Union of South Africa


The Union of South Africa ( nl, Unie van Zuid-Afrika; af, Unie van Suid-Afrika ) was the historical predecessor to the present-day . It came into existence on 31 May 1910 with the unification of the , the , the , and the colonies. It included the territories that were formerly a part of the and the . Following , the Union of South Africa was a signatory of the and became one of the of the . It was conferred the administration of (now known as ) as a . It became treated in most respects as another province of the Union, but it never was formally annexed. Like and , the Union of South Africa was a of the . Its full sovereignty was confirmed with the and the . It was governed under a form of , with the Crown being represented by a governor-general. The Union came to an end with the enactment of the , by which it became a and left the .


Main features

The Union of South Africa was a , rather than a like Canada and Australia, with each colony's parliaments being abolished and replaced with s. A was created, consisting of the and , with members of the parliament being elected mostly by the country's white minority. During the course of the Union, the franchise changed on several occasions always to suit the needs of the government of the day. Parliamentary supremacy was a convention of the constitution, inherited from the United Kingdom; save for procedural safeguards in respect of the entrenched sections of franchise and language, the courts were unable to intervene in Parliament's decisions.


Owing to disagreements over where the Union's 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 (Transvaal), the would be in (Cape Province), the would be in (Orange Free State), while archives would be in (Natal). Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg were given financial compensation. Since was never officially annexed as a fifth province, its capital, , was never officially recognized as the country's fifth capital.

Relationship to the Crown

The Union initially remained under the as a self-governing of the . With the passage of the in 1931, the Union and other dominions became equal in status to the United Kingdom, and the Parliament of the United Kingdom could no longer legislate on behalf of them. This had the effect of making the Union and the other dominions ''de jure'' sovereign nations. The , passed by the South African Parliament in 1934, incorporated the applicable portions of the Statute of Westminster into South African law, underscoring its status as a sovereign nation. It removed what remaining authority Whitehall had to legislate for South Africa, as well as any nominal role that the Crown had in granting . The Governor-General was now required to sign or veto bills passed by Parliament, without the option of seeking advice from London. The Monarch was represented in South Africa by a , while effective power was exercised by the Executive Council, headed by the . , formerly a general, was appointed first Prime Minister of the Union, heading a coalition representing the white 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.


An in the Constitution mentioned and English as s of the Union, but the meaning of Dutch was changed by the to include both Dutch and Afrikaans.

Final days of the South Africa Act and legacy

Most English-speaking whites in South Africa supported the of , which favoured close relations with the United Kingdom and the , unlike the Afrikaans-speaking , which had held anti-British sentiments and was opposed to South Africa's intervention in the . Some Nationalist organisations, like the ', were openly supportive of during the . Most English-speaking South Africans were opposed to the creation of a , many of them voting "no" in the 5 October 1960 . But due to the much larger number of Afrikaans-speaking voters, the referendum passed, leading to the establishment of a republic in 1961. The government led by the National Party consequently withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth. Following the results of the referendum, some whites in Natal, which had an English-speaking majority, called for secession from the Union. Five years earlier, some 33,000 Natalians had signed the in opposition to the plans for a republic. Subsequently, the National Party government had passed a that repealed the . 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 South African Government's insistence on adhering to its policy of resulted in South Africa's ''de facto'' expulsion from the .


The dealt with race in two specific provisions. First it entrenched the liberal (by South African standards) system of the which operated free of any racial considerations (although due to socio-economic restrictions no real political expression of non-whites was possible). The Cape at the time, , 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. According to Stephen Howe, colonialism in some cases—most obviously among white minorities in South Africa—meant mainly that these violent settlers wanted to maintain more racial inequalities than the colonial empire found just.

Previous attempts at unification

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

Early unification attempt under Sir George Grey (1850s)

Sir , the 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. His idea was greeted with cautious optimism in southern Africa; the agreed to the idea in principle and the may also eventually have agreed. However, he was overruled by the 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)

In the 1870s, the London Colonial Office, under , decided to apply a system of 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 were still simmering after the last bout of British expansion, and inter-state tensions were high. The this time refused to even discuss the idea, and Prime Minister of the 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. The model was also correctly seen as unsuitable for the disparate entities of , with their wildly different sizes, economies and political systems. The Molteno Unification Plan (1877), put forward by the Cape government as a more feasible alternative to , 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 through a system of treaties, whilst simultaneously gaining elected seats in the . 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. At the other extreme, another powerful Cape politician at the time, , proposed an extremely loose system of federation, with the component states preserving their very different constitutions and systems of franchise. 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 unravelled as predicted, leaving a string of destructive wars across southern Africa. These conflicts eventually fed into the first and second s, with far-reaching consequences for the subcontinent.

Second Boer War (1899–1902)

After the discovery of gold in the 1880s, thousands of British men flocked to the gold mines of the (Transvaal) and the . The newly arrived miners, though needed for the mines, were distrusted by the politically dominant Afrikaners, who called them "s", imposed heavy taxes on them and granted them very limited civil rights, with no right to vote. The United Kingdom, wanting the gold and diamond mines and highly protective of its own citizens, demanded reforms, which the Afrikaners rejected. A small-scale private British effort to overthrow Transvaal's President , the of 1895, proved a fiasco, and presaged full-scale conflict as diplomatic efforts all failed. The Second Boer War started on 11 October 1899 and ended on 31 May 1902. The United Kingdom gained the support of its Cape Colony, of its Colony of Natal and of some African allies. Volunteers from across the British Empire further supplemented the British war-effort. All other nations remained neutral, but public opinion in them was largely hostile to Britain. Inside Britain and its Empire there was also significant because of the atrocities and military failures. The British were overconfident and under-prepared. Prime Minister and his top officials, especially , ignored the repeated warnings of military advisors that the Boers were well prepared, well armed, and fighting for their homes in a very difficult terrain. The Boers struck first, besieging Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking in early 1900, and winning important battles at (15 December 1899), Magersfontein and (10 December 1899). Staggered, the British fought back, relieved the besieged cities, and prepared to invade first the Orange Free State, and then Transvaal in late 1900. The Boers refused to surrender or negotiate, and reverted to . After two years of hard fighting, Britain, using over 400,000 soldiers, systematically destroyed Boer resistance, raising worldwide complaints about brutality. The Boers fought for their homes and families, which provided them with food and hiding places. The British responded by forcefully relocating all the Boer civilians into heavily guarded , where about 28,000 died of disease, while British military forces systematically blocked off and tracked down the highly mobile Boer combat units. The battles were small operations; most of the dead succumbed to disease. The war ended in victory for the British and the annexation of both Boer republics, which became the and the .

History of the Union of South Africa

National Convention

The was a held between 1908 and 1909 in (12 October to 5 November 1908), (23 November to 18 December 1908, 11 January to 3 February 1909) and (3 to 11 May 1909). This convention led to the 's adoption of the , which ratified the Union. The four colonies that would become South Africa were represented, along with a delegation from . The 33 delegates assembled behind closed doors, in the fear that a public affair would lead delegates to refuse compromising on contentious areas. The delegates drew up a constitution that would, subject to some amendments by the British government, become the South Africa Act, which was South Africa's constitution between 1910 and 1961, when the country became a under the .

Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia

In 1922 the colony of had a chance (but ultimately rejected) to join the Union through a . The referendum resulted from the fact that by 1920 rule in Southern Rhodesia was no longer practical with many favouring some form of ''. Some favoured responsible government within Southern Rhodesia while others (especially in ) favoured membership in the Union of South Africa. Politician claimed that such membership with the Union would make Southern Rhodesia the " of South Africa". Prior to the referendum, representatives of Southern Rhodesia visited Cape Town where the Prime Minister of South Africa, , 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.

Union of South Africa and South West Africa


The inhospitable coast of what is now the remained uncolonised up until the end of the 19th century. From 1874, the leaders of several indigenous peoples, notably of the nation, approached the to the south. Anticipating invasion by a European power and already suffering from the north and from the south, these leaders approached the 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 and legal protection for traditional land rights, was at the time considered marginally preferable to annexation by either the or the . In response, the appointed a special Commission under , to travel to the territory between the and s and to confer with these leaders regarding accession to the Cape. In the negotiations with the , some indigenous nations such as the and the Herero responded positively (October 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 as an exclave, which was brought under the magisterial district of , but when the Germans established a protectorate over the area in 1884, South West Africa was predominantly autonomous. Thereafter, became a , except for and the which remained part of the Cape, outside of German control.

South African occupation

Following the outbreak of the in 1914, the Union of South Africa occupied and annexed the German colony of . With the establishment of the and cessation of the war, South Africa obtained a 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 , 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 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. , which is now in , was originally a part of the Union of South Africa as an 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 republican era.

Statute of Westminster

The passed by the in December 1931, which repealed the and implemented the , 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 ) which led to the 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.


The military of the Union of South Africa was the (UDF) until 1957, when it became the .

Flag/Coat of arms

Red Ensign of South Africa (1910–1912).svg, Flag (1910–1912) Red Ensign of South Africa (1912–1951).svg, Flag (1912–1928) Flag of South Africa (1928–1994).svg, Flag (1928–1994) Coat of arms of South Africa (1910–1930).svg, Coat of arms (1910–1930) Coat of arms of South Africa (1930–1932).svg, Coat of arms (1930–1932) Coat of arms of South Africa (1932–2000).svg, Coat of arms (1932–2000)

See also

* *, kingdom which resisted British attempts at incorporation into the Union of South Africa. * , a kingdom lying entirely within the borders of the Union of South Africa that likewise to Swaziland, resisted similar such attempts.




* Beck, Roger B. ''The History of South Africa'' (Greenwood, 2000). * Davenport, Thomas, and Christopher Saunders. ''South Africa: A modern history'' (Springer, 2000). * Eze, M. ''Intellectual history in contemporary South Africa'' (Springer, 2016). * * Ross, Robert. ''A Concise History of South Africa'' (2009) * Thompson, Leonard, and Lynn Berat. ''A History of South Africa'' (4th ed. 2014) * Thompson, Leonard. ''The Unification of South Africa 1902 – 1910'' (Oxford UP, 1960). * Welsh, Frank. ''A History of South Africa'' (2000).

External links

* {{DEFAULTSORT:Union Of South Africa Articles containing video clips