South Africa’s North West Province is one of the country’s least-understood regions – renowned, among tourists at least, for the opulent Sun City resort and the Big Five Pilanesberg National Park, but not much else. Few people venture beyond these attractions to explore this area in greater depth; consequently, it can be curiously rewarding to do so. The old-fashioned hospitality of the myriad little dorps scattered throughout the region, and the tranquillity of the endless stretches of grassland and fields of mielies (sweetcorn) make a refreshing change after hectic Johannesburg and Pretoria.
North West Province extends west from Gauteng to the Botswana border and the Kalahari Desert. Along the province’s eastern flank, essentially separating it from Gauteng, loom the Magaliesberg mountains, one hundred times older than the Himalayas and dotted with holiday resorts for nature-starved Jo’burgers. The N4 from Pretoria cuts through the mountains to the main town of the northeastern part of the province, Rustenburg, gateway to the windswept Kgaswane Mountain Reserve, where you can hike high enough to gaze down onto the shimmering plains beneath. Groot Marico, further west along the N4, is a friendly dorp with powerful home-brews and laidback people to share them with. Further to the west lies the provincial capital of Mafikeng – famed for its siege during the second Anglo-Boer War – while near the Botswana border, Madikwe Game Reserve is one of South Africa’s undiscovered wildlife gems, a massive Big Five park which sees remarkably few visitors and boasts some superb game lodges.
San hunter-gatherers were the province’s first inhabitants: they were displaced 500–1000 years ago by cattle-herding Iron-Age peoples from the north, who pitched their first settlements on low ground near watercourses. These settlements developed into stone-walled towns on hilltops; and by 1820, the largest, Karechuenya (near Madikwe), was estimated to have more inhabitants than Cape Town. By the nineteenth century, the dominance of the Rolong, Taung, Tlhaping and Tlokwa clans was established. European observers classified them all as Tswana, but it’s unclear whether these people regarded themselves as very different from people further east classified as “Sotho”.
The outbreak of intense inter-clan violence in the early 1800s was due to displacements caused by the expansion of white trekboers, and the growing availability of firearms. Victory went to those who made alliances with the new arrivals, whether Griqua from the Northern Cape or Afrikaners from further south. However, the clans’ victories were short-lived and their Griqua and Afrikaner allies soon evicted them from their land and forced them into service. Various mini-states were formed until, in 1860, they were all amalgamated to form the South African Republic (ZAR), with Pretoria as its capital.
The first Anglo-Boer War (1877–81) left most of the province unaffected. Of far greater impact was the second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). As well as the celebrated siege of Mafikeng, where British and Tswana forces held out for 217 days against Afrikaner troops, there were protracted skirmishes up and down the Vaal River. After the British victory, both Afrikaner and Tswana had their lands torched and many were thrown into concentration camps.
The Union Treaty of 1910 left the province, as the western part of the Transvaal, firmly in Afrikaner hands. Its smaller dorps soon became synonymous with rural racism, epitomized in the 1980s by the fascistic AWB led by Eugene Terreblanche, whose power base was here. In addition, the province played a relatively minor role in the national struggle against apartheid due to the absence of a significant black working class after the migration of many Tswana men to work in the gold mines of the Witwatersrand.
In 1977, the Bophuthatswana Bantustan homeland – or “Bop” – was created around Mmabatho in the western part of the province out of the old “native reserves”, the poor-quality land into which Tswana had been forced. Far from being a long-awaited “independent” homeland for the blacks in this area, Bop proved to be a confusing amalgamation of enclaves, ruled by the corrupt Lucas Mangope, who grew rich on the revenues from Sol Kerzner’s casinos in Sun City and Mmabatho and the discovery of platinum. Bophuthatswana’s short life came to an end in March 1994, a month before South Africa’s elections, when its army mutinied. Mangope called in hundreds of armed AWB neo-fascists to help quell the uprising, but the AWB – and Mangope – were ingloriously defeated.