W itbank was born before 1890 as a land where coal mines were put up. It was a good idea at that time because land was inexpensive. It wasn’t even a town then. At that time, miners like Lucas Cornelius Van Nierkerk were struggling to get their coal “to the market” because of lack of transportation options. Although land was cheap, life was hard. In fact the land was not conducive to farming and so the people who settled there began to raise cattle as a means of livelihood. It was almost a doomed venture to start a coal mine in the area until the Pretoria/Delagia Bay railways passing through Witbank was built. It passed through Witbank, and the rest is history.
Coal became the new black gold and it resulted in a mad rush to get in on the action. Witbank was proclaimed as a town in 1903. the town was actually owned by Jacob Taljaard. In order to turn it into a town, Taljaard has to sell part of his land which he got from a samuel Stanford. He kept a small plot and began to put up his own coal mine. He chose well because his property yielded quite a lot of coal.
By 1921, the population of Witbank was a little less than 2,000. It grew in spite of the problems of transporting coal because of the efforts of one man, OH Frewin who decided the town deserved to have its own newspaper. He called it Witbank News. The newspaper was able to achieve greater awareness among the residents and also with people living outside of Witbank. It was slow start but through perseverance, Witbank began to get noticed.
This was also called the Old Witbank Dam which was built in 1926 by Eskom. It would also be the location of the first power station in the area. With cheap power and excellent water source, Witbank was on the precipice of unimaginable growth. Companies began to look at Witbank more seriously as an option. Rand Carbide Corporation was one of the first companies to set up shop. In 1938, Witbank Engineering (Pty) Limited and SA Cyanamid also began to put their factories and offices in Witbank. The population grew to almost 9,500. This caused a water supply problem so another dam was built, the municipal dam along the Olifants River. By 1960, Witbank was considered an industrial zone.
Other Interesting Facts
Witbank residents have other reason to feel proud about how they practically raised up a city and built an industrial zone. A famous story is about when Winston Churchill stopped at Witbank to hide and prevent being imprisoned. Some of the locals who supported the Crown and Great Britain helped him hide and escape.
In 2006, Witbank was renamed eMalahleni which translates to “place of coal.” It hasn’t captured the interest of many of the residents who stubbornly prefer to call their home Witbank. This is evident in the name of several landmarks whose names have yet to be changed in writing to eMalahleni.