Brief history of South Africa and why it has three capital cities

Tracing the historical tapestry of South Africa reveals a complex narrative of migration, colonization, struggle, and rebirth. This story is not only about the diverse peoples and cultures that have shaped the nation but also about its unique political landscape, epitomized by its having three capital cities: Cape Town, Pretoria, and Bloemfontein, with the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg.

This arrangement, a testament to the country’s multifaceted history, serves as a symbol of its ongoing quest for unity and balance.

In the article below, World History Edu delves into the brief history of South Africa and the rationale behind its three capital cities.

Early History

The history of South Africa begins long before the arrival of Europeans, with its indigenous peoples—the San and Khoikhoi (collectively Khoisan), Zulus, Xhosas, and various other groups—each with their distinct cultures and societies. The first significant European contact came in 1652 when the Dutch East India Company established a supply station at what is now Cape Town, marking the beginning of European colonization.

Colonial Era

Over the centuries, the Cape Colony expanded, displacing the indigenous Khoisan and later, through the Great Trek in the 1830s, encountering and often clashing with other African groups.

The discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1886 drew British interest, leading to the Anglo-Zulu War and the Anglo-Boer Wars, reflecting the tension between the British Empire and the Afrikaner (Dutch-descended) settlers, known as Boers.

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Union of South Africa

The British victory in the SecondAnglo-Boer War ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902, leading to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. This union merged the Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal, and the Orange Free State.

It was a significant moment, symbolizing the unity of English and Afrikaner populations under a single national identity, albeit within a framework that entrenched white minority rule over the majority black population.

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Apartheid Era

The National Party’s electoral victory in 1948 ushered in the era of apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that severely restricted the rights of the majority black inhabitants, while consolidating power within the white minority.

Apartheid, meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans, was formalized in 1948, institutionalizing racial segregation and discrimination. Laws defined racial groups and controlled the movement and rights of non-white South Africans. Image: An apartheid sign, written in both Afrikaans and English.

Resistance to apartheid was met with harsh repression, symbolized by events such as the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the Soweto Uprising in 1976. International pressure and internal dissent, including from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, eventually led to negotiations to end apartheid.

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Did you know…?

  • South Africa stands out in Africa as one of the few countries never to have experienced a coup d’état. This distinction can be attributed to its long history of regular electoral processes, which have been in place for more than a century.
  • The nation’s political stability is also rooted in its foundation, composed of four traditional colonies: Cape Province, Natal, the Orange River Colony, and Transvaal. These regions coalesced to form a unified state, navigating through complex political landscapes without resorting to military takeovers.

End of Apartheid and Beyond

The release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 marked the beginning of the end for apartheid. Subsequent negotiations led to the first multiracial elections in 1994, which were won by the African National Congress, making Mandela the country’s first black president. South Africa embarked on a path of reconciliation and reconstruction, addressing the inequalities and divisions of the past.

Nelson Mandela’s role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa

The apartheid regime began to crumble in the late 1980s under internal and international pressure. Image: A photo of Alan Paton, a staunch South African anti-apartheid activist. 

Why Three Capitals?

At the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, there was significant debate over the location of the capital. Each region had its own preferred city, reflective of its historical, political, and economic importance.

  1. Pretoria – Chosen as the administrative capital, it was significant to the Boers and housed the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African government and the office of the president.
  2. Cape Town – Became the legislative capital, hosting the Parliament of South Africa. Its historical significance as the initial point of European settlement in South Africa made it a logical choice.
  3. Bloemfontein – Selected as the judicial capital, it was central and had historical importance to the Afrikaner people. The Supreme Court of Appeal is located here.

This arrangement was a strategic move to appease various factions within South Africa by distributing power and acknowledging the country’s multifaceted identity. It must also be noted that South Africa’s unique arrangement of having three capital cities is recognized by the United Nations.

Following the transition to a non-racial democracy in 1994, discussions emerged about consolidating governmental functions in Pretoria or establishing a new capital, akin to Washington D.C. or Brasilia, to symbolize a break from colonial and apartheid pasts. Proposals by some ANC (African National Congress) leaders to build a new capital aimed to shed the remnants of oppression and start anew.

However, the idea of a single or new capital faced resistance due to the desire to maintain the established balance and recognition of the symbolic and practical importance of each capital. Moreover, the government faced pressing challenges, such as improving infrastructure, education, health, and sanitation, which took precedence over the monumental task of relocating the capital.

By distributing the main branches of government across different cities, South Africa aimed to promote unity and prevent any single region from dominating the country’s political landscape.

Johannesburg: South Africa’s Economic Heartbeat

The Constitutional Court’s placement in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest and economically most powerful city, in the post-apartheid era, added a fourth dimension to the country’s governance landscape. Image: The city of Johannesburg.

While not a capital city, Johannesburg’s significance cannot be overlooked. It is the economic powerhouse of South Africa, home to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and major international companies. The Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest court on constitutional matters, is also located here, underscoring the city’s importance despite it not being a capital.

Did you know…?

  • Bloemfontein, established as the capital of the Orange Free State in 1854, was selected as the judicial capital due to its central location, which symbolically and practically positioned it as the heart of the country’s legal system. The city’s name, meaning “fountain of flowers” in Dutch, reflects its pleasant aesthetic and central role.
  • Pretoria’s history as a center for foreign embassies, governmental departments, and as the site where the peace treaty ending the First Boer War was signed, underscored its importance. Its proximity to Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic hub, further solidified its status as a key city in the nation’s governance.
  • Cape Town’s role as the legislative capital is rooted in its deep historical significance. As a crucial stopover on the spice trade route from the 15th century and later as a way-station established by the Dutch East India Company in the 1650s, Cape Town has been at the forefront of South Africa’s history. Serving as the capital of the British Cape Province since 1840, its selection maintained continuity with its long-standing administrative role.

South Africa’s history is marked by periods of conflict and cooperation, oppression, and liberation. The arrangement of having three capitals is a physical manifestation of the country’s complex past and its efforts to build a future that honors its diverse heritage. Image: Union buildings in Pretoria. 

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