Charlestown: KwaZulu-Natal's Forgotten Town

Tucked away in KwaZulu-Natal's rich tapestry of towns and villages, Charlestown stands as a testament to the changing tides of history. Situated at the pinnacle of Laing's Nek pass, nestled between Newcastle and Volksrust, this small town has witnessed the ebb and flow of South African socio-political and economic changes.

The early significance of Charlestown lay in its position as a crucial railway station and customs post. This role was carved out in 1891, during a period when the regions of Natal and Transvaal maintained a distinct identity. Goods, ideas, and people constantly flowed through Charlestown, making it an indispensable bridge between these two territories.

Interestingly, Charlestown wasn't just named on a whim or after a geographical feature. The town owes its name to Sir Charles Mitchell, the then governor of Natal. It's a homage to his leadership and a reminder of the town's colonial roots.

The year 1910 was a turning point for Charlestown as the Union of South Africa was established. This political move saw the dissolution of customs tariffs, leading to a decline in the town's strategic importance as a customs post.

Like many places, Charlestown wasn't immune to personal tragedies. In 1927, it bore witness to one of South Africa's first recorded mass shootings. A local farmer, Stephanus Swart, unleashed terror on the town, resulting in the death of eight innocent lives. The reasons behind this act remain a dark mystery in Charlestown's history.

Post its peak years, Charlestown morphed into a dormitory suburb for Volksrust, situated just a stone's throw away across the border in Transvaal. This change saw an influx of black individuals purchasing freehold land, making the town their home.

However, the 1960s presented Charlestown with one of its most challenging periods. The apartheid regime's policies took a harsh toll on the town's demographics. Black inhabitants, who had found a home in Charlestown, faced forced removals. They were relocated to Madadeni, closer to Newcastle. This drastic and inhumane reshuffling turned Charlestown into a virtual ghost town, its streets echoing the memories of a once-thriving community.

The story of Charlestown is a microcosm of South Africa's broader history. It encapsulates colonial beginnings, the promise of economic growth, tragic incidents, and the dark shadow of apartheid. Today, as one traverses through its streets, it's essential to remember the tales it holds, ensuring that its history is neither forgotten nor repeated.