(formerly known as Piet Retief)Founded in 1883
Awarded town status in 1912
Proclaimed a Council in 1932
Renamed 2010 (due to the fact that the town is still known, both nationally and locally, as Piet Retief, this has been used for ease of reference)
Where are we?
Piet Retief is located in the south eastern corner of Mpumalanga, midway down the escarpment between the Highveld and the Natal Lowlands. The town straddles the N2, approximately 100 km from the neighbouring towns of Vryheid, Pongola and Ermelo.
The town lies on the Assegai River in the Assegai Valley, and is surrounded by picturesque mountains with forests of indigenous yellowwood and hardwoods, as well as timber plantations of mainly Eucalyptus, Pine and Wattle.
Our proximity to Swaziland makes us the perfect gateway to the mountain Kingdom, with a number of nearby border posts:
Mahamba 34km 7:00 to 22:00
Emahlatini 23km 8:00 to 18:00
Bothashoop/Gege 20km 8:00 to 15:00
Piet Retief/eMkhondo is the seat of the Mkhondo Local Municipality, which lies in the larger Gert Sibande District Municipality.
The Mkhondo Local Municipality consists of 19 Wards, and each ward is represented by an elected Ward Councillor. A further 19 Council seats are allocated according to the system of proportional representation.
Following the 2011 Municipal elections, the ANC held 28 seats, the DA 6, with the remainder completed by the smaller parties.
The first known inhabitants of the area were members of the Khoi and San tribes. Proof of this can be seen in the numerous rock-art paintings, some dating as far back as 8 000 BC, which still adorn crags and cliffs in the Assegai Valley.
Evidence further suggests that the area has been sporadically occupied by Swazi and Zulu clans (both Nguni decendants who didn’t always get along) for the past 500 to 800 years.
With the arrival of European settlers during the first half of the 19th century, the occupation of the land become even more complicated. These Europeans were made up of Dutch ‘Voortrekkers’ from the Cape Colony, who were attempting to escape the British, as well as Germans and Scots fleeing from the potato famine as well as religious persecution in their homelands in Europe.
Following the end of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, which left the Zulu Empire created by the military genius, Shaka, defeated, as well as the subsequent defeat of the British during the First Anglo-Boer War at Amajuba in 1881, the land was ‘tame’ enough for the establishment of many European style towns by the newly established Boer republic, Het Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR).
One of these, was the town founded by Voortrekkers in 1883 and laid out on the farms Osloop and Geluk. The settlers named this town after their leader, Piet Retief (1780 - 1838), who had been killed under the Zulu King, Dingane's orders after he had tried to settle on land in KwaZulu Natal.
At first, Piet Retief was not a separate district, but part of the larger Wakkerstroom district. A Scottish settler by the name of Alexander MacCorkindale then managed to acquire a very large area of land which stretched from the region of Carolina through the town of Amsterdam, and included parts of Piet Retief. For some time it was known as "New Scotland", because of the fact that the region reminded the settlers so much of Scotland during summer.
The ZAR government were very happy with the Scottish plans to settle extensively, and intended that New Scotland be a Scottish buffer zone between the Swazi and Zulu tribes, and the Transvaal. The planned Scottish settlement was never really successful, but even today the Scottish influence can still be seen in farm and place names such as Athol, Roburnia (named after Robert Burns, the Scottish poet), Bonnie Brook and Londina.
After MacCorkindale's death the land was divided and sold off to mostly Afrikaner families.
In later years, many German immigrants also came to this region. At first they came as tradesmen, and from the 1870's they were working as woodcutters and carpenters in the mountains between Piet Retief and Wakkerstroom. There are lush indigenous evergreen forests in this area with magnificent old yellow wood and other precious hardwood trees. These were cut up into timber and beams for the young and growing Transvaal Republic, and much of the wood was transported as far as Kimberley, Warden, Barberton, Lourenco Marques (present day Maputo in Mozambique) and even Botswana. Over the years the German settlers became successful farmers, and today Piet Retief has a particularly large and thriving German community. After more than 130 years most German families still speak German as a mother tongue, and the German culture and religion is still widely practised.
During the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902) the town was burnt to the ground by British forces. The British also built in excess of 200 block houses between Piet Retief and Wakkerstroom as part of their strategy of containing Boer soldiers in certain areas.
In those days, Piet Retief was a true frontier district. There was still the plague of tsetse flies and malaria in some areas, but it was for the largest part open and uninhabited country. The settlers that came from the Highveld found it to be a region of very mild climatic conditions and high rainfall, with fertile soil. It was not long before they were using the Assegai valley in the winter time for grazing for their stock. The farmers soon found out that the area was particularly suited for the cultivation of tobacco, and to this very day, the pipe tobacco brand, Boxer is still called "Piet Retief Tobacco".
The town steadily outgrew its trading post origins, and became a municipality in 1932.
What’s in a name?
The valley was named after the Assegai river which runs through it, and it is formed by the mountains of Swaziland and a part of the Drakensberg escarpment that stretches between Ermelo and Wakkerstroom. The name of the Assegai river is actually a misnomer that was derived from the original Zulu name, Mkhondo. This refers to an animal spoor and signifies how the river runs along a meandering course like the spoor of an animal. White settlers, however, confused the word Mkhondo for Mkonto, which means spear. Therefore the name was wrongly translated to Assegai (or Spear) River.
Little Free State
On the way to the Emahlathini Border post between Swaziland and South Africa, approximately 15km from Piet Retief, the Republic of the Little Free State was declared in 1886. It contained a population of only 72 inhabitants. It existed for 5 years until 1891, when it was incorporated into the ZAR.
In terms of population, this was probably the smallest republic ever in the world!
Climate and Topography
Piet Retief lies between the Lowveld and Highveld with an undulating topography, and is 1245 metres above sea level. The climate can be described as moderate, with a summer average temperature of 28°C and the coldest winter nights dipping to below freezing. The summer rainfall of 670mm average per annum reaches its peak during November, with an average annual winter rainfall of 150mm. During summer thunderstorms reaching 11,7 on the ground flash index have been experienced.
Piet Retief is on the escarpment giving way to mixed grasslands, namely Savannah and Eastern mixed Bushveld grass. The area's scenic beauty varies from dense forests to rivers and majestic mountains. An abundant water supply is available from the Heyshope dam which is the 4th largest dam in South Africa.
Business and industry
The climate is extremely well suited to forestry, and during the last 60 years or so, 150,000 hectares of plantations consisting of pine, eucalyptus and wattle trees have been established. These gave rise to a vibrant timber industry, comprising sawmills, paper mills, charcoal factories, leather tanning extract export companies and the like. It is therefore not strange to note that a very large portion of the community is reliant on the timber industry for their income.
Large timber companies like TWK, Mondi, Sappi, PG Bison etc are household names in the area.
Apart from timber, the agricultural sector is made of numerous crop and livestock farmers. Maize, Soya, Cattle, Sheep and Potatoes are all extensively farmed in the area.
Recently, a number of coal mines have opened up around town, which have added a new dynamic to employment and business.
Piet Retief is ideally situated for both road and rail transport between seaports and major cities in South Africa.
The beauty of the area lends itself well to eco-tourism, and we have seen a dramatic rise in activities and the establishment of new guest facilities in the recent past.
Things To Do
Piet Retief is situated 25km from the nearest Swaziland border. We are also 45km from the warm springs resort, Natal Spa, near Paulpietersburg. In the immediate area surrounding Piet Retief are several private game reserves, natural warm water springs and working farms that offer tourists an unsurpassable selection of nature escapes. Accommodation varies from reputable formal accommodation, self catering units and camping sites to true 'bundu-bashing'.
Moderate to strenuous hiking trails are available in the area including the Assegai Hiking Trail, a popular trail through mountain scenery and the Phongolo Highlands Hiking Trail System, featuring hikes from one to five days or longer through near pristine countryside, including the Nchaga and Mpisi Routes. Other nature related recreation includes 4x4 Safari trails and game viewing, which can be done on horseback or specially adapted game viewing vehicles.
Together with nearby Wakkerstroom, this is one of the most popular bird viewing areas in the country. The south-eastern area around Piet Retief offers much for the bird enthusiasts and features more than 360 species of birds.
For the fishermen among us, the area has several dams and many rivers with Yellowtail and Natal yellow fin. Fly fishing facilities are also available. Heyshope dam offers a popular annual national Carp and Bass fishing competition.
Magnificent local fauna and flora can be seen in the outlying district, including the endemic aloe species Aloe Hlangapies, found only in the Piet Retief area.
The area features many commemorations to the senselessness of war, including the Zulu War Memorial, the Heinrich Filter and Nils Larsen Monument, and the monument and gravesites of the many British soldiers who died during the battle of Ntombe in 1879.
Sandstone Bridge: The Paul Kruger Bridge, built by the celebrated architect Sytze Wierde, can be seen on the line between Piet Retief and Ermelo. The bridge, built in 1897, is the longest arched sandstone bridge in the region and has been proclaimed a national monument.
Goliaths Foot: (S26°18.043 E30°38.675) Goliath left his footprint here when drinking water from the Mpuluzi river...
- Piet Retief Netball Club
- Piet Retief Rugby Club
- Piet Retief Wheelers
- Piet Retief Marathon Club
- Piet Retief Country Club
- Koi-San rock art
- Dutch Reformed Church designed by renowned Architect, Gerhard Moerdijk
- Entombe Battlefield
- British Fort Clery