The Union Buildings, Pretoria [History and Guide]

The Union Buildings are perched atop Meintjieskop looking down over the city of Pretoria and were my first stop off on a sunny and dry winter’s morning in early August.

They have been described as a modern-day Acropolis, with their hilltop location, Greek design and seats of powers drawing comparisons to the citadel in Athens.

My trip to South Africa had been a hastily planned one after my Dad was caught up in a bike accident but with him getting back to health and dropped off at an afternoon meeting I headed out to see some of the sights of Pretoria.

A Country With Three Capital Cities

If you’ve spent any time in Pretoria (now Tshwane after a re-naming process in South Africa, designed to break with the past) you can’t fail to have noticed the Union Buildings. They are like an ancient temple holding power over the city and country they govern, feeling akin to Zeus ruling his empire from Mount Olympus.

Despite this presence, they do not actually hold parliament. South Africa is one of only 15 countries in the World to have more than one capital city. This stems back to the creation of the Union of South Africa back in 1910. After the Boer War ended in 1902 and the Peace of Vereeniging was signed the British had military administration over the Transvaal and the Orange Free States to add to their already held states of Natal and the Cape Colony. The 1910 Union of South Africa brought these states together. There was also a provision written into the 1909 South Africa Act that the state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) could join the Union at a later date.

I find it amazing how what we now think of as countries could have been shaped so very differently based on the negotiation powers and army strength of certain nations. Africa itself is cut up in ways that made no real sense to the people who originally inhabited it and this union is another great example. What we now know as South Africa could easily have ended up with Zimbabwe attached, or even kept as four separate states. 

In order to balance power across the country and appease the various groups, it was decided that the newly formed Republic should have three capitals. This would mean no one former state would have any more power than the other and also made it very difficult for the country to be taken quickly by force.

Pretoria, located in the Transvaal (Now Gauteng Province) is the administrative capital and the seat of the President of the Cabinet. Pretoria is often considered the de facto national capital and was the capital of Apartheid South Africa. It hosts many government departments, as well as foreign embassies. Pretoria is also located close to the largest and wealthiest city in South Africa, Johannesburg which had boomed after the discovery of gold in 1886.

Cape Town, is the legislative capital and the seat of the nation’s Parliament. South Africa’s parliament consists of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces. After Johannesburg, Cape Town is the second largest city by population in South Africa.

Finally, Bloemfontein serves as the judicial capital with the seat of the Supreme Court of Appeal. Bloemfontein is also the capital of its province, the Free State, and is centrally located within South Africa.

A Brief History of the Union Buildings

When it was decided at the 1909 National Convention in Durban that Pretoria would not in fact by the sole capital of the newly formed South Africa but one of three, a plan was put in place to ensure there was a building that showed the Transvaal’s power and wealth. 

Which Architect Designed the Union Buildings?

Herbert Baker was the architect chosen to design the Union Buildings. He a site already purchased when it was hoped Pretoria may become the full capital and decided on a new location overlooking the city.

Work took four years and was completed in 1913. Having originally been designed to house the entire public service of South Africa the building was, at the time, the biggest in the whole of Southern Africa.

The design is interesting. Herbert had a passion for Greek structures and designed the Union Buildings to centre on an amphitheatre for national gatherings and debate. The two wings represented the two official languages of the newly formed South Africa linked by a large semicircular wing.

You can see the design well in the video below (from around 28 seconds).

The eyes of the world have been on the Union Buildings many times during their existence.

  • Nelson Mandela was inaugurated here on 10th May 1994 as the first democratically elected president of a non-apartheid South Africa.
  • 20,000 women descended on the buildings in 1956 to protest against the pass laws.
  • 100,000 people passed through the buildings in three days of December 2013 after the great Madiba died.

Visiting the Union Buildings

Where are the Union Buildings?

The Union Buildings are located on, unsurprisingly, Government Avenue in Pretoria.

Parking at the Union Buildings

Having made my way up the steep streets I parked up right in front of the Union Buildings. Unlike far too many places in South Africa getting out of the car here felt perfectly safe. It was a Monday so the whole area was quiet but despite this, there was nothing to worry about. Parking was ample and free, with no one searching for tips.

First Impressions

The first thing I noticed was not the buildings themselves but the view over the city.

Herbert Baker chose his site well.

Pretoria is set in a bowl of hills and has a remarkable amount of natural space built amongst the towering buildings.

It is dry at this time of the year giving the city a hazy blanket concocted of dust and fumes. Today was still, with the customary winter breezes unable to clear the air.

The view across the Southern part of the city is largely made up of towering skyscrapers such as the National Treasury or the sinister-looking South African Reserve Bank – which could easily be the headquarters of some Marvel supervillain. 

View from the Union Buildings

In the distance were my destinations for this afternoon the striking, angular Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park.

The roadside was filled with stalls selling the kinds of crafts typical of tourist hotspots around Africa.

I stopped to have a chat with a lady named Munashe who was the owner of a stall containing some beautiful beaded animals. She was dressed head to toe in winter gear; a black bobble hat, thick jumper and fingerless gloves the kind of clothing that would come out on an icy British morning. Today was 22 degrees, still and dry enough to dehydrate a camel, I have no idea how she could sit in the glare of the midday sun.

Crafts stalls at the Union Buildings, Pretoria

We negotiated a price on a beaded zebra. She asked for 100 Rand, but settled on a 5 Euro note that she saw sticking out of the side of my wallet.

Africa never fails to amaze.

The Gardens and Nelson Mandela Statue

Heading down the hill in front of the Union Buildings are the fabulous gardens filled with plants indigenous to South Africa. This being winter and incredibly dry, orange suited gardeners were working hard to try and keep them all alive.

The gardens are filled with a number of notable statues and displays.

At the very bottom, there is a large statue of General Louis Botha (first prime minister of the Union of South Africa) on horseback.

union buildings war memorial

About halfway up is the curved Delville Wood War Memorial dedicated to soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War and Korean War. It is named after an offensive in the Battle of the Somme in which a number of South African soldiers died and is mirrored by a memorial in Delville Wood itself in Belgium. Nearly 250,00 South African troops were involved in World War 1 with 10,000 not making it home alive, a reminder of just how far and wide the effects were felt.

The clear highlight of the gardens though is the 9m bronze statue of Nelson Mandela. It was unveiled on the 16th of December 2013, 11 days after Mandela had died.

It is a beautiful piece of work and unlike most of the traditional statues of Madiba. In most, he is portrayed with one fist in the air, the salute of his party the ANC. In this one he is stepping forward, arms wide and appears to be embracing the whole country in front of him. 

tata madibas foot

You can get right up to the statue from all sides, with no fences or barriers only a small sign asking you not to sit on ‘Tata Madiba’s’ foot! A fair request I would say. The sign itself was broken, no doubt from people sitting on it!

Nelson Mandela Statue - Halo

I was lucky enough to get some beautiful photos, one of which had the sun eclipsed by Mandela’s head creating a halo of light around him. I can’t think of any better representation of such a great man.

Finishing Up

view of union buildings from garden

Unfortunately you are no longer allowed into the Union Buildings and, as with a lot of large buildings, the best view of the buildings as a whole is actually from down in the city.

Despite this, they are still well worth a visit for the gardens, statues and views over the city.

Further Reading











the reeves family picture


Reeves Roam, is a first-hand travel blog. The Reeves have lived in the UK, South Africa and Australia and have travelled extensively in Europe and Southeast Asia.

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