Trends shaping the Free State economy in 2023

All of these trends are being supported by investment in infrastructure.

Sasol One, Sasolburg. Credit: Sasol
Sasol One, Sasolburg. Credit: Sasol
    • More high-quality gas has been found at Virginia and the Gas Project is powering ahead.
    • Exploration is underway for a new gold mine.
    • A new strategy has been adopted to attract a new domestic market for tourism.
    • The province’s industrial parks and its Special Economic Zone are attracting investors.

The Free State Province is blessed with abundant natural resources and tourism assets. A number of measures are being undertaken to make sure that these advantages are recognised by potential investors. Among the things that investors like to see is good infrastructure and more than one body is working to deliver that in the province.

The Provincial Government of the Free State reports that it is working with Infrastructure South Africa and other tiers of government to develop a pipeline of bankable projects.

Among those mentioned by Premier Sisi Ntombela in her State of the Province address were projects associated with the Durban-Free State-Gauteng Corridor, the Orange-Riet Canal, the Vista Park, Rustfontein Water Treatment Works and the Gariep water pipeline projects.

In the category of potential projects are the Phuthaditjhaba Gateway, Maluti-A-Phofung Mega City, the Gauteng-Free State Vaal River City Region, Mangaung Airport Node and the Provincial Broadband project.

Roads in South Africa fall under various entities and the Free State’s central position means that it hosts many national roads. However, the province has committed to spend more than R1-billion on its Access Roads Programme, which will not only make it easier for farmers and other producers to get their products to market, but also create some 5 000 part-time job opportunities.

The Provincial Government of the Free State reports that it is working with Infrastructure South Africa and other tiers of government to develop a pipeline of bankable projects.

Various construction and renovation projects are underway that will contribute to improved infrastructure. These include indoor sport centres in Dinoheng, Smithfield and Frankfort, arts studios in three districts, the Basotho Cultural Village and community libraries in Tumahole, Cornelia, Bluegumbusch and Van Standensrus.

Further infrastructure investments are coming from the likes of telecoms company Vodacom. Several new base stations have been established in rural villages. Bloemfontein is the site of one of Vodacom’s new solar-powered facilities, helping in the company’s drive to reduce its carbon emissions.

Industrial parks and SEZ

The Maluti-A-Phofung Special Economic Zone (MAP SEZ), the strategically located area on the N3 highway, is attracting investors to the Free State Province. The aim is to attract R2-billion in new investments.

Sectors prioritised at the MAP SEZ include logistics, ICT, automotive, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and agro-processing. The 1 000ha site has four zones: agro-processing, light industrial, heavy industrial and a container terminal. Control of the project now rests with the provincial Department of Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (DESTEA).

Other areas that are being upgraded to provide infrastructure to encourage manufacturing are the Phuthaditjhaba Industrial Park and the Botshabelo Industrial Park, where a foreign firm has started construction of a new steel mill. The Digital Hub in the Botshabelo Industrial Park has been launched. Young people in Botshabelo have a space to learn how to code, develop games and programme robotics.

New gold

An energy consulting firm announced in 2022 that the extremely positive resource findings for the Virginia Gas Project were, in fact, an understatement.

As it happens, the site of the project is close to where gold was for many decades mined, an industry that supported thousands of jobs. The prospects for the company Renergen, which is the owner of Tetra4, the holder of the licence to exploit the natural gas of the area, are on the rise.

The Virginia Gas Project covers 187 000 ha in the rather flat triangle created by Welkom, Virginia and Theunissen in the south.

Ironically, given the overall decline in gold production and the sense that the Free State goldfields had given all they could, Harmony is prospecting at what it calls Target 1, just north of its existing mines north-west of Welkom.

Provincial assets

International fuel, gas and chemicals company Sasol regularly invests in new technologies and in expanding production of its many products. Mining is reduced in importance but remains a significant employer. Harmony Gold has several assets in the province and Sibanye-Stillwater has undertaken a feasibility study on a property adjacent to its existing Beatrix mine.

In agriculture, the Free State is looking forward to the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the free trade agreement that was stalled by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Free State’s agricultural export basket is well suited to trading with African states and strategies are being considered to promote apples, asparagus, cherries, cut flowers, sorghum, venison and wine.

The Free State produces significant proportions of South Africa’s wheat (30%), sunflowers (45%) and maize (45%) and is ranked third in contribution to national GDP in agriculture.

The Free State shares borders with six other provinces, in addition to the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. A summer-rainfall region with a mean annual rainfall of 532 mm, the Free State’s climate, soil types and topography vary greatly within the province, with plains in the west and mountains in the east. The western and southern areas are semi-desert, with some Karoo vegetation occurring in the south.

The southernmost region of the Free State is a largely dry area with open grasslands predominating, although it is also home to the Gariep Dam, South Africa’s largest dam.

The Gariep Dam