One thing which originally surprised me about South Africa was that it wasn’t exactly what I imagined Africa to be. Indeed, as the local people themselves said, SA is one of the most modern countries in Africa, and most place you don’t see the stereotypical sights of animals walking down the streets, reed huts, and such.
Bloemfontein was no exception to the rule. It’s mostly quite modern, and most of it could fit perfectly well in Europe or the US.
The well known cities in SA are Johannesburg (Usually called Jo’burg by the locals), Cape Town, and perhaps Pretoria. Bloemfontein isn’t that well known, and is very emphatically not a tourist destination. The local airport was nice, but extremely small. There were more than enough things for me to do during my stay there, but with two more free days I would have exhausted it completely, from a visitor’s perspective. Physically it’s at the centre of SA (So no seaport, or sea), but not otherwise.
The city itself is not entirely uniform, though, and there are differences between the different neighbourhoods and city areas.
Most of my time in the city has been in a place more near the outskirts of the city, an area which was very modern, clean, and gave a very nice atmosphere. While being a part of a big city, the buildings aren’t placed too close together, and the feeling was more like that of a small town than of a big city.
The centre of the city was less impressive. The building is still modern, but it has a more urban feeling, with the buildings bunched together more, and far less greenery. The building’s fronts were also maintained far worse, and the streets had some junk thrown around them.
Another part of the city I saw was the poor “black neighbourhood”. It had a name, but I’m afraid I forgot it by now. I was also not taken inside, just drove around, since it was apparently not safe for a white person to go inside. This wasn’t a very big part of the city, which is good, but it still looked like a very run-down slum. Temporary houses made of metal sheets, and an incredible amount of junk spread between the houses and around the streets. Not a nice place to visit, and I wouldn’t want to live there.
It was located next to a big public hospital, though. But according to my host those public hospitals, while offering free medical care, also offer very bad medical care and hygienic conditions, and not someplace anyone who can pay will go to. I got the strong impression anyone who can afford to uses private medicine in the area, and that this is quite normal and acceptable.
The name of the city is in Afrikaans (the local language of the white population), meaning Fountain of Flowers, or somesuch. Which didn’t stop most local people from telling me it’s the City of Roses, and that they’re well known for their roses. Roses which I didn’t see, since it wasn’t the right season.
The name, though, was changed a while back (one and a half, or two, years ago. I don’t recall exactly) to Mangaung. If that name sounds strange to anyone familiar with Latin-based languages (which made it easier to make the Bloem=Bloom?=flower, Fontein=Fountain, connections), this is not surprising. The new name isn’t in Afrikaans, but in one of the local languages of the black population (Sesotho?).
Apparently this isn’t a unique incident. A lot of places are being renamed in the recent year. One the one hand, the feelings behind this are understandable. The mostly black population has been ruled by the white people for a long time, and this is some way for them to feel a measure of control and that the country is also theirs. But on the other hand I strongly disagree with changing the original names of places which have been called by the same way for so many years (Bloemfontein was founded in 1846). This is disrespectful to the existing history of the place, regardless of whether one likes that history or not. It is also totally confusing, since all records refer to the city by the original name.
Not to mention, what was obviously apparent when visiting there, the administrative nightmare. Road signs around the city still refer to it as Bloemfontein, since the cost of replacing them all is extremely high. And it is similar with almost every other reference to the city everywhere. The changes will happen over time, probably, but for now it’s not only that the people still refer call it Bloemfontein, but everything. The first time I realized the city was officially called Mangaung was on my last day, when I saw a welcome to the city sign, and asked what the heck Mangaung was.
On the language issue, SA has 11, yes, that’s eleven, official languages. English is one of them, as is Afrikaans, and the rest are a selection of the many languages of the local black population. Sesotho is one as well, naturally.
This makes for rather amusing radio stations, or TV news broadcasts, which often go through a wide selection of languages over time. All these languages are official languages of the country, so they have to be supported by public services.
The common language, which is not really native for everyone but which, thankfully, everyone knows, is English. Signs are mostly in English, both on the areas of the city I was in, and on the city centre, and even on the slums area I saw (at least on the outside of it). And nobody had a problem switching to talk to me in English once I made it clear I do not understand Afrikaans.
Well, that’s about it as a general introduction. To be continued in further posts. In the meantime, these are a selection of some resized pictures of Bloemfontein taken from the top of Naval Hill (called so despite the obvious lack of anything naval on a city without a shore, and for reasons I was not able to surmise):