Why South Africa has 3 Capital Cities.

What is the Capital of South Africa? It turns out, the answer is not as easy as one might think.

The Republic of South Africa does not have a single capital city. Instead, it is one of a few countries in the world that divides its governmental powers among three of its major cities: Pretoria, Cape Town, and Bloemfontein.

When the Union of South Africa was created, different parties had different views on the appropriate city for the capital. Some expressed concern that allowing a single city to hold all branches of government could lead to too much power for one place. Thus, the developing nation placed the three branches of government in three different capital cities.

The Three Capitals of South Africa 

South Africa’s three capital cities are strategically placed throughout the country, each hosting a separate segment of the nation’s government. When asked about a single capital, most people would point to Pretoria.

  • Pretoria is the administrative capital. It is home to the executive branch of the South African government, including the President of the Cabinet. The city also hosts many departments of government and foreign embassies.
    • Located in the province of Gauteng, Pretoria is in the northeast part of South Africa and near the city of Johannesburg.
  • Cape Town is the legislative capital. It is home to the country’s legislative parliament, including the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces.
    • Located in the southwest corner of South Africa in the province of Western Cape, Cape Town is the second largest city in population.
  • Bloemfontein is considered the judicial capital. It is home to the Supreme Court of Appeal, the second highest court in South Africa. The Constitutional Court (the highest court) is located in Johannesburg.
    • Located in the province of Free State, Bloemfontein is in the center of South Africa. 

There is a logic behind choosing these three cities:

  • Both Bloemfontein and Pretoria were capital cities of one of the traditional Boer provinces prior to the Union of South Africa. Bloemfontein was the capital of the Orange Free State (now Free State) and Pretoria was the capital of Transvaal. There were four traditional provinces in total; Natal and Cape of Good Hope were the other two.
  • Bloemfontein is located in the center of South Africa, so it is logical to place the judicial branch of government in this location.
  • Pretoria had long been the home to foreign embassies and governmental departments. Its location near the country’s largest city of Johannesburg also makes it a convenient location.
  • Cape Town had been host to a parliament since colonial days.

In addition to these three capitals on the national level, the country is divided into nine provinces, each with their own capital city.

  • Eastern Cape: capital Bhisho
  • Free State: Bloemfontein
  • Gauteng: Johannesburg
  • KwaZulu-Natal: Pietermaritzburg
  • Limpopo – Polokwane
  • Mpumalanga: Nelspruit
  • Northern Cape: Kimberley
  • North West: Mahikeng (formerly Mafeking)
  • Western Cape: Cape Town

What is the Capital of South Africa? It Could Change…

In 2016, President Jacob Zuma called on Parliament to consider consolidating the capitals, stating it was not practical to maintain capitals in both Cape Town and Pretoria, as these two capitals are located on opposite sides of the country. President Zuma has noted that maintaining two houses, two cars, and two households in order to properly execute the duties of government officials, is an “unnecessary cost.” 

The idea of consolidating capitals was first proposed by the late former president Nelson Mandela, who commissioned a study in 1997. The study found that if the capital was consolidated in Pretoria, over 1,400 parliamentary staff and their families would have to be relocated.  

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille responded by proposing the country consolidate the capital in Cape Town. Zille noted the country could save money by housing government employees in apartments in government buildings. 

So what is the capital of South Africa? For now, it remains a question with three answers. But that could change.

Sources and Further Reading 

  • Clark, Nancy L. and William H. Worger. “South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid.” London: Routledge, 2011. 
  • Ross, Robert. “A Concise History of South Africa.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008
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