“For every monarchy overthrown, the sky becomes less brilliant, because it loses a star,” wrote Anatole France. “A republic is ugliness set free.” South Africa’s history betrays a long struggle between monarchy and republic, most typified in the horrendous Boer War between the British Empire and the two Afrikaner republics. Many of the Boers were shocked and surprised by the leniency of the British following their surrender to the forces of the Empire, given the brutality inflicted upon the Afrikaner people by the British during the war. Their old republics became colonies but were granted the right to rule themselves within just a few years of that bitter conflict’s end. In 1910, all four British colonies — the Cape, Natal, the Orange River Colony, and the Transvaal — were consolidated in the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion which became an independent kingdom after the Statue of Westminster was passed in 1931.
Yet Britain’s munificence towards the defeated people could not assuage the cold-hearted bitterness formed by their cruelty during the Boer War. The term “concentration camp” first arrived in the English language in South Africa, but it was the speakers of Dutch and Afrikaans who were interned in the camps and left without rudimentary medicine or food. The photos of the interned tell the tale better than any words. When the National Party won an outright majority of seats in the South African parliament in 1948, the republican-oriented party began a gradual process of loosening the country’s ties with Great Britain. Just a year later, the Citizenship Act was passed providing for South African citizenship apart from British subjecthood. Previously, any British subject living in South Africa would be considered ‘South African’ after two years of residence. Now, it would take five years of residence for a British subject to gain South African citizenship.
In 1950, the right of appeal to the Privy Council was abolished, and the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein became the court of last instance for the country. In 1957, that court asserted the sovereignty of the Parliament of South Africa (consisting of the Crown, Senate, and House of Assembly) in its ruling over the Collins v. Donges, Minister of the Interior case. That same year the Union Jack ceased to be an official national flag alongside the oranje-blanje-blou, and “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” was given sole official status as the national anthem; thenceforth the Union Jack and “God Save the Queen” would only be used on specifically British or Commonwealth occasions. The old Royal Navy base at Simon’s Town, founded 1806, was handed over to the South African Navy, though the Royal Navy had continued use of it under a bilateral accord. The creeping republicanism manifested itself in smaller ways too, as with “OFFICIAL” replacing the designation “O.H.M.S.” (On Her Majesty’s Service) on government correspondence.
The Nationalists bided their time and waited for just the right moment to abolish the monarchy. In 1960, Prime Minsiter Hendrik Verwoerd announced that a referendum would be held proposing a republican form of government for the Union of South Africa. As a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, South Africa would have to apply to be re-admitted if it became a republic, but a significant bloc of Afro-Asian countries rallied to bar her re-admission because of Apartheid. Verwoerd told parliament that he was “convinced that the influence of Britain, Australia, and Canada, and even India … will ensure that we retain our membership,” but despite those countries best efforts to find a mutually agreed solution, none could be found that would be satisfactory to all, and so South Africa announced it would not seek readmission to the Commonwealth when it became a republic.
The referendum was held on October 5, 1960, but with a number of electoral changes made before the vote to help favour the republican cause. The Cape Coloured population, largely anti-republican if not pro-monarchist, had already been removed from the common electoral roll and was not allowed the vote in the referendum. The voting age had been reduced to 18 to take advantage of the higher Afrikaner birthrate, and the white electorate of South West Africa (now Namibia) — mostly Afrikaner or German — was allowed to vote in the referendum even though it was a mandate territory and not part of the Union of South Africa. Despite all these factors weighing in the republicans’ favour, the referendum was a close call: 840,458 votes (52.3%) for the republic, 775,878 votes (47.7%) for the monarchy. In one province — Natal, where the English outnumbered the Afrikaners — the No vote had even been in the majority, and one or two went so far as to suggest secession.
Verwoerd was at least wise enough to ensure that the abolition of the South African monarchy would bring the least amount of constitutional change possible. The constitution remained almost entirely unchanged except that the Crown ceased to exist and the powers of the Governor-General were transferred to a new office of head of state called the Staatspresident, or State President. The Westminster system of government remained, with all its associated traditions. On May 31, 1961, His Excellency Charles Robberts Swart, last Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, was formally invested with the insignia of the office of State President of the Republic of South Africa in the Groote Kerk in Pretoria (see above).
The State President was then relayed to the Kerkplein (Church Square) in the center of Pretoria, accompanied by a mounted escort.
From a specially constructed dias in front of the Palace of Justice and surrounded by various officers of state, he proclaimed the Republic of South Africa…
…and acknowledged the enthusiasm of the crowd that had gathered to witness the momentous occasion.
The Prime Minister spoke a few words himself after the State President have finished his speech.
Many of the changes accompanying the abolition of the monarchy were seemingly superficial but nonetheless important. The old regiments of South Africa removed royal references, so the Queen’s Own Cape Town Highlanders became simply the Cape Town Highlanders, while the ships of the South African Navy were redesignated from HMSAS to SAS. Queen’s Counsels became Senior Counsels (as in Ireland and elsewhere). The portraits of past monarchs were removed from the debating chambers and from the Koningsaal in the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. Still, other royal designations and associations remained, such as the Royal Society of South Africa, the Royal Cape Yacht Club, and the Royal Natal National Park.
Native monarchies persist in South Africa. The King of the Zulus receives a generous subsidy from the South African government, while the Bafokeng tribe under King Leruo Molotlegi is the richest tribe in Africa since a court case gave them a 22% royalty on all platinum mined from their tribal lands. South Africa’s most famous royal is of course former president Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela, a prince of the Xhosa blood royal, and many princes are known for their participation in politics and society (Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi being a prominent example). The British trappings of the South African monarchy prevented it from ever becoming the monarchy of the whole country, but the Nationalists were unwise in overthrowing the system rather than just changing the dynasty. If we began this reflection with a quotation from one of France’s greatest writers, it is more appropriate to end it with the words of the greatest South African who ever lived, Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts: “If a nation does not want a monarchy, change the nation’s mind. If a nation does not need a monarchy, change the nation’s needs.”
Previously: A Good Day in Cape Town