Union of South Africa: Wikis


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Unie van Suid-Afrika
Unie van Zuid-Afrika

Union of South Africa
Commonwealth Realm
Flag Coat of arms
Ex Unitate Vires
(Latin for From Unity, strength)
Die Stem van Suid-Afrika
Capital Cape Town (legislative)
Pretoria (administrative)
Bloemfontein (judicial)
Language(s) Afrikaans, Dutch, English
Government Constitutional monarchy
 - 1952-1961 Queen Elizabeth II
 - 1959-1961 Charles Robberts Swart
Prime Minister
 - 1958-1966 Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd
Legislature Parliament
 - Upper house Senate
 - Lower house House of Assembly
 - Union May 31, 1910
 - Statute of Westminster December 11, 1931
 - Republic May 31, 1961
 - 1961 2,045,320 km2 (789,702 sq mi)
 - 1961 est. 18,216,000 
     Density 8.9 /km2  (23.1 /sq mi)
Currency South African pound
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Cape Colony
Colony of Natal
Orange River Colony
German South-West Africa
South Africa
Union of South Africa Red Ensign (1912–1928)

The Union of South Africa is the historic predecessor to the present-day state of the Republic of South Africa. It came into being on 31 May 1910 with the unity of the previously separate colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Following the First World War, the Union of South Africa was granted the administration of the German South-West Africa colony as a League of Nations mandate and it became treated in most respects as if it were another province of the Union.

It was founded as a dominion, later Commonwealth realm, but became a republic on 31 May 1961, henceforth known as the Republic of South Africa.




Main features

Unlike Canada and Australia, the Union was a unitary state, rather than a federation, with each colony's parliaments being abolished and replaced with provincial councils. A bicameral parliament was created, consisting of a House of Assembly and Senate, and its members were elected mostly by the country's white minority. During the course of the Union the franchise changed on several occasions often to suit the needs of the government of the day. Parliamentary Supremacy was entrenched and save for procedural safeguards the courts were unable to intervene in Parliament's decisions or policies.


Owing to disagreements over where the Union's capital should be, a compromise was reached in which every province would be dealt a share of the benefits of the capital: the administration would be seated in Pretoria (Transvaal), the Seat of Parliament would be in Cape Town (Cape Province), the Appellate Division would be in Bloemfontein (Orange Free State), and Pietermaritzburg (Natal) was given financial compensation. This arrangement effectively continues today, as most organs of state are located in Pretoria, with the notable exceptions of the Constitutional Court and Human Rights Commission (both in Johannesburg), the Supreme Court of Appeal and Judicial Services Commission (both in Bloemfontein) and Parliament (Cape Town). The only reference to a capital city in the current South African Constitution is that Cape Town is the Seat of Parliament.

Relationship to the Crown

The Union initially remained under the British Crown as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. With the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the Union was considered equal in status to the other Commonwealth Realms, and the United Kingdom could no longer legislate on behalf of South Africa. Thus, a legally separate South African Crown came into being, and the King reigned in the country as King of South Africa rather than King of the United Kingdom. The Monarch was represented in South Africa by a Governor-General, while effective power was exercised by the Prime Minister (who was Head of Government). Louis Botha, formerly a Boer general, was appointed first Prime Minister of the Union, heading a coalition representing the white Afrikaner and English-speaking communities. Prosecutions before courts were instituted in the name of the Crown (cited in the format Rex v Accused) and government officials served in the name of the Crown.

During the course of the Union the Royal Styles of the Monarch were modified, with Elizabeth II being the last reigning Queen of South Africa.

Historical states
in present-day
South Africa
South Africa topo continent.png


As an entrenched clause in the Constitution originally, Dutch was an official language alongside English, but it was de facto replaced by Afrikaans in 1926 whilst officially Dutch and Afrikaans co-existed legally until the 1960s.[citation needed]

Final days of the South Africa Act and legacy

Following a referendum on 5 October 1960, in which whites voted in favour of a republic, the Union became the Republic of South Africa on 31 May 1961 and left the Commonwealth in the face of condemnation of its apartheid policies. Subsequently the South African Parliament passed a Constitution that repealed the South Africa Act. The features of the Union were carried over with very little change to the newly formed Republic. The decision to transform from a Union to Republic was narrowly decided in the referendum. The decision together with South Africa's insistence on adhering to its policy of apartheid resulted in South Africa's de facto expulsion from the Commonwealth of Nations (South Africa left the association when it was resolved that she would not be permitted to remain on the terms she wished).

The framers of the Union had a fairly different conception of race than is presently held by society.[citation needed] Subsequently a fair amount of consideration concerning it occurred. It may be said that the Union was so pre-occupied with uniting the white races (the British and the Boers) into a single race that it enabled the gulf between whites and blacks to enlarge.


The South Africa Act dealt with race in two specific provisions. First it entrenched the vote of the Cape Colony which operated free of racial considerations (although due to socio-economic restrictions no real political expression of non-whites was possible[citation needed]). Second it made "native affairs" a matter for the national government. The practice therefore was to establish a Minister of Native Affairs.

Reasons for unification

At the close of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902, the four colonies were for the first time under a common flag, and the most significant obstacle which had prevented previous plans at unification had been removed. Hence the long-standing desire of many colonial administrators to establish a unified structure became feasible.

Previous attempts to unite the colonies had been made by Sir George Grey the Governor of Cape Colony from 1854 to 1861; he had been overruled by the Colonial Office, though the Orange Free State had agreed and the Transvaal may also have agreed. Subsequently Lord Carnarvon who was Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1874 to 1878 had promoted self-government and federation.

South African customs union and trade tariffs

The matter of trade tariffs had been a long-standing source of conflict between the various political units of Southern Africa. Essentially at the heart of the crisis lay the fact that the Transvaal was a landlocked economic hub that resented its dependence on its neighbours, as well as the costs it was incurring through rail and harbour customs.

The Cape Colony was heavily dependent upon customs as a source of tax revenue and subsequently was directly competing with both Natal and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). At the time of unification the bulk of cargo destined for the Witwatersrand area entered through Lourenço Marques (now Maputo in Mozambique) owing largely to the relative distance and the ZARs policy of reducing its dependence on the British Empire. The South African Customs Union came into existence in 1906, but various problems existed with the arrangements particularly because the Transvaal was insistent on dominating the Union.

After Unification the South African Customs Union continued to exist including the other British territories (the Protectorates and Rhodesia)

The Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia

In 1922 the colony of Southern Rhodesia had a chance (ultimately rejected) to join the Union through a referendum. The referendum resulted from the fact that by 1920 British South Africa Company rule in Southern Rhodesia was no longer practical with many favouring some form of 'responsible government'. Some favoured responsible government within Southern Rhodesia while others (especially in Matabeleland) favoured membership in the Union of South Africa.

Prior to the referendum representatives of Southern Rhodesia visited Cape Town where the Prime Minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts, eventually offered terms he considered reasonable and which the United Kingdom government found acceptable. Although opinion among the United Kingdom government, the South African government and the British South Africa Company favoured the union option (and none tried to interfere in the referendum), when the referendum was held the results saw 59.4% in favour of responsible government for a separate colony and 40.6% in favour of joining the Union of South Africa.

The Union of South Africa and South-West Africa

Following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the Union of South Africa occupied and annexed the German colony of South-West Africa. With the establishment of the League of Nations and cessation of the war, South Africa obtained a Class C Mandate to administer South-West Africa "under the laws of the mandatory (South Africa) as integral portions of its territory". Subsequently the Union of South Africa generally regarded South-West Africa as a fifth province, although this was never an official status.

With the creation of the United Nations, the Union applied for the incorporation of South-West Africa, but its application was rejected by the U.N., which invited South Africa to prepare a Trusteeship agreement instead. This invitation was in turn rejected by the Union, which subsequently did not modify the administration of South-West Africa and continued to adhere to the original mandate. This caused a complex set of legal wranglings that were not finalised when the Union was replaced with the Republic of South Africa. In 1949, the Union passed a law bringing South-West Africa into closer association with it including giving South-West Africa representation in the South African parliament. Ultimately the Republic reneged on its obligations to South-West Africa.

Walvis Bay, which is now in Namibia, was originally a part of the Union of South Africa as it was a part of the Cape Colony at the time of Unification (it fell under the magisterial district of Cape Town). In 1921 Walvis Bay was integrated with the Class C Mandate over South-West Africa for the rest of the Union's duration and for part of the Republic era.

The Statute of Westminster

The Statute of Westminster 1931 passed by the Imperial Parliament in December 1931, which repealed the Colonial Laws Validity Act and implemented the Balfour Declaration 1926, had a profound impact on the constitutional structure and status of the Union. The most notable effect was that the South African Parliament was released from many restrictions concerning the handling of the so called "native question". However the repeal was not sufficient to enable the South African Parliament to ignore the entrenched clauses of its constitution (the South Africa Act) which lead to the constitutional crisis of the 1950s.


  • CJ Muller (ed) 500 Years History of South Africa, H&R Academica 1969
  • L Thompson A History of South Africa, Johnathan Ball Publishers 2006. ISBN 1-86842-236-4
  • L Thompson, The Unification of South Africa 1902 - 1910, Oxford University Press 1960.

See also

External links


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