17).

The success of the economies of small towns often revolves around their connections to larger economies. This is clearly illustrated in Harrismith: crucial links with major cities provided by the national roads – the N5 and particularly the N3 transport corridor which pass through it – create direct relationships with these cities and easy distribution markets for Harrismith’s industry.

The importance of Harrismith as an industrial centre has been acknowledged since 1912 when a commission was set up to investigate Harrismith’s industrial possibilities – 113 businesses had been recorded in the town in the previous year (Hawkins 1982: 236). Later in the century, in the 1980s Harrismith was proclaimed an industrial growth point and decentralisation incentives were instituted by the government to encourage the relocation of industry to the town (Entrepreneur 1984: 3). The continuing recognition of Harrismith’s invaluable position underlies its being chosen for the development of a new freight distribution hub, planned to ease pressure in Durban and City Deep in Johannesburg.

Harrismith’s location at the junction of these major routes has meant that the town has throughout its history served as an important stop-over. Its position on the direct route from Natal to the diamond fields in the 1870s and to the gold fields of the Rand in the 1880s, meant that it prospered from the movement through it, and stopovers in it. This economic activity was supported by hotels, shops, wagon-makers etc.

Today Harrismith continues to exploit the fact that large numbers of people move though it. With a large number of stop-over options for travellers, a dominance of transport-related businesses (fuel stations, auto spares shops, workshops etc), and their location predominantly on the western side of the town, towards the railway line and trucking route. Most of the town’s significant and branded formal retail and commercial activities are prominently located along Warden Street, the main route into town, petering out at the ends where residential uses take over. Commercial and retail functions are also found on Stuart Street (probably because the route into Harrismith from the north once met its north end) and on the cross streets of Bester, Southey and Piet Retief. Six sets of traffic lights operate in this zone, presumably as a result of the traffic activity generated by these land uses. The commercial/ retail network is abruptly halted by the moederkerk located on a block centred on Warden Street which cuts it awkwardly into two pieces, and forms a boundary of sorts beyond which retail does not appear. Echoing this close connection between retail and movement, informal trade has arisen in the streets above the taxi rank, exploiting a different market of travellers – mainly township commuters and truck drivers. Industry dominates in the south west beyond the edge of the street grid in an area called Hardustria, its position clearly determined by proximity to the movement corridors of the railway line and trucking route.

The first recorded movements in the vicinity of the town coincide with the Great Trek. This was essentially a migration into the interior of South Africa by Dutch-speaking colonists who sought independence from the British Cape Colony (Oakes 1988: 114). Piet Retief’s party moved into TransOrangia in February 1837 with 120 armed men and 100 wagons, then swung north-eastwards from Thaba Nchu, almost following today’s route between Bethlehem and Kestell, outspanning at Golden Gate (Oakes 1988: 115, Hawkins 1982: 16). Retief’s party would have skirted the Harrismith district before beginning to ascend the Drakensberg in the vicinity of Oliviershoek Pass. About 30km south of present-day Harrismith, Retief left his party at a mountain called Binghamsberg (or Kerkenberg on the Natal side), in order to obtain permission from Dingaan to settle in Natal. The party later moved down what was named Retief’s Pass to enter Natal (Hawkins1982: 4). In the vicinity of Harrismith are numerous passes used by other voortrekkers to descend the Drakensburg – Collin’s, de Beer’s, Botha’s and Bezuidenhout’s passes.

When the Great Trek was re-enacted in 1939 as part of the centenary celebrations, the Trek passed through Harrismith leaving its mark more overtly than the Great Trek itself. In front of the moederkerk at the south end of Warden Street are the tracks of wagon wheels and an inscription in a concret slab which reads ‘Spore van die Piet Retief 8 November 1939’ – figure 09. The market square in front of the town hall was transformed into a commemorative garden named after Deborah Retief who accompanied her father. In 1988, 150 years after the trek, a similar re-enactment took place between Harrismith and Natal under the auspices of the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurverenigings (Ackermann 1988: 7)...”