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For the steam locomotive, see LNER Class A4 4488 Union of South Africa.
Union of South Africa
Unie van Suid-Afrika
Unie van Zuid-Afrika
Self-governing dominion of the British Empire (1910–1931)




Flag Coat of arms
Ex Unitate Vires
(Latin: From Unity, Strength)
Die Stem van Suid-Afrika
"The Call of South Africa"
Location of the Union of South Africa. South-West Africa shown as disputed area (administered as 5th province of the Union).
Capital Cape Town (legislative)
Pretoria (administrative)
Bloemfontein (judicial)
Pietermaritzburg (archival)
Languages Dutch, English, Afrikaans (after 1925)
Government Constitutional monarchy
 -  1910-1936 George V
 -  1936 Edward VIII
 -  1936-1952 George VI
 -  1952-1961 Elizabeth II
 -  1910-1914 Herbert Gladstone
 -  1959-1961 Charles Robberts Swart
Prime Minister
 -  1910-1919 Louis Botha
 -  1919-'24, 1939-1948 Jan Smuts
 -  1924-1939 J.B.M. Hertzog
 -  1948-1954 D.F. Malan
 -  1954-1958 J.G. Strijdom
 -  1958-1961 H.F. Verwoerd
Legislature Parliament
 -  Upper house Senate
 -  Lower house House of Assembly
 -  Union 31 May 1910
 -  Statute of Westminster 11 December 1931
 -  Republic 31 May 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
Today part of  South Africa
Union of South Africa Red Ensign (1912–1928)
Union of South Africa Blue Ensign (1912–1928)

The Union of South Africa is the historic predecessor to the present-day Republic of South Africa. It came into being on 31 May 1910 with the unification of four previously separate British colonies: Cape Colony, Natal Colony, Transvaal Colony and Orange River Colony. Following World War I, 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.

The Union of South Africa was founded as a dominion of the British Empire. It was governed under a form of constitutional monarchy, with the British monarch represented by a governor-general. The Union came to an end when the 1961 constitution was enacted. On 31 May 1961 the nation became a republic, under the name Republic of South Africa.


Main article: South Africa Act 1909

Main features[edit]

The provinces of the Union

Unlike Canada and Australia, the Union of South Africa 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), 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[edit]

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 Dominions, and the United Kingdom could no longer legislate on behalf of South Africa. 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 British diaspora 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.


As an entrenched clause in the Constitution originally, Dutch was an official language alongside English, but it was replaced by Afrikaans in 1925.

Final days of the South Africa Act and legacy[edit]

Most English-speaking whites in South Africa supported the United Party of Jan Smuts, which favoured close relations with the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, rather than the Afrikaans-speaking Nationalists, many of whom held anti-British sentiments, and were opposed to South Africa's entry into the Second World War. Some extremist Nationalist organisations, like the Ossewa Brandwag, openly supported Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Many opposed moves to make the country a republic, voting "no" in the 5 October 1960 referendum, but due to the much larger Afrikaans population the referendum passed, following the establishment of a republic in 1961. The Afrikaner-dominated Government consequently withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth. Natal, which had an English-speaking majority, voted against. Following the referendum result, some whites in Natal even called for secession from the Union.[1] Five years earlier, some 33,000 Natalians had signed the Natal Covenant in opposition to the plans for a republic.

Subsequently the National Party Government 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 the Government'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 South Africa Act dealt with race in two specific provisions. First it entrenched the liberal Cape Qualified Franchise system of the Cape Colony which operated free of any racial considerations (although due to socio-economic restrictions no real political expression of non-whites was possible.)[2][3] The Cape Prime Minister at the time, John X. Merriman fought hard, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to extend this system of multi-racial franchise to the rest of South Africa. Second it made "native affairs" a matter for the national government. The practice therefore was to establish a Minister of Native Affairs.

Previous attempts at unification[edit]

Several previous unsuccessful attempts to unite the colonies were made, with proposed political models ranging from unitary, to loosely federal.

Early unification attempt under Sir George Grey (1850s)[edit]

Sir George Grey, the Governor of Cape Colony from 1854 to 1861, decided that unifying the states of southern Africa would be mutually beneficial. The stated reasons were that he believed that political divisions between the white-controlled states "weakened them against the natives", threatened an ethnic divide between British and Boer, and left the Cape vulnerable to interference from other European powers. He believed that a united "South African Federation", under British control, would resolve all three of these concerns.[4]

His idea was greeted with cautious optimism in southern Africa; the Orange Free State agreed to the idea in principle and the Transvaal may also eventually have agreed. However, he was overruled by the British Colonial Office which ordered him to desist from his plans. His refusal to abandon the idea eventually led to him being recalled.

The imposition of confederation (1870s)[edit]

In the 1870s, the London Colonial Office, under Secretary for the Colonies Lord Carnarvon, decided to apply a system of Confederation onto southern Africa. On this occasion however, it was largely rejected by southern Africans, primarily due to its very bad timing. The various component states of southern Africa were still simmering after the last bout of British expansion, and inter-state tensions were high. The Orange Free State this time refused to even discuss the idea, and Prime Minister John Molteno of the Cape Colony called the idea badly informed and irresponsible. In addition, many local leaders resented the way it was imposed from outside without understanding of local issues.[5] The Confederation model was also correctly seen as unsuitable for the disparate entities of southern Africa, with their wildly different sizes, economies and political systems.[6]

The Molteno Unification Plan (1877), put forward by the Cape government as a more feasible unitary alternative to confederation, largely anticipated the final act of Union in 1909. A crucial difference was that the Cape’s liberal constitution and multiracial franchise were to be extended to the other states of the union. These smaller states would gradually accede to the much larger Cape Colony through a system of treaties, whilst simultaneously gaining elected seats in the Cape parliament. The entire process would be locally driven, with Britain’s role restricted to policing any set-backs. While subsequently acknowledged to be more viable, this model was rejected at the time by London.[7] At the other extreme, another powerful Cape politician at the time, Saul Solomon, proposed an extremely loose system of federation, with the component states preserving their very different constitutions and systems of franchise.[8]

Lord Carnarvon rejected the (more informed) local plans for unification, as he wished to have the process brought to a conclusion before the end of his tenure and, having little experience of southern Africa, he preferred to enforce the more familiar model of confederation used in Canada. He pushed ahead with his Confederation plan, which unraveled as predicted, leaving a string of destructive wars across southern Africa. These conflicts eventually fed into the first and second Anglo-Boer Wars, with far-reaching consequences for the subcontinent.[9]

Reasons for unification[edit]

The first Union cabinet

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.

South African customs union and trade tariffs[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]


Main article: Palgrave Commission

The inhospitable coast of what is now the Republic of Namibia, remained uncolonised up until the end of the nineteenth century.

From 1874, the leaders of several indigenous peoples, notably Maharero of the Herero nation, approached the Cape Parliament to the south. Anticipating invasion by a European power and already suffering Portuguese encroachment from the north and Afrikaner encroachment from the south, approached the Cape Colony government to discuss the possibility of accession and the political representation it would entail. Accession to the Cape Colony, a self-governing state with a system of multi-racial franchise and legal protection for traditional land rights, was at the time considered marginally preferable to annexation by Portugal or Germany.

In response, the Cape Parliament appointed a special Commission under William Palgrave, to travel to the territory between the Orange and Cunene rivers and to liaise with these leaders regarding accession to the Cape. In the negotiations with the Palgrave Commission, some indigenous nations such as the Damara and the Herero responded positively (Oct 1876), other reactions were mixed. Discussions regarding the magisterial structure for the area's political integration into the Cape dragged on until, from 1876, it was blocked by Britain. Britain relented insofar as allowing the Cape to incorporate Walvis Bay, which was brought under the magisterial district of Cape Town, but when the Germans finally invaded in the 1880s, South West Africa was predominantly unprotected.[10][11][12]

Thereafter, South West Africa became a German colony, except for Walvis Bay and the Offshore Islands which remained part of the Cape, outside of German control.

South African occupation[edit]

Following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the Union of South Africa occupied and annexed the German colony of German 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.

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. 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.

Namibian independence[edit]

In 1990 South-West Africa gained independence as Namibia, but Walvis Bay remained under South African sovereignty. At midnight on 28 February 1994 South Africa formally transferred sovereignty over Walvis Bay and the Penguin Islands to Namibia.

The Statute of Westminster[edit]

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 led to the coloured-vote constitutional crisis of the 1950s wherein the right of coloureds to vote in the main South African Parliament was removed and replaced with a separate, segregated, and largely powerless assembly.


  1. ^ Secession Talked by Some Anti-Republicans, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 11 October 1960
  2. ^ Robertson, Janet (1971). Liberalism in South Africa: 1948-1963. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  3. ^ "EISA South Africa: Historical franchise arrangements". Eisa.org.za. Retrieved 2013-07-01. 
  4. ^ V.C. Malherbe: What They Said. 1795-1910 History Documents. Cape Town: Maskew Miller. 1971.
  5. ^ P.A. Molteno: A Federal South Africa. Sampson Low, Marston & Co, 1896. ISBN 1-4367-2682-4
  6. ^ Phyllis Lewsen (ed.). Selections from the correspondence of John X. Merriman, 1905-1924. South Africa: Van Riebeeck Society, 1969
  7. ^ Frank Richardson Cana: South Africa: From the Great Trek to the Union. London: Chapman & Hall, ltd., 1909. Chapter VII "Molteno’s Unification Plan". p.89
  8. ^ Solomon, W. E. C: Saul Solomon - the Member for Cape Town. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1948.
  9. ^ Illustrated History of South Africa. The Reader's Digest Association South Africa (Pty) Ltd, 1992. ISBN 0-947008-90-X. p.182, "Confederation from the Barrel of a Gun"
  10. ^ http://www.history.ukzn.ac.za/files/theses/david%20mccarney.pdf
  11. ^ P. A. Molteno: The life and times of Sir John Charles Molteno, K. C. M. G., First Premier of Cape Colony, Comprising a History of Representative Institutions and Responsible Government at the Cape. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1900. Vol.I. p.284.
  12. ^ http://www.history.ukzn.ac.za/files/theses/hartman-honours.pdf


Wikimedia Atlas of Union of South Africa

  • Mackenzie, W. Douglas, and Alfred Stead, South Africa: Its History, Heroes, and Wars, Four Books in One Volume, Toronto, Ont.: W. Briggs, cop. 1899, pref. 1900. N.B.: Mentioned also on t.p.: "Superbly illustrated, with original drawings and photographs, under the direction of George Spiel."
  • C.J. 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.

External links[edit]

Media related to Union of South Africa at Wikimedia Commons

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