Welkom (Afrikaans pronunciation: [ˈvɛlkɔm]) is the second-largest city in the Free State province of South Africa, located about 140 kilometres (90 mi) northeast of Bloemfontein which is the provincial capital. Welkom is also known as Circle City, City Within A Garden, Mvela and Matjhabeng. The city’s Sesotho name, Matjhabeng means ‘where nations meet’, derived from the migrant labour system, where people of various countries such as Lesotho, Malawi and Mozambique etc. met to work in the mines of the gold fields.
A settlement was laid out on a farm named “Welkom” (which is the Afrikaans and Dutch word for “welcome”) after gold was discovered in the region, and it was officially proclaimed a town in 1948. The town became a municipality in 1961. It now falls in the Matjhabeng Municipality, part of the Lejweleputswa District. Welkom was officially declared a city on 14 February 1968.
Much of the history of Welkom is centred around the discovery of gold in the northwestern Free State. It was proclaimed a town in 1948, nine years after a major gold discovery was made in Odendaalsrus, just north of Welkom.
The first prospecting in the area was done by the Englishmen Mr Donaldson and Mr Hinds on a portion of the farm Zoeten-Inval in 1896. The men discovered a small outcrop which seemed to be a conglomerate pebble reef, but they failed to raise interest among mining companies who at that stage did not believe that there was gold to be discovered south of the Vaal River. They returned to England to test the samples they had extracted, but died before reaching their destination when their ship sank in the Bay of Biscay.
Prospector Arthur Megson heard of their venture and decided to investigate near the town of Odendaalsrus in 1904. He gathered samples of exposed strata near an outcrop, which by then was part of Hendrik Petrus Klopper’s farm Aandenk. He too did not succeed in obtaining any interest from companies until October 1932, when he presented his findings to Allan Roberts and Mannie Jacobs. The area needed to be tested by drilling, and the first borehole was started on 5 May 1933. Jacobs managed to interest two men, Fritz Marx and Peter Woolf, in the venture and the Wit Extensions Company was formed later that year. Although the borehole, which by then penetrated more than 1200 metres, yielded 120-inch pennyweights of gold (roughly 480 centimetre grams per ton), it was not enough to garner financial assistance and the operation had to close due to depleted finances. (For gold ores to be payable in South Africa, the grade must typically exceed 960 cengrams – the equivalent of 8 grams per ton over a 120 cm stope width, which after dilution will yield 4g/t in the mill).
However, the discovery of gold-bearing reef in the Klerksdorp area in 1933 by the Anglo American Corporation encouraged geologists and others with vision to see the northwestern Free State as a potential gold field. Prospecting intensified and the first high values of gold were discovered in 1939. By 1940, sufficient work had been done to prove the existence of gold in the area and thirteen mining areas were later demarcated around what would become the town of Welkom.
Welkom officially came into being on 15 April 1947, six years after the first mining lease in the area was awarded to the St Helena Gold Mining Company, and was proclaimed a town on 23 July 1948. On 14 February 1968, after 21 years of existence, Welkom received city status, and celebrated this event with the opening of the Civic Centre by Mrs Martie du Plessis. The construction of this building commenced in 1964.
During Apartheid in the years of segregation, the townships of Thabong and Bronville were established for black and Coloured people, respectively.
On 8 December 1976, Welkom experienced an earthquake measuring 5.2 on the Richter magnitude scale. The most significant damage caused was the total collapse of a six-storey block of flats about 75 minutes after the event. Widespread damage to many other buildings was experienced throughout the city. Despite extensive damage to surface and underground mining structures, only four deaths occurred. During the decline of the Apartheid era, race relations were particularly problematic as many White South Africans felt threatened by the eventuality of a regime change. This was the main cause of the events that transpired on 13 May 1989, when the mayor, a Mr Gus Gouws, was tarred and feathered after officiating at a multiracial wheelchair marathon event. The National Party mayor ran foul of his White constituency when he proposed the opening of a taxi rank in the business district of Welkom.
Aggrieved residents of the city then sought to humiliate him to dissuade him from authorising the erection of the facility, by assaulting him and a security guard, while he was officiating at the event. Four men were arrested and charged with the assault. On 20 March 1990, Welkom was struck by a multi-vortex tornado which went through the suburbs. This tornado was part of a 240 km long storm front and had a width of up to 1.7 km. This weather event proved to be the most devastating recorded, from the financial and insurance point of view, in South Africa to date, destroying 4,000 homes. On 26 September 1990, Welkom experienced a seismic event with a magnitude of 4.2, which resulted in two deaths and five injuries. The mining company Pamodzi Gold applied for bankruptcy in 2009 even though it was sitting atop one of the richest and consistently-producing gold veins in the world. The gold mine, President Steyn, was previously owned by the Thistle Mining Co., up until February 2008, and reported a total sale of 487,069 troy ounces of gold from 2004 to 2006. On 29 October 2007, Thistle Gold Mining entered into a ‘Sale of Shares and Claims Agreement’ under the South African government’s black economic empowerment laws, under which Thistle’s direct and indirect interests were sold to Pamodzi Gold for $14-million. In 2010, Harmony Gold subsequently acquired President Steyn from the now liquidated Pamodzi Gold and resumed operations
Koppie Alleen is the only hill near Welkom and therefore is aptly named for its oddity. The terrain elevation above sea level is 1435 metres. The largest water catchment is the Sand River to the south-east of Welkom in Virginia’s direction. Large saline pans such as Flamingo Pan and Theronia Pan are situated to the south-west of Welkom. Flamingo Pan is coded as an Important Bird Area (IBA)