Bethlehem is a town in the eastern Free State province of South Africa that is situated on the Liebenbergs river (also called Liebenbergs Vlei) along a fertile valley just north of the Rooiberg Mountains on the N5 road. It is the fastest growing town in the Free state province, with its target of being the third largest city after Bloemfontein and Welkom.
It is a wheat growing area and named after the biblical Bethlehem, from Hebrew: בֵּית לֶחֶם (“Beit Lechem”), meaning “house of bread”.
The town lies at an altitude of 1,700 metres (5,600 ft) and this contributes to its cool climate with frosty winters and mild summers. The average annual temperature is around 14 °C (57 °F).
Bethlehem is situated approximately 240 kilometres (150 mi) north-east of Bloemfontein, 140 kilometres (87 mi) east of Kroonstad and 90 kilometres (56 mi) west of Harrismith. The town is strategically situated in the heart of the picturesque north-eastern Free State and originally developed as a service centre. Bethlehem is the seat of the Dihlabeng Local Municipality (this municipality is situated within the boundaries of the Thabo Mofutsanyana District Municipality in the Eastern Free State).
The township associated with Bethlehem is called Bohlokong, named after the hloko/bohloko grass Diheteropogon filifolius.
Village founders – Today we look at the founders of Bethlehem, in alphabetical order, Malan, Muller and Naude. The foundation of church and town was practically simultaneous. In the Museum are the history and artifacts of the founders, including beautiful large framed photographs of each:
Daniel Jacobus Johannes Malan (1821-1892) Johannes Christoffel Muller (1822-1900) Francois Paulus Naude (1800 – 1881)
Their families were all Voortrekkers, experienced the ups and downs of Natal, but they came to make their home and settle in the Bethlehem region. This triumvirate of J.C. Pretorius bought the farm Pretoriuskloof and founded a church/town on it. After approval from the Free State Government, plots were measured in 1864 and 44 were immediately sold.
The founders were farmers and their farms are still in family ownership. Malan farmed at the famous Malanspos, on the road between Bethlehem and Lindley. A house and outbuildings were built and he and his wife were buried on the farm Sterkfontein. Their third son ace the famous Senator D.J.J. Malan.
Muller’s farm, Mullersrust, lies on the Blijdschap/Brighton/Kleingraansentrumpad, next to the Liebenbergsvlei River. Here was his homestead and in the river he built a mill which was destroyed by the British in the Anglo-Boer War. He was buried in the family cemetery on the farm.
Naude’s farm, Middelvlei, lies along the Bethlehem/Clarenspad, next to the Ash River. (An axle from a wagon, English – axle, not Ash as it stands on road signs today. An axle from a wagon from the Retieftrek broke in the river.) His first house, built of sod, was well preserved by posterity and still to be seen near the later homestead. The family graves can also be seen near the homestead.
Premier Soccer League and National First Division clubs Free State Stars and Super Eagles F.C are based in Bethlehem and plays its home games at Goble Park. Bethlehem is also the birthplace of notable rugby union players including Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn. One of the greatest rugby players in history, Tom van Vollenhoven who played rugby union for South Africa and rugby league for St Helens in England was born in Bethlehem. 2019 Japan Rugby World Cup winning team player of Springboks, Bongi Mbonambi was born in Bohlokong.
Bethlehem is a retail, medical, and educational hub for the Eastern Free State. It has three private hospitals and four star Frontier hotel, Casino and Entertainment Centre located near the beautiful Dihlabeng Mall and Bethlehem Aerodrome.
Bethlehem hosts several industries including Coca-Cola, South African Breweries and Nestlé, as well as petroleum and engineering companies.
Bethlehem is located on the N5 road to the provincial capital Bloemfontein via Senekal and Winburg to the N1. Other regional roads in the town are R76 road to Kroonstad (north), the R26 road to Reitz and Fouriesburg (north east and south) respectively.
Bethlehem is located on the main railway line between Bloemfontein and Durban. This railway line transports passengers and freight.
Bethlehem is served by a small airport (Bethlehem Airport) with chartered daily flights to Bloemfontein and Johannesburg.
By 1931, the municipal council had assumed a coat of arms. The arms were registered with the Orange Free State Provincial Administration in October 1958. The arms were: Party per chevron Azure and Gules, a chevron Or, in chief between two springboks couped at the neck respecting each other, proper, a mullet of the third, and in base three maize cobs, the outer ones pilewise, all proper. In layman’s terms, the shield depicted a golden chevron between a gold star and two springboks’ head on a blue background, and three maize cobs on a red background.
A new coat of arms was designed in the 1980s. It was registered at the Bureau of Heraldry in June 1989. The arms were: Per chevron, Azure and Gules, a chevron Or between in chief a mullet and in base two bars wavy, Argent (i.e. a golden chevron between a silver star on a blue background and two wavy silver stripes on a red background).
The crest was three golden ears of wheat with blue stalks and leaves, tied together with a red band; the motto was Conjuncti prosperamu