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The Free State lies in the heart of South Africa, with the Kingdom of Lesotho nestling in the hollow of its bean-like shape. Between the Vaal River in the north and the Orange River in the south, this immense rolling prairie stretches as far as the eye can see. The capital, Bloemfontein, has a well-established institutional, educational and administrative infrastructure, and houses the Supreme Court of Appeal. The province has a well-known university and many other training institutions. Important towns include Welkom, the heart of the gold-fields and one of the few completely preplanned cities in the world; Odendaalsrus, another gold-mining town; Sasolburg, which owes its existence to the petrol-from-coal installation established there; Kroonstad, an important agricultural, administrative and educational centre; Parys on the banks of the Vaal River; Phuthaditjhaba, well known for the beautiful handcrafted items produced by the local people; and Bethlehem, gateway to the Eastern Highlands of the Free State. The road network density of the province is the third-highest in the country. The national road, which is the artery between Gauteng and the Western and Eastern Cape, passes through the middle of the Free State.

The people
The Free State is the third-largest province in South Africa, but it has the second-smallest population and the second-lowest population density. It houses some 2,8 million people on about 129 480 km² of land. The main languages spoken are Sesotho and Afrikaans. Some 16% of people aged 20 years or older have received no schooling. The official unemployment rate according to Statistics South Africa is 23,3%. Many of the towns display a mix of culture clearly evident in street names, public buildings, monuments and museums. Dressed sandstone buildings abound on the Eastern Highlands, while beautifully decorated Sotho houses dot the grasslands. Some of South Africa's most valued San rock art is found in the Free State. The districts of Bethlehem, Ficksburg, Ladybrand and Wepener have remarkable collections of this art form.

This summer-rainfall region can be extremely cold during the winter months, especially towards the eastern mountainous regions where temperatures can drop as low as 9,5 ºC. The western and southern areas are semidesert. Known as the granary of the country, the Free State has cultivated land covering 3,2 million ha, while natural veld and grazing cover 8,7 million ha. Field crops yield almost two-thirds of the gross agricultural income of the province. Animal products contribute a further 30%, with the balance coming from horticulture. Ninety percent of the country's cherry crop is produced in the Ficksburg district, while the two largest asparagus canning factories are also situated in this district. Soya, sorghum, sunflowers and wheat are cultivated, especially in the eastern Free State, where farmers specialise in seed production. About 40% of the country's potato yield comes from the high-lying areas of the Free State.

The Free State contributes about 16,5% to South Africa s total mineral output. The mining industry is the biggest employer in the Free State and is responsible for some 22,6% of GGP of the province. Investment opportunities are substantial in productivity-improvement areas for mining and related products and services. South Africa is the world's largest producer of gold. A more than 400-km long gold reef, known as the Goldfields, stretches across Gauteng and the Free State, the largest goldmining complex being Free State Consolidated Goldfields with a mining area of 32 918 ha. Some 82% of the region's mineral production value is derived from this activity, primarily in the Goldfields region, which comprises the districts of Odendaalsrus, Virginia and Welkom. Roughly 30% of South Africa's gold is obtained from this region, and the province qualifies for fifth position as a global producer. The Harmony Gold Refinery situated in Virginia is allowed to sell one-third of its total annual gold production to jewellery manufacturers, and has the facilities to ensure that the correct quality is maintained at all times. Harmony Gold Refinery and Rand Refinery are the only two gold refineries in South Africa. Gold-mines in the Free State also supply a substantial portion of the total silver production of the country, while considerable concentrations of uranium occurring in the goldbearing conglomerates of the gold-fields are extracted as a by-product. Bituminous coal is mined in the province and converted to petrochemicals at Sasolburg. Diamonds from this region, extracted from kimberlite pipes and fissures, are of a high quality. The largest deposit of bentonite in the country occurs in the Koppies district.

The Free State, best known for its maize production has, in the last decade, reduced its dependency on the primary sector, and has become a manufacturing economy. Some 14% of the province's manufacturing is classified as high-technology industries, which is the highest percentage of all the provincial economies. This growth in high-tech industries is significant in the context of the changing contribution of the gold-mining industry to the GGP.
The province's three-tier development strategy centres on competitiveness, empowerment, capacity-building and beneficiation. Manufacturing is the second-largest sector in the regional economy. Among the most important activities are the chemical products manufactured by Sasol and the further beneficiation of agricultural products. A wide variety of industries have developed around the production of basic chemicals from coal.

H.E. MS Shogole
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