Community histories of Nelspruit

Afrikaans community (1884-1899)

First White Inhabitants

It is documented that the first Dutch/Afrikaans speaking pioneers that settled for longer periods in the area where Nelspruit is today, were the brothers Gert, Louis and Andries Nel. They were stock farmers from the Eastern Transvaal highveld who took their live stock during the cold winter months to the warmer Lowveld. They followed the example of a number of other farmers who took their live stock there earlier.

However, no records of who they were exist. In the case of the brothers Nel it so happened that they stayed in the Nelspruit area for longer periods. By 1870, their lengthy sojourns were facilitated by the fact that they had free pasture in the Nelspruit area.  They settled next to the Crocodile River where Nelspruit is situated today. Louis Nel erected huge cattle kraals where the present day Youth Centre is. Prior to their moving eastwards during winter months, farmers and their workers were sent to the area to burn the veld so that greener, fresh grass would be available when the live stock was taken there.

Nelspruit is named after the three Nel brothers. As they were well-known in the area, the stream east of where the main station is today was named Nel‘s Spruit and the railhead Nelspruit. It has to be borne in mind that by 1884 Nelspruit was neither town nor hamlet and that the town Barberton did not even exist. The whole family, including brothers-in-law were stock farmers, which resulted in the fact that more and more grazing became a requirement. Gert Nel, for instance, possessed more than three thousand sheep and four hundred heads of cattle.

They would start the annual trek to the Lowveld during the months of March and April. They would then pass the present day Badplaas and outspan on the farm Goedehoop close to what is today called Nelsberg, not far from the present day Nelspruit. Initially, at the beginning of the treks to the Nelspruit area, the Nel brothers would trek as far as the present Swaziland to the Piggs Peak area. The Nel’s knew Swaziland very well and were friends of the Swazi king. Gert Nel, as a matter of fact, was invited by the king to choose a piece of land for free anywhere in the kingdom. This, however, never materialised. The discovery of minerals and low deposits of gold as well as the Pretoria Convention of 1881 in which the independence of Swaziland was formalised, meant that the Nel family could no longer take their live stock that far south.

Between 1883 and 1896, the Nel’s spent most of the year in the Kaapmuiden and present day Nelspruit area. From 1890, however, they were compelled to pay rent to the government for using the pasture. The northern border was the Crocodile River and the southern border from the Hilltop mountain range to Kaapmuiden, all in all an area of 18 000 hectares! The yearly expeditions to the Lowveld ceased in 1896 as a result of the outbreak of the Rinderpest-epidemic which affected the whole of southern Africa. Many heads of cattle died and the Nel’s lost everything during the South African War (Anglo-Boer War).

Proclamation of the Town

In 1873, gold was discovered at Mac Mac and Pilgrims Rest and this precipitated growth in the Lowveld.  As early as 1874, the ZAR government appointed a commission to investigate the possibility of the state undertaking the construction of a railway line from Maputo to the foot of the Drakensberg. The British annexation of the Transvaal in April of 1877 brought an unexpected end to plans for a railway line through Nelspruit.

In 1881, the ZAR government was again in power and President Kruger appointed a Railway Commission with instructions to put forward proposals for the construction of a railway line from Pretoria to the Portuguese boundary. On 20 July 1883, the Volksraad considered the Railway Commission’s statement. In the end it was decided to form a company in the Netherlands under the name of the Nederlandsche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg Maatskappij (NZASM) which would then be contracted to build the line.

Nelspruit was an important consideration; it was named as railhead for the first section of the construction. The Staats Courant (No 185) of 28 August 1884 gave the go-ahead for the construction of a railway line between Lourenço Marques and Pretoria. With the publishing of this report on 28 August 1884, Nelspruit was officially named and this is therefore its official founding date.

Development of Cultural Life, Religious Activities, Education and Sports and Recreation

As the first inhabitants of Nelspruit were very few in number until after the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) no such activities got off the ground. Most visitors were on their respective ways to the goldfields in Barberton or Pilgrim’s Rest and Lydenburg. One can imagine that the hotel and shop were frequented by visitors and were most probably the places to meet to obtain information on developments in the Lowveld.

After August 1900, Nelspruit also became affected by the war. After the ZAR Volksraad decided that President Paul Kruger should go into exile, the President was transported by rail to Delagoa Bay from where he was to travel to Europe by ship. He visited Nelspruit en route and departed from the town on 10 September 1900. Shortly after this General Stevenson and his British troops occupied the town.


The NZASM was formed on 21 June 1887 and by that year the railway line on the Portuguese side had proceeded far enough for NZASM to commence construction work from Komatipoort to Nelspruit. The Nelspruit railway yard and the proposed town were surveyed in 1889 and on 20 June 1892 the railway line reached Nelspruit. During these months, Nelspruit became the focal point of the Lowveld and goods still had to be transported by ox wagon.

By 1890, the first stands were auctioned and the owners had rights of property for 21 years. H.L. Hall was one of the first permanent inhabitants. He consolidated his stands and called it ‘Riverside’. The population grew as tenants like the De Clercqs and De Kocks joined the ranks. By 1892 a hotel and shop were in full operation and had become a stop over for travellers, diggers and construction workers on their respective ways. The first drinking water was brought in by train as no boreholes existed. From 1898 water was pumped from the Gladdespruit. It was only after the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) that Nelspruit became a fast growing town that later developed into a big town that set the pace for development in the Lowveld.

Agricultural pioneers initially avoided the area east of Nelspruit as the Tsetse fly posed a huge danger. The area to the south towards the later Barberton became prime land. With the establishment of the town of Barberton in 1884, De Kaapvalley became very popular amongst pioneer farmers. William Exall brought the farm Waterfall and started farming with tobacco. His tobacco became known as Barberton snuff, a very popular item. It was a mark of good taste to offer a guest or friend a pinch of Exall!

In later years it became a status symbol to possess a tin of Barberton snuff, especially after tobacco from De Kaapvalley won a gold medal at the Antwerp show in Belgium in 1898. This led to the establishment of a tobacco co-operation. From this grew an agricultural co-operation which, after the war, developed into one of the biggest in South Africa.

This text was adapted for SAHO by Dr. Arend Posthuma, Educational Officer: Voortrekker Monument, Pretoria.


  • Bornman, H. (1979) Nelspruit 75 in ‘80 . Stadsraad van Nelspruit.
  • Bornman, H. (1994) Baanbrekers van die Laeveld.SA Country Publishers.
  • Bornman, H. (1982) Familie Nel van Nelspruit. Nelspruit Country Life.
We are still developing this section. We will be adding information on the English, Portuguese, Swazi and Pedi people in the region. If you have a community story click on the contribute tab


Indian community

Indian traders began to live and trade in Nelspruit in the 1920s. A Mr Boda seems to have been the pioneer of Indian businessmen. MI Gardee, who ran a shop in Waterval Boven, did his banking at the Standard Bank in Nelspruit. He informed Ismail Minty of an opportunity, and Minty began living and trading in Nelspruit in the early 1920s. Minty and Gardee ran the business together, and Gardee later opened another business in Sycamore, which he later moved to White River.

Minty grew the business, and employed several people of Indian origin, all of them living in rondavels behind the shop. Together with various partners, he opened shops in many towns in the region including; Schagen, Rosehaugh, Hectorspruit, Malelane, Schoemansdal and Lomati.

Valencia was the section of Nelspruit set aside by the Apartheid government for people of Indian origin. Indians have had a continuous presence in Valencia and in Nelspruit to this day.

We are still developing this section. We will be adding information on the English, Portuguese, Swazi and Pedi people in the region. If you have a community story click on the contribute tab

Last updated : 18-Feb-2013

This article was produced by South African History Online on 29-Mar-2011

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