Review of Higher Education in Regional and City Development 2011-2012: The Free State Province in brief


The region under review:
boundaries, geography and population


The Free State Province, one of nine provinces in South Africa, is centrally located in South Africa and borders Lesotho and the KwaZulu-Natal Province to the east, the Eastern Cape Province to the south, the Northern Cape and North-West Province to the west and Gauteng and Mpumalanga Provinces to the north. The province has an area of about 130 000km2 and a population of approximately 2.8 million. 


The Free State’s landscape can be divided into two distinct areas:  the dry semi-arid Karoo is located in the southern and south-western part, receiving as little as 300mm rain per annum. The second area consists of the north and north-eastern parts which are covered by grasslands, with rainfall increasing to more than 600mm per annum.


The population growth rate of the province is estimated to decline to about 0% in 2010 despite the fact that the province’s population is relatively young. The Free State’s population growth rate has been lower than the natural population growth rate due to out-migration.


South Africa is a unitary state with nine decentralised provincial governments. Provinces are governed by Premiers who are elected by provincial legislatures. The Premiers appoint their own executive councils from members of the respective legislatures.


The Free State is subdivided into five district municipalities and twenty local municipalities. A district municipality consists of between three and five local municipalities.  All municipalities, districts and local, are autonomous in their functioning and the majority of the councilors are elected on a political party basis. Half the seats in local municipalities are filled by a proportional system and the other half on a ward basis. Bloemfontein is the provincial capital where the provincial legislature and cabinet are situated.


The Education policy is designed nationally but the implementation of basic education (primary and secondary) is a provincial mandate. Higher Education Institutions are funded largely by the national government (although students contribute financially towards their tuition) and are governed by independent boards within the policy framework set out by national government.



Historically, the economy of the Free State has been dominated by the primary sector and more specifically, by agriculture and mining. However, over the past 20 years these two sectors have lost their dominant role. For example, in 1990 mining and agriculture contributed more than 30% of the Free State’s economy. By 2005 it was slightly less than 17%. This development has impacted negatively on the employment rate in the province and large numbers of former farm workers have flocked to the nearest urban centres. This migration to urban areas has placed pressure on the available infrastructure in these areas. There is limited growth in the secondary sector and large numbers of jobs have also been shed in the manufacturing sector. Sectors which have grown proportionally better in the past decade are trade, transport and financial services. However, their labour absorption rate is very low compared to that of agriculture and mining. The recession in 2009 has had a further negative impact on the overall economy of the region.


The Free State space economy is mainly located in two areas, namely the Motheo District (where the Free State Capital, Bloemfontein is located) and Fezile Dabi in the north of the province. These two districts, and more specifically the two main towns Bloemfontein and Sasolburg, contribute 64% of the province’s economy but have 53% of the population and constitute only 31% of the area of the province.


The consequences of a struggling economy have been rising levels of poverty and unemployment and an increase in inequality. More than 50% of the population in the region live on less than USD 2  per day, while unemployment is estimated at 30%. The HDI for the region is on the decline and was estimated at 0.55 in 2004. At the same time, the Gini-coefficient increased to an estimated 0.64 in 2004.



The Free State has over 1 000 primary schools hosting in the vicinity of 385 000 learners. At secondary level there are approximately 250 schools with 265 000 learners. The intermediary level is served by four Further Education and Training colleges serving 28 000 learners. In addition, a nursing college and an agricultural college also serve the province, while a number of private sector service providers provide services to the intermediary sector. Two universities, the Central University of Technology and the Free State University, are located in the province and have a total of approximately 37 000 students at both institutions.



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