Formation of the Union of South Africa

On May 31, 1910, four South African colonies established the Union of South Africa, a dominion within the British Empire.

Summary of Event

On May 31, 1910, the Union of South Africa officially came into being, the result of several years of negotiations among South African politicians and between South Africa and the British government. It was an unlikely result, given the events of recent history, notably the Second Boer War (1899-1902), Second Boer War (1899-1902)
Boer War (1899-1902) fought between the British and the two Boer republics—the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic. The Boers, or Afrikaners, were descendants of Dutch farmers who had colonized the regions. In addition to the Boer republics, there were two British-majority colonies, Cape Colony and Natal. By the end of the war in 1902, which resulted in a hard-won British victory, some seventy-five thousand had died, including British and Boer soldiers, Afrikaner civilians incarcerated in concentration camps, and black Africans. In May, 1902, the Treaty of Vereeniging ended the conflict, with the two Boer republics agreeing to come under British sovereignty, with the promise of eventual self-government. The political future of black Africans was left in abeyance. Union of South Africa, formation
Imperialism;South Africa
[kw]Formation of the Union of South Africa (May 31, 1910)
[kw]Union of South Africa, Formation of the (May 31, 1910)
[kw]South Africa, Formation of the Union of (May 31, 1910)
[kw]Africa, Formation of the Union of South (May 31, 1910)
Union of South Africa, formation
Imperialism;South Africa
[g]Africa;May 31, 1910: Formation of the Union of South Africa[02630]
[g]South Africa;May 31, 1910: Formation of the Union of South Africa[02630]
[c]Government and politics;May 31, 1910: Formation of the Union of South Africa[02630]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 31, 1910: Formation of the Union of South Africa[02630]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;May 31, 1910: Formation of the Union of South Africa[02630]
Botha, Louis
Smuts, Jan Christian
Merriman, John X.

Louis Botha.

(Library of Congress)

Lord Alfred Milner Milner, Alfred had been British high commissioner and governor of Cape Colony since 1897, and in the aftermath of the war, he became high commissioner for all four colonies. He hoped to reduce the Afrikaner majority in the Transvaal through British immigration, but the campaign failed, in part because of the postwar economic depression throughout much of South Africa, but also because the Boers passionately opposed the subordination of their culture—including the use of the Afrikaans language, an evolved Dutch dialect—to English culture. Before he resigned in 1905, Milner had begun the process to achieve Transvaal self-government.

In the 1906 British parliamentary elections, the Liberal Party defeated the Conservative government. The new prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Campbell-Bannerman, Henry was a critic of Britain’s Boer War concentration camp policy. Jan Christian Smuts, a former Boer general, journeyed to London and found the new Liberal government supportive of a policy of immediate self-government for the two former Boer republics, which was accomplished in the Transvaal in 1906 and in the Orange River Colony (the former Orange Free State) in 1907. The first elections in the Transvaal in 1907 resulted in the victory of the Het Volk (the People’s Party), led by Louis Botha, also a Boer general, and Smuts, with the former becoming prime minister. The pro-Boer Orangia Unie party was also victorious in the Orange River Colony. Africans (persons indigenous to South Africa) as well as Coloreds (persons of mixed “black” and other ethnic background, where the term “black” was used by those of European heritage to refer to all nonwhites) and Indians (persons of South Asian heritage) were excluded from both elections, in spite of objections by some local English officials. Reconciliation of the English and the Afrikaners was considered a paramount goal, a policy that the British government supported in order to preserve British influence in South Africa.

John X. Merriman, an Englishman who was opposed to Britain’s imperial policies, became prime minister of Cape Colony in February 1908 in an alliance between his South African Party and the Boer/Afrikaner Bund. With three of the four colonies controlled by parties opposed to long-term British rule, the movement toward political union and dominion status similar to that of Canada and Australia intensified. Even in Natal, where the British were in the majority over the Afrikaners, most whites saw greater security in union because the white population was only 10 percent of the total.

Milner, while governor-general, had created an economic customs union among the four colonies and had encouraged railroad construction, which he believed would also bring the colonies into closer collaboration. However, in the Transvaal, after self-government was achieved, Botha, under pressure to protect the colony’s farming interests from agricultural imports from Cape Colony, threatened to pull the Transvaal out of the customs union. The several railroad projects also came under attack as favoring one colony at the expense of another. It was apparent to some that without greater political union of all four colonies, deeper divisions rather than cooperation would occur.

Representatives of the four colonies met at Pretoria, in the Transvaal, in May, 1908, to discuss the economic issues dividing them. There they adopted Smuts’s proposal for a national convention to draft a constitution for a united South Africa. Political union had been discussed for several years, but most envisioned a federation rather than a unitary state. Smuts and Merriman came to believe that it would be best to form a single state. Merriman argued that such a state would be economically more efficient, and Smuts stated that he was afraid a federal South Africa would eventually disintegrate, noting the American Civil War as seemingly an example of failed federalism.

The convention assembled at Durban, in Natal, in October, 1908. Thirty voting delegates were in attendance representing the four colonies, sixteen of British origin and fourteen Afrikaners. No Africans, Coloreds, or Indians participated. Smuts had spent the previous several months drafting a constitutional scheme, and before the convention he had secured the support of most of the leaders from his own colony, the Transvaal, as well as those of Cape Colony and the Orange River Colony. On October 13, Merriman introduced a motion to establish the Union of South Africa based on Smuts’s unitary plan, which the two had been discussing and modifying since August. Advocates of federalism were disorganized and unprepared to oppose the plan.

The convention moved to Cape Town in December, where deliberations continued until February, 1909, when the delegates approved the constitution draft. After the four colonial parliaments made recommendations, the document was amended in May, and in June, 1909, the final draft was unanimously accepted by the parliaments in the two former Boer republics and was accepted with only two negative votes in the Cape Colony parliament. Natal signaled its approval by a three-to-one majority in a whites-only referendum.

The constitution created a unitary rather than a federal state, with the central government having supreme power; it thus established a system similar to the British constitutional system, except with a written rather than an unwritten constitution. The new constitution could be amended by a majority vote in both houses of Parliament, except for changing the voting requirements, which required a two-thirds vote. As in Britain, the lower house, the House of Assembly, had greater authority than the upper house, the Senate. Membership in the Parliament was restricted to white men only, with each province maintaining its previous voting franchise, which meant whites only except in Cape Colony, where some propertied Africans had voting rights. The electoral districts slightly favored rural areas and thus benefited the Afrikaner farmers, and Dutch and English were made the official languages. To satisfy competing claims, it was agreed that the executive branch of the government and the civil service would be located in Pretoria, the Parliament in Cape Town, and the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein.

The final draft was sent to Britain for the approval of the imperial parliament. Representatives of South Africa’s black elite, along with a few South African whites, objected to the whites-only system and sent delegations to London, where they received the editorial support of the liberal Manchester Guardian newspaper. However, opposition in the House of Commons was minimal and the British parliament approved the South African Act overwhelmingly in September. British prime minister H. H. Asquith, Asquith, H. H. probably reflecting the majority sentiment, commented that he hoped that a more enlightened policy regarding native political participation might be adopted in the future.

On May 31, 1910, the Union of South Africa became a legal entity with dominion status within the British Empire. Although John Merriman, Cape Colony prime minister, hoped to become the first South African prime minister, the British governor-general, Lord Gladstone, chose Louis Botha for that office. Ironically, eight years earlier Botha had been fighting the British army on the battlefield.


The Afrikaners Botha and Smuts became the leading figures in the new government, and they were generally supported by South Africa’s British community, particularly its business elements. The leadership of the Afrikaner diehards passed to James Barry Munnik Hertzog, Hertzog, James Barry Munnik who established the National Party in 1914.

In 1910, the population of South Africa consisted of 1.27 million whites, 500,000 Coloreds, 150,000 Indians, and 4 million Africans. Asquith’s hopes that political and legal rights would be extended to the nonwhite majority failed to come to pass. After World War II, the whites-only segregated rule was further institutionalized in the practice of racial apartheid, which did not end until the 1990’s with the release of black nationalist Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and his election in 1994 as president of a multiethnic South Africa. Union of South Africa, formation
Imperialism;South Africa

Further Reading

  • Beck, Roger B. The History of South Africa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Presents an excellent discussion of the establishment of the Union of South Africa. Includes time line, glossary, and index.
  • Davenport, Rodney, and Christopher Saunders. South Africa: A Modern History. 5th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Widely used text on South African history discusses the Union in chapter 10. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • Hancock, W. Keith. Smuts: The Sanguine Years, 1870-1919. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962. Standard biography includes a detailed description of Smuts’s role in founding the Union of South Africa.
  • Thompson, L. M. The Unification of South Africa, 1902-1910. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1960. The classic study of the formation of the Union of South Africa.

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Advisory Councils Give Botswana Natives Limited Representation

Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia

Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations