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The Siege of Mafikeng

At the turn of the previous century, Mafeking, as it was then known became the centre of international focus when it was besieged by Boer forces who recognised the strategic importance of the town as a railhead and gateway to the Bechuanaland Protectorate, (Botswana) and Rhodesia, (Zimbabwe).

The Siege was widely reported in colonial times and brought this small, dusty frontier town to prominence. Victorian England avidly followed events in the town and wild celebrations typical of the “Jingoism” of the time followed news of the relief of Mafikeng.

Current thinking however, questions the recorded facts of the siege and considers many of the heroics to have been embellished. Most documents ignored the contribution of the black people of the town and only in recent times have efforts been made to correct this historical anomaly.

Centenary commemorations

On the 100th anniversary of the siege and the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, Mafikeng has seized the opportunity to look back on its history and forward to the 21st century.

Other facilities

The town presents five shopping complexes, 11 banks and the head offices of many provincial institutions. Despite its comparative remoteness, Mafikeng hosts some remarkably modern state-of-the-art facilities. Many top local and international artists have used the Rhino Recording studio and 18 adjacent luxury chalets. The recording studio in particular has attracted some big names.

Tourism is being targeted as a major growth industry and to this end, developments are underway to attract many more visitors in the new century.

Mafikeng Action Programme.

A major initiative is under way, led by the Mafikeng Action Program, a community-based, government-supported and private-sector-led organisation dedicated to putting Mafikeng back on the world tourist map. The BaRolong-Boora-Tshidi, the Local Municipality, the private sector and civil society joined forces to launch the Greater Mafikeng Revival project for the town.
This project entails a package of approximately 100 smaller projects to a combined investment value of R352 million to clean and restore all historical/heritage sites, introduce strict crime prevention and control, give special consideration to the poor, unemployed and children wandering the streets without parental care and promote investment and growth.

Despite negative Press perceptions, Mafikeng is not a dying town. Its vibrant people, thriving industry and commerce and above all, its sense of self, have ensured a bright future for the town. Although activities currently focus on the two centenaries, the North West government has undertaken to continue with Mafikeng’s revival.

Note: In the history section which follows, Mafikeng is, until 1977 when the name was changed, referred to as Mafeking. Prior to the name Mafikeng, the town was known as Mahikeng. In the interests of accuracy, these names have been retained in their relevant periods.

Getting there

Mafikeng is about 300km west of Johannesburg – a comfortable three-hour drive. There are three main ways to reach the town, all of them through vast rolling farmlands and small towns.

  1. From Johannesburg via Ventersdorp and Lichtenburg.
  2. From Johannesburg via Magaliesburg and Lichtenburg
  3. From Rustenburg via Zeerust.

For further information, contact the Tourism Board’s information centre, about 1km outside town on the Lichtenburg Road. Alternatively, visit the museum Tel: 018 381 6102 at the old town hall in Martin Street.

Most visitors to Mafikeng are surprised to find there is more to the town than the Anglo-Boer War, the Siege and the Boy Scouts. Although the city prides itself on these three historically important events, all of them well documented, there is much, much more to be seen.

For many years the mentality of Empire and Colonialism predominated Mafikeng’s place in history and little relevance was placed on the role of black people in the town’s history. Since 1995, much has been done to correct this imbalance and the predominant tribe in the area, the Barolong-Boora-Tshidi has done much to change these perceptions.

Settlement history

Mahikeng, the original name, literally means “place among rocks.” It refers to volcanic rocks that provided temporary shelter for Stone Age humans in order to more easily hunt animals drinking water in the Molopo River.

About 30 000 years ago the San-speaking hunter-gatherers (also known as bushmen), lived throughout the region and the greater sub-continent of southern Africa. They were migratory in nature, moving around their territories in search of game and plant foods.

The Khoikhoi (who kept livestock) probably migrated through this region about 3000 years ago. They did not establish permanent settlements here but moved south to the Orange River where they split. One group moved west along the river whilst another migrated to the Eastern Cape.

The Agriculturists arrived in South Africa from the north from the third century AD onwards. The lifestyle they brought with them was characterised by crop cultivation, settled village life and metal tools.

These people led a semi-nomadic life but cultivation of crops soon made it necessary for them to stay in one place for longer periods. Consequently, more permanent residences were built. They did however move regularly every couple of years once the soil became infertile. Iron was also important to these early farmers, as they needed hoes for farming and other tools to cut down trees.

Their economy included cattle, sheep and goats and the production of tobacco, sorghum and melons. The first residents who can be directly linked to the current people in the Mahikeng area were the Sotho-Tswana. The BaRolong who moved into this area between 1200 and 1350, were descendants of Morolong (one of the founding ancestors of the Tswana lineage). Because of drought in the 17th and 18th century, the kingdom of the Rolong was forced to spread south to Taung and north west through the Kalahari. The capital was moved to Taung in the Bophirima region In about 1720 the Rolong community moved back to this region following the death of their powerful king, Tau.

Build up to the Anglo-Boer/South African War

During the 1800s there was increased activity in this region by white hunters, traders, prospectors and missionaries. These were the first white people to establish themselves in an area which had been dominated by the Sotho-Tswana people for many centuries.
In 1832 the Ndebele people of Mzilikazi invaded the area. Missionaries in the area fled and the Tswana were driven away. Chaos reigned until 1837 when Mzilikazi was driven north by a combined force of Tswana, Voortrekkers and others. Large parts of the region were settled by the trekker farmers. Small towns were established and the surrounding lands were farmed.
Some BaRolong Boora-Tshidi resettled here under Molema Tawana in about 1852 and the first settlement became known as Molema’s Town. Together with the Weslyan missionary J Ludorf, they established a mission. The first chapel was built in 1873. In about 1877, chief Montshioa, the senior brother, with the remainder of the Ratshidi, moved from Sehuba for security reasons and joined his brother. In 1881 the town became known as Mahikeng.

The Keate Award of 1871 that determined the boundary between the Transvaal and the BaRolong, had little effect in solving the dispute about land allocations and a series of conflicts started between the Boers and Chief Moshwete and his followers with chief Montshioa and his followers.

The First Siege of Mahikeng began in February 1882 and ended in October that same year. The end result was a Declaration of Conditions of Peace that took most of the land away from chief Montshioa, but recognised his authority on land north and north west of the Molopo.

Moshwete was given authority over BaRolong land to the south. Land given to the “Freebooters” was declared the land of Goshen in a special proclamation dated November 21, 1882, with Heliopolis, the present Rooigrond, as administrative centre. Similarly, the Republic of Stella, with its capital Vryburg, was declared on land to the south west of Mahikeng. The British government could not stop the proclamation of these two “Republics”, but refused to submit the two chiefs to the laws of the Transvaal Republic and restored their independent status.

The residents of Rooigrond (Heliopolis), were subjected to a surprise attack by approximately 300 of chief Montshioa’s men on May 12, 1884. They fled into the Transvaal. On Thursday, May 22, chief Montshioa, on behalf of his people, and John Mackenzie, Acting Commissioner for the British Government, signed a declaration that recognised British rule over the BaRolong and ended their independence. This did not prevent Gey van Pittius from claiming 3 500 pounds as compensation for the attack on Rooigrond and from declaring war on June 24, 1884, when payment was not made.

General Sir Charles Warren who came to liberate the BaRolong from Goshenite occupation after the Bechuanaland War, took back Mahikeng and declared it part of British Bechuanaland in 1885. The colonial town was laid out in 1885/86 by Warren’s military force and renamed Mafeking. The municipality was established in October 1896. Warren also brought with him hydrogen gas balloons used for observation from the air. Mafeking was the first place in southern Africa where a balloon ascent was made. chief Montshioa was one of the passengers.

Cecil John Rhodes supported Sir Charles Warren’s expedition to rescue stolen land and give it back to the BaRolong, with the ulterior motive of annexing the areas to the Cape Colony and Rhodesia. Contrary to Warren’s and chief Montshioa’s idea of a united Bechuanaland, he established a border along the Molopo and Ramatlabama rivers.

In 1895 Rhodes annexed the southern portion known as British Bechuanaland to the Cape Colony. His plan to annex it to Rhodesia was thwarted by chief Kgama of the Bamangwato tribe who went with a delegation to London to persuade the British government to assume direct rule over the Bechuanaland Protectorate. This remained the position until 1966.

The period from the 1850s to the start of the Anglo-Boer/South African War in 1899 in this region was characterised by considerable frontier instability between the British-controlled Cape Colony and the Boer-run Transvaal Republic, whilst the settlement of Mafeking was originally in the Cape Colony.

The Anglo Boer/South African War

In 1899 the War began. The first part of the war was fought on four battlefronts. One of them was the western front, centering on Mafeking and Kimberley and which held the republicans in two sieges, giving the British time to gather reinforcements.The Siege of Mafikeng began on October 14 1899 and lasted for 217 days. The town was under the command of Colonel Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell and was besieged by between six and eight thousand Boers under the command of General Piet Cronje. At the start of the siege 1200 whites lived in this small town along with 2000 refugees and other foreigners. The much larger African town, The Stadt, had a huge population of 6000.

It was during this time that a boy cadet corps was formed that initiated the idea of Scouting for Boys. Today, the great Scout movement founded by Baden-Powell has a membership of more than 26 million in more than 150 countries in the world. The famous Mafeking Diary, “A Black Man’s view of a White Man’s War”, by Sol Plaatje, a founding member and first Secretary-General of the South African Native Congress, later the ANC, was written during the siege.

As the siege dragged on both the blacks and the whites became active in the defence of their town. The BaRolong conducted several raids on the Boer lines in which cattle were lifted and driven back to Mafeking. The town was finally relieved on May 17, 1900. When Mafeking was relieved, a new word entered the English language: “Maffick” – which means to celebrate inordinately. Certainly that is what happened in London as crowds went berserk in the streets in scenes not to be repeated until VE Day almost 50 years later.

At the Kgotla, the tribal meeting place of the BaRolong Boora-Tshidi, there are monuments to the BaRolong who died in action during the siege and to chief Besele Montshioa, the chief of the Tswana Regiment during the Siege. It is estimated that about 400 BaRolong were killed in action compared to less than 200 British soldiers and members of the town guard.

The Mafikeng Museum pays much attention to the role of the BaRolong in its displays although photographic evidence of their contribution is scarce. Outside the museum is a monument to the fallen. The old part of the Mafikeng cemetery has a section dedicated to the British fallen and to the nuns who gave their lives.

Following the fall of Pretoria in 1900, the Anglo-Boer/South African War moved into a guerrilla war phase. Kitchener, in charge of the British forces devised a scorched earth policy, destroying farms suspected of harbouring republican forces. Concentration camps were created in towns like Mafeking and women and children whose homes had been destroyed were placed in them. These camps were poorly managed and many people died from disease. This led to the Boers seeking peace with the British and signalled an end to the war. A treaty was drawn up and signed in Pretoria on May 31 1902. The Transvaal Republic then effectively fell under British rule.


In 1948 an event occurred which was to shape South Africa for the next 40 years. The National Party was elected into government. They immediately put through Parliament a battery of legislation needed to prop up their policies of separate development. In this region, a Tswana Territorial Authority was set up in 1961, consisting of eight regional authorities. Chief Tidimane Pilane headed the Territorial Authority. It had very little authority but received expanded powers in 1968 when chief Manyane Mangope took over as Chief Councillor.

In the early 1970s the separate development policies were further streamlined and the Bantu Homeland Citizenship Act of 1970 was instituted. This effectively linked all blacks with their respective Bantustans and ensured independence for all Bantustans.

Black people were expected to maintain their homes and families in the homeland but move to their places of work in the industrial development points. In 1977 the Tswana Territorial Authority declared its area an independent state and Bophuthatswana came into being.

However, because of a special deal struck by Bophuthatswanas President Mangope and South Africa, the white people in Bophuthatswana retained their South African citizenship. Part of the agreement was that the seat of government of Bophuthatswana should be Mafikeng, the name having changed back from the British translation of Mafeking. The slight name change from Mafeking to Mafikeng was made to give recognition to the original name Mahikeng. However a new capital, Mmabatho, was planned and developed as a seat of government on the outskirts of Mafikeng.

In 1980 the Apartheid government was shocked when Europeans in Mafikeng elected to be incorporated into Bophuthatswana and Mafikeng became part of Mmabatho.

Post-Apartheid from 1994

The administration of Bophuthatswana collapsed in March 1994 after three days of arson, looting and bloodshed. This set the ball rolling for the reincorporating of Bophuthatswana back into South Africa.

On October 18 that year the town was declared the capital of the North West Province. In 1996 Mafikeng once again became the capital city but this time with Mmabatho as part of Mafikeng. The town is presently faced with the challenge of uniting Mmabatho (the Bophuthatswana heritage), Mahikeng (the BaRolong heritage) and Mafeking (the Colonial heritage), into one greater capital for all people of the North West.