"Witbank: a destination for the reluctant tourist" Witbank by CatherineReichardt

Witbank Travel Guide: 3 reviews and 5 photos

Up front, I declare that I am a frequent visitor to Witbank, but I - along with the vast majority of the other tourists that it receives - have to be paid to go there!

Witbank (now known as eMalahleni) is a large town of about half a million - if you include the neighbouring townships - about 100km east of Johannesburg, on the N4 highway to the Lowveld and the Kruger Park. The original names means 'white ridge' in Afrikaans, whereas the new name means 'place of coal': an appropriate choice given that there are over 20 collieries within the municipal boundaries. It is the centre of South Africa's massive coal mining industry, and is also the hub of the country's power generation network. This exercises a considerable constraint on any visual attraction that the area might have once had to offer (and in truth, it is pretty bog standard dull rolling Highveld scenery): these days, arguably the scenic high point is a spot in the surrounding area from which you can see four different power stations!

Witbank is renowned for its chilly winters (many mornings start at well below zero degrees Centigrade) and, as a result, experiences serious temperature inversions where warmer air close to surface is neatly trapped beneath an upper layer of cold air. This serves to trap the air pollution emanating from the coal mines, power stations burning low grade coal and domestic burning of wood in the townships, which combine into a nasty blanket of smog. As a result, visibility on the highway is often poor - particularly on winter mornings - and the N4 travelling west is often closed over these times because of the risk of accidents.

Unlike other mining towns - such as nearby Middelburg - which have developed around a previous historical core, Witbank has virtually no pre-mining development, and I don't believe that I am being too harsh in stating that it has virtually nothing to recommend it as a tourist destination. Furthermore, it is not even a good place to stay over, as accommodation is in short supply and therefore expensive, since the available rooms are snapped up by business travellers involved with the local mining industries. Bizarrely, despite the town's lack of obvious attractions, the law of supply and demand means that Witbank property prices are on a par with Johannesburg!

On the upside, it is however a large town that offers a good range of services, and the Highveld Mall (located within 1km of the highway) is an excellent place to stock up on provisions if you are on your way to the Lowveld and Kruger.

The Ballad of Annie

Unlikely though it might seem, Witbank was the birth place of a former Miss World! Anneline Kriel was crowned Miss World in 1974 under somewhat controversial circumstances, as the winner on the night (Helen Morgan of Britain) was soon 'exposed' as a single mother (and thus, an unsuitable role model) and her crown was handed to the runner up, Our Annie.

Annie was a typical Witbank meisie ('young woman') and the personification of 70s South African beauty: blonde, blue eyed, leggy and very, very Afrikaans, with a limited command of English. At the time of the contest, she was engaged to a local dominie (minister) with a very conventional platteland future stretching ahead of her, which was derailed by her being catapaulted into the international spotlight. With almost unseemly haste, her somewhat homespun fiance had been ditched, and she hooked up with Sol Kerzner, a pugnacious selfmade hotel tycoon and founder of the Southern Sun and Sun International hotel and gambling empires, who was responsible for the Sun City complex and later went on to develop equally 'over the top' international resorts such as the Atlantis in Dubai.

After a few turbulent years, Sol 'n' Annie went their separate ways. Annie then changed tack and married a trust fund baby called Phillip Tucker, and underwent possibly the swiftest conversion to Judaism in living memory, much to the ire of the more conservative elements of the South African Jewish community. A few years - and two children - later, Annie split with Tucker, and moved on to Husband No.3. Tact does not appear to ever have been one of Annie's defining features, as, having controversially converted to Judaism, she then married a man called Peter Bacon, who was the MD of Sun International (the company Annie's first husband had established) and Sol's former protege ...

To further add to the soap opera quality of her life, Annie was embroiled in an unseemly custody battle with her second husband, and he subsequently died a bizarre suburban death when he fell from a roof in his upmarket Sandhurst home and drowned in his swimming pool.

There is some comfort for those of us who have never featured in the willowy beauty queen stakes that now, in her 50s, Annie is a plus size model for the Queenspark fashion chain!

So how does a serious-minded individual such as myself know so much about a lightweight former beauty queen? Well, during South Africa's Isolation Years when we were banished to the fringes of the international community, real celebrities were thin on the ground. As a result, EVERYONE (at least in the white community) knew who Miss South Africa was, and beauty queens had real celebrity clout. So,over the years, we have vicariously lived through Annie's trials and tribulations almost as though she was a more colourful (and occasionally embarrassing) member of our own social circles ...

By the way, trivia buffs will of course know that Annie was succeeded as Miss World by Miss Puerto Rica, Wilnelia Merced, whose greater claim to fame was that she later married British veteran entertainer Bruce Forsyth.

More recent famous exports from Witbank are the excellent rock band Prime Circle.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:The Highveld Mall is a good place to reprovision
  • Cons:A cultural wasteland with expensive accommodation and appalling air quality in winter
  • In a nutshell:Best seen at 120kph from the highway, travelling eastwards to Kruger!
  • Intro Updated Aug 29, 2013
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Reviews (3)

Comments (3)

  • kenHuocj's Profile Photo
    Sep 21, 2013 at 4:51 AM

    Jaycees took me to Witbank a few times, otherwise en route to LM at the crack of dawn. Is Clive Hatch still MP for the DP?

    • kenHuocj's Profile Photo
      Sep 21, 2013 at 5:43 AM

      thanks, might you try to get his Phone # for me. dankie baie

    • CatherineReichardt's Profile Photo
      Sep 21, 2013 at 5:46 AM

      Hi Ken
      He's on LinkedIn, but I don't think that I can access his phone number as he doesn't know me. If you know him and are on LinkedIn, why don't you contact him that way - if he recognises your name, you're much more likely to get a response than a complete stranger such as myself?

  • wabat's Profile Photo
    Sep 8, 2013 at 4:27 AM

    Cathy, interesting story on Annie. The power station in your main photo looks like one of those i saw way of to the right en route to Kruger?

  • glabah's Profile Photo
    Apr 18, 2011 at 8:55 PM

    The VT location list includes some four different places with the name - none of them with any content. I'm glad you added this one. From the description I'm sure I've flown over it.

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