Harrismith is a large town in the Free State province of South Africa. It was named for Sir Harry Smith, a 19th-century British governor and high commissioner of the Cape Colony. It is situated by the Wilge River, alongside the N3 highway, about midway between Johannesburg, about 300 km to the north-west, and Durban to the southeast. The town is located at the junction of the N5 highway, which continues westward towards the provincial capital Bloemfontein, some 340 km to the south-west. This important crossroads in South Africa’s land trade routes is surrounded by mesas and buttes. It is located at the base of one of these called Platberg (i.e. “flat / flat-topped mountain” in Afrikaans).
The municipality was placed under administration in 2018 after then-mayor Vusi Tshabalala was removed from office on the basis of corruption allegations.
The town was founded in 1849 and named after British Governor Harry Smith, who tried to persuade the Voortrekkers not to abandon the Cape Colony.
The town was initially laid out by Robert Moffat about 25 km from the present location, in present-day Aberfeldy on the Elands River. That site however proved to be deficient in water and Harrismith was shifted to its present site in January 1850. Twenty-four years later it became a municipality and during the diamond rush at Kimberley, the town became a busy staging post on the Natal transport route. As a direct result of this, hotels, stores and public buildings sprang up.
By the 1880s the town was seen as the second largest in the Orange Free State. The increased infrastructure and traffic in the region made fording of the Wilge river impractical. After heavy rains the swollen river prevented communication, interrupted transport and claimed lives. The government was petitioned and two bridges were opened in 1884, one six miles towards Bethlehem, and another at the current Swinburne. The use of these were taxed until 1905.
Harrismith was a major base during the South African (Anglo-Boer) War and visitors can see the several blockhouses, engineering works and a military cemetery that are evidence of this. The town’s main street, Warden Street, is named after Major Henry D. Warden, at that time a British resident in Bloemfontein.
The town is around 90 kilometers west from Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, a town named after Sir Harry Smith’s wife, and a similar distance east of Bethlehem. The small nearby hamlet of Swinburne (originally ) is named after Sir John Swinburne, a gold prospector.The townships associated with Harrismith, Intabazwe located in the north and Tshiame in the west of Harrismith.