Botshabelo was established by the missionaries Alexander Merensky and Heinrich
Grützner in 1865. Initially it provided a refuge for Black Christian fugitives, the need
for this having arisen from the hostile conduct of the Bapedi chief Sekhukhune who forced
the missionaries and their Bapedi converts to seek safety outside of Sekhukhune-land.
Merensky and Grützner were members of the Berlin Missionary Society, a large and
influential body which established and ran numerous mission stations in the Transvaal and
other parts of South Africa. The Transvaal was, however, its most prominent mission field.
In 1865 Merensky purchased the farm Boschhoek(now Toevlug) from Jan Abraham Joubert for
500 Prussian Thalers, and here Botshabelo was laid out. To protect themselves against
attacks from Sekhukhune, the missionaries and their followers built a fort which was named
Fort Wilhelm after the Prussian King Wilhelm I. This fort is now known as Fort Merensky and
with its "Mediaeval" tower and walls that project above Botshabelo it is a
unique blend of Western and Sotho architecture.
The mission station which developed rapidly and in time became the most important,
the largest and the best organised institution within the Berlin Missionary Society - a
model mission indeed. It was self-suffient, with its cultivated fields, gardens, wainwright
shop, brickyard, bakery, print-shop, mill and store. A German school was also established
at the Mission and German Missionaries sent their children there.
Nevertheless the prime significance of Botshabelo lay in its function as a mission
station. Shortly after Merensky's arrival, and as early as 1865, a small church (which
still stands) was built. A parsonage and other buildings followed. Later on a much larger
church, consecrated October of 1873, was erected. For many years this was the largest
church building in the Transvaal. This church - the masterpiece of Botshabelo - also
stands to this day. A school for the children of baptised Blacks was established in 1873. A
training school for catechists and evangelists followed in 1878. In 1906 a seminary for the
training of teachers was created while a further primary school building was built in the
1930's and a high school with hostel in 1940.
A sanctuary indeed for many hundreds. By 1873 the Mission already housed 1 300 people, and
in its prime as many as 3 000 lived here.
The halcyon days could not however continue indefinitely and in 1962, due to
financial reasons, the Berlin Missionary Society began to withdraw from South
In April 1971, almost as an omen, the old church bell cracked during a church service. To
the black people living there it was a sign from above that their time at
Botshabelo had ended. They left a year later to settle at Groblersdal among other places.
After more than a hundred years of mission work a silence settled over the
buildings, streets, lanes, gardens and fields of Botshabelo.