Free State, formerly Orange Free State, province (2011 pop. 2,745,590), 50,126 sq mi (129,825 sq km), E central South Africa. It was renamed Free State shortly after the 1994 post-apartheid constitution went into effect. Free State is bounded by North West on the northwest, Gauteng on the north, Mpumalanga on the northeast, KwaZulu-Natal on the east, Lesotho and Eastern Cape on the south, and Northern Cape on the west.
Bloemfontein is the capital and largest city; other important cities include Bethlehem and Kroonstad. The province lies between the Vaal River in the north and the Orange River in the south. It is chiefly a plateau, rising gradually from c.4,000 ft (1,220 m) in the west to c.6,000 ft (1,830 m) in the east; there are higher elevations in the Drakensberg Range in the southeast.
The economy is mainly agricultural; sunflowers, corn, wheat, sorghum, potatoes, cherries, asparagus, and cut flowers are grown, and sheep and cattle are raised. Gold mining also is important, and silver, uranium, diamonds, and coal are mined as well. Synthetic rubber, fertilizers, plastics, textiles, and processed foods are manufactured, and oil is refined from coal. Bloemfontein is the province's road and rail hub. The main languages are Sesotho, Afrikaans, and Xhosa.
In the early 19th cent. the Orange Free State was inhabited mainly by the Bantu-speaking Tswana people. Afrikaner farmers (Boers) entered the territory from the 1820s; after 1835 their immigration accelerated (see Trek, Great). In 1848 the British, who then held Cape Colony and Natal, annexed the region as the Orange River Sovereignty. After conflicts with the Boers and failure to establish an orderly administration, Britain, by the Bloemfontein Convention (1854), granted the territory independence as the Orange Free State. With the increased tension following the raid into the Transvaal (1895–96), led by L. S. Jameson, the Free State was drawn into the conflict between Britons and Boers that resulted in the South African War (1899–1902). The British again annexed the Free State, as the Orange River Colony, in 1900. In 1907 the colony was granted self-government, and in 1910 it became a founding province of the Union (now Republic) of South Africa.