In 1899 a young journalist by the name of Winston Churchill was dispatched to South Africa as a war correspondent having just lost a by-election to serve as the conservative candidate in Oldham in the UK. Captured by the Boers, he was held in Pretoria before escaping his captors by jumping on a train headed for Mozambique. The long and arduous train journey took him through Witbank. Disembarking to look for food, he stumbled on the home of John Howard, one of the few English people in the town. Mr Howard’s first response to Churchill’s plea for help was “Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for 20 miles where you would not have been handed over.” Stuck in hostile territory with the Boer soldiers hunting the fugitive, Howard hid Churchill in a local colliery until safe passage could be arranged back to England. The rest, as they say, is history.At the end of the 1800s, Witbank was still predominantly regarded as an agricultural town. However the discovery of gold in the towns of Barberton and Pilgrims Rest boosted local coffers enormously as prospectors poured into the town in search of supplies. Ironically Witbank, was sitting on a “gold mine” of its own and with the discovery of coal and steel deposits in the early 1900s, the town became far more successful than those that relied purely on the hysteria of the thousands who poured into the region in search of gold.As the importance of the find became evident, the area started attracting large numbers of workers who needed to be housed and fed. The infrastructure began to take shape and the town flourished.Recent statistics released in the 2001 nationwide census indicate that Witbank in Mpumalanga is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. With an approximate population of 226 000 the area has seen extensive growth over the last decade, housing the personnel that work for the industrial powerhouses that are located in the region. The town now houses 22 coal collieries in the Municipal area, a number of power stations owned by Eskom, as well as Highveld Steel, which is one of South Africa’s leading integrated producers of steel.In line with the impressive growth, the housing market has grown significantly and in line with this Lightstone statistics indicate that in the centre of Witbank alone there have been 36 sales concluded in the last 12 months. The types of property available in and around the city are varied and buyers have a wide choice ranging from entry-level properties to those selling for millions. An Internet search reveals that investors are spending good money to live in the right suburb and although the prices in the centre of the city hover around the R800 000 mark, other more desirable locations command far higher price tags. As with other large industrial areas, the city has been experiencing some difficulties with growth levels, particularly with the demands placed upon it by the rural community. The effects of large-scale mining have also presented the area with challenges and the Department of Water Affairs has had to intervene and develop a strategy to avoid contamination of the fresh water catchment areas from disused mine overflows. Recent reports, however, indicate that the contingency plans are working well and rollout plans are in place for the long-term management and rehabilitation of disused collieries in the region.
Witbank - The Town That Saved Winston
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