from Africa in Transition

South Africa’s Three Capitals

February 25, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Resulting from negotiations between the British Empire and the defeated Boer republics that ended the second Anglo-Boer war and created the Union of South Africa were three capitals. Parliament meets in Cape Town, the former capital of the British Cape Province. The administration was based in Pretoria, the capital of the Boer republic of Transvaal, and the judiciary was based in Bloemfontein, the capital of the other Boer republic--the Orange Free State.

At the time of South Africa’s 1994 transition to “non-racial” democracy, there were proposals to consolidate all functions of government in Pretoria or, alternatively, to build an altogether new capital city, following the model of Washington, D.C., Canberra, or Brasilia. The idea was especially popular within the governing African National Congress (ANC). Part of the appeal of a new capital was that it would be free of any vestiges or symbols of the hated apartheid regime. However, there were strong vested interests in favor of the status quo, and a general sense that the costs would be enormous at a time when the new government was seeking to address more pressing needs, such as housing, water, health, and education. But, the issue has never gone away, and continues to resonate within the ANC. (While the Supreme Court of Appeal continues to sit in Bloemfontein, the Constitutional Court—by far the most important—now sits in Johannesburg.)

Cape Town and the province of the Western Cape are both governed by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), and they are widely regarded as the best-administered entities in the country. In addition, race plays a role: the Western Cape is the only region in sub-Saharan Africa where black Africans are not the majority of the population. (“Coloureds” are the largest racial group.) South Africans will often say that Cape Town is “white,” Durban is “Indian,” and Johannesburg is “African.” Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, is also a major tourist destination.

It is no surprise that President Jacob Zuma in his recent state of the nation address asked parliament to consider “consolidating” government functions in Pretoria. His argument was that it would be cost effective. No doubt there was political motivation as well. Zuma’s administration is widely criticized for being financially profligate and the president himself has been excoriated for spending public money on his private estate, Nkandla. With provincial elections in six months, Zuma and the ANC would prefer to move the discussion away from their financial shortcomings to the “savings” of consolidating government functions.

Brooks Specter, in a thoughtful discussion in the Daily Maverick, demolishes the money-saving argument. He notes the huge costs of building new capitals—as well as the juicy contracts that result. (There is widespread criticism of ANC corruption around government contracts.) He also raises the interesting suggestion that making better use of technology, especially video conferencing, would significantly reduce the inconvenience of parliament being in Cape Town with the executive in Pretoria.

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