Memel, Free State

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Memel is located in South Africa
 Memel shown within South Africa
Coordinates: 27°41′S 29°34′E / 27.683°S 29.567°E / -27.683; 29.567Coordinates: 27°41′S 29°34′E / 27.683°S 29.567°E / -27.683; 29.567
Country South Africa
Province Free State
District Thabo Mofutsanyane
Municipality Phumelela
Established 1911
 • Total 11.8 km2 (4.6 sq mi)
Population (2011)[1]
 • Total 7,142
 • Density 610/km2 (1,600/sq mi)
Racial makeup (2011)[1]
 • Black African 94.6%
 • Coloured 0.2%
 • Indian/Asian 0.3%
 • White 4.8%
 • Other 0.1%
First languages (2011)[1]
 • Zulu 63.3%
 • Sotho 28.5%
 • Afrikaans 3.9%
 • English 1.1%
 • Other 3.2%
Postal code (street) 2970
PO box 2970
Area code 058

Memel is a small town in the Free State province of South Africa, lying close to the provincial boundary with kwaZulu-Natal and situated some 1,735 metres above sea level.


It was likely named after the port city of Memel in former East Prussia by a prominent settler with historical links to the Baltic. Today this Baltic city is called Klaipėda in Lithuania. In the Latvian Curonian language of the Baltic states, Memel means mute, silent (memelis, mimelis, mēms) and this same name was adopted by speakers of German who later colonized the area. There is little evidence to support the theory that Memel means surrounded by water.

The recent changes have also brought about a name-change, Memel-Zamani now being the correct name[citation needed] in recognition of the Zamani township - a large settlement to the north-west in which thousands of indigenous Africans reside. During the apartheid era Zamani was separated from Memel by a golf course which acted as a buffer between the two, now however the golf course no longer exists, houses have been built on it and the buffer zone has disappeared. The two townships are now one.


Mainly due to its altitude, Memel experiences cool to warm, moist summers and cold, dry winters. Frost is an almost nightly occurrence between May and July with minus 10 celsius sometimes being recorded. Strong prairie winds blow from the west during August and September and the first rains of summer can arrive from any direction anytime between September and December. Climatically speaking, Memel-Zamani is at its most predictable between January and April when the days are usually warm with regular thunderstorms. The flora of the area is dominated by high-altitude grasslands, with many exotic willow trees lining the river banks and numerous exotic species of tree being planted in the town. Fauna (excluding farm stock) is seldom seen during the day, being largely nocturnal and including numerous species of buck as well as meerkats, aardvark, porcupine, hare, mongooses and occasionally leopard. The avifauna is plentiful and world-renowned.

Seekoei-vlei Nature Reserve, a massive wetland spanning some 30 km², lies to the north of the town and was declared a Ramsar site in 1999. It houses more than 250 species of birds, and the town is now a popular destination for bird enthusiasts (in the early 1990s, Birdlife South Africa identified the town of Wakkerstroom as the most important birding area in South Africa and located its field headquarters there. Some years later it became known that every bird species occurring there also occurs in Memel). Seekoeivlei is also home to some re-introduced hippopotamus, Seekoei being the Afrikaans translation for "hippo". The word "vlei" means wetland. Accommodation in the reserve has been constructed and is expected to open to visitors in 2010.

Decades earlier, farmers built numerous drainage canals to create arable farming land. This dried the wetland out, and only in the 1990s Rand Water started a rehabilitation programme to restore the wetland. Part of their motivation was due to the realisation that clean water could be supplied more cost-effectively by forgoing chemical and mechanical treatment, and rather letting the wetland push its water back into the Vaal River where it augmented the water scheme already in place. The whole project cost two million Rand. Ongoing efforts continue. Working for Wetlands is a program supported by three separate ministries (Water Affairs, Agriculture and Tourism). Headed in the Memel area by an engineer from Zimbabwe, Working for Wetlands annually employs between 30-90 unskilled workers who lay gabions (rocks placed in wire retaining cages) and build weirs to slow erosion and resurrect marshland.


This part of South Africa was inhabited by the San people for thousands of years before the Bantu and European migrants arrived and it was inhabited by Bantu peoples for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. When settlers of Dutch and British descent encountered the area in the late nineteenth century, the year-round flow of the nearby Klip river and the plentiful game to be found in the area likely inspired their decision to establish a settlement there. This community gradually grew until the town of Memel was officially proclaimed in 1914. The character of Memel was, for most of its written history, that of a typical, isolated, agricultural community where apartheid and the Dutch Reformed Church were a dominant feature in peoples lives. While these are still evident today, the town has undergone a slow but sure metamorphosis since the birth of democracy in 1994. Since then dozens of people from outside, some from overseas, have moved to Memel, with many of them seeking a healthier lifestyle than that offered by the cities and lands from where they came.

The high rate of HIV infection together with spiralling rates of diabetes, hypertension and cancer further exacerbate the hardships that people live with. For many years while much of South Africa suffered a crime-wave, Memel-Zamani was almost crime free. This changed recently however with a sudden increase in house-breaking and theft. Local residents responded to this by establishing a neighborhood watch which conducts regular patrols. As with the rest of South Africa, farm attacks have been occurring in the area for many years.

Lack of skills and lack of education continue to pose serious problems in Memel-Zamani. The Phumelela Municipality which provides basic municipal services in the area is greatly affected by this and thus it struggles to provide quality, basic services. Some manifestations of this are; the towns water supply frequently running dry, muddy water regularly being pumped into the towns water supply, roads crumbling away, culverts being smashed by road-graders, water meters being misread, accounting errors and poor communication with the community. Government plans for the future include the construction in Memel-Zamani of a new health clinic, a new community centre, library and police station, as well as the completion of a new sewage works. During most months of 2009 and 2010 there have been volunteers in Memel and Zamani, from Gauteng, France and America, teaching art, sports or English to the schoolchildren in the Primary Schools.


Partly due to the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and wetlands, and partly due to Memel-Zamani's low crime rate by South African standards, the town continues to attract visitors. In recent years, with the influx of house-buyers from the cities, house prices moved from the R50 000 level to around the R400 000 mark but this trend has now slowed due to the global financial situation. Memel's estate agents now report little business.

Many artistic celebrities have made Memel their muse and weekend home. Chris Chameleon, Mathys Roets and Mel Botes most prominently. Mathys is building a recording studio on his farm and Mel Botes is constructing a performance amphitheater made of stone in the classic Greek tradition. One game farmer has relocated his operation from the draught-stricken Limpopo area and (literally) moved his 27+ species of game to a well-watered mountain farm just outside the village. A Capetonian from the film industry has purchased and operates the Memel Hotel.

Among the overseas investors who have discovered the drama of Memel-Zamanis surrounding mountains and rivers are a former British military intelligence officer, retired UN officials and an American aerospace engineer and filmmaker. The donor of the property being refurbished as the National Music Centre of Zimbabwe is a Zimbabwean investor and regular visitor to Memel.

Residents of the town have traditionally kept gardens and small orchards of fruit trees. Some newcomers have expanded that thread by intensively developing permaculture gardens based on rainwater and storm water run-off. Local organic gardens now produce dozens of vegetable varieties, as well as butter, yoghurt and cheese. A Farmers Market takes place on some weeks during the growing season. Four separate houses have been constructed by methods of natural building, including rammed-earth and straw-bale, and many more are in the pipeline. Solar and wind power are suited to the area and much new development aspires to be off-grid.

Some of these developments have reached the adjoining township of Zamani, but still the overwhelming majority in Zamani live in poverty. Unemployment there is at around 80% with most people surviving on government benefits, small vegetable gardens and remittances sent by relatives employed in Gauteng province. Within the last five years Zamani has expanded rapidly. This explosion, in the form of hundreds of shacks, is the result of people no longer being prepared to live cheek by jowl within the original, apartheid boundaries of the township, and so, taking matters into their own hands, they gradually built new, small homes for themselves in the surrounding fields. Their direct action was partially successful with government hastily surveying the area and selling off, at very low cost, plots on which people could build their homes.

The birth of democracy in South Africa has also given rise to a healthy democratic press in Memel-Zamani. As of 2013, two publications are printed and distributed in the town by local entrepreneurs, The Memel Chronicle and Memel News and Views.


In the census of 2001, the population of Memel consisted of 469 people living in 182 households.[2] 76% of the people described themselves as "White" and 24% as "Black African". 75% spoke Afrikaans as their first language and 19% spoke Zulu.


  1. ^ a b c d Sum of the Main Places Memel and Zamani from Census 2011.
  2. ^ "Main Place 'Memel'". Census 2001. Retrieved 31 March 2011.