Unlike Canada and Australia, the Union of South Africa was a unitary state, rather than a federation, with each colony's parliaments being abolished and replaced with provincial councils. A bicameral parliament was created, consisting of a House of Assembly and Senate, and its members were elected mostly by the country's white minority. During the course of the Union the franchise changed on several occasions always to suit the needs of the government of the day. Parliamentary supremacy was a convention of the constitution, inherited from the United Kingdom; save for procedural safeguards in respect of the entrenched sections of franchise and language, the courts were unable to intervene in Parliament's decisions.
Owing to disagreements over where the Union's capital should be, a compromise was reached in which every province would be dealt a share of the benefits of the capital: the administration would be seated in Pretoria (Transvaal), Parliament would be in Cape Town (Cape Province), the Appellate Division would be in Bloemfontein (Orange Free State). Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg (Natal) were given financial compensation.
The Union initially remained under the British Crown as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. With the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the Union and other dominions became equal in status to the United Kingdom and it could no longer legislate on behalf of them. The Monarch was represented in South Africa by a Governor-General, while effective power was exercised by the Executive Council, headed by the Prime Minister. Louis Botha, formerly a Boer general, was appointed first Prime Minister of the Union, heading a coalition representing the white Afrikaner and English-speaking British diaspora communities. Prosecutions before courts were instituted in the name of the Crown (cited in the format Rex v Accused) and government officials served in the name of the Crown.
An entrenched clause in the Constitution mentioned Dutch and English as official languages of the Union, but the meaning of Dutch was changed by the Official Languages of the Union Act, 1925 to include both Dutch and Afrikaans.
Most English-speaking whites in South Africa supported the United Party of Jan Smuts, which favoured close relations with the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, rather than the Afrikaans-speaking Nationalists, many of whom held anti-British sentiments, and were opposed to South Africa's entry into the Second World War. Some extremist Nationalist organisations, like the Ossewa Brandwag, openly supported Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
Many opposed moves to make the country a republic, voting "no" in the 5 October 1960 referendum, but due to the much larger number of Afrikaans-speaking voters, the referendum passed, leading to the establishment of a republic in 1961. The Afrikaner-dominated Government consequently withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth. Natal, which had an English-speaking majority, voted against. Following the referendum result, some whites in Natal even called for secession from the Union. Five years earlier, some 33,000 Natalians had signed the Natal Covenant in opposition to the plans for a republic.
Subsequently the National Party Government passed a Constitution that repealed the South Africa Act. The features of the Union were carried over with very little change to the newly formed Republic. The decision to transform from a Union to Republic was narrowly decided in the referendum. The decision together with the Government's insistence on adhering to its policy of apartheid resulted in South Africa's de facto expulsion from the Commonwealth of Nations; South Africa left the association when it was resolved that it would not be permitted to remain on the terms it wished.
The South Africa Act dealt with race in two specific provisions. First it entrenched the liberal Cape Qualified Franchise system of the Cape Colony which operated free of any racial considerations (although due to socio-economic restrictions no real political expression of non-whites was possible.) The Cape Prime Minister at the time, John X. Merriman fought hard, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to extend this system of multi-racial franchise to the rest of South Africa. Second it made "native affairs" a matter for the national government. The practice therefore was to establish a Minister of Native Affairs.
According to Stephen Howe, colonialism in some cases—most obviously among white minorities in South Africa—meant mainly that these violent settlers wanted to maintain more racial inequalities than the colonial empire found just.
Several previous unsuccessful attempts to unite the colonies were made, with proposed political models ranging from unitary, to loosely federal.
Sir George Grey, the Governor of Cape Colony from 1854 to 1861, decided that unifying the states of southern Africa would be mutually beneficial. The stated reasons were that he believed that political divisions between the white-controlled states "weakened them against the natives", threatened an ethnic divide between British and Boer, and left the Cape vulnerable to interference from other European powers. He believed that a united "South African Federation", under British control, would resolve all three of these concerns.
His idea was greeted with cautious optimism in southern Africa; the Orange Free State agreed to the idea in principle and the Transvaal may also eventually have agreed. However, he was overruled by the British Colonial Office which ordered him to desist from his plans. His refusal to abandon the idea eventually led to him being recalled.
In the 1870s, the London Colonial Office, under Secretary for the Colonies Lord Carnarvon, decided to apply a system of Confederation onto southern Africa. On this occasion however, it was largely rejected by southern Africans, primarily due to its very bad timing. The various component states of southern Africa were still simmering after the last bout of British expansion, and inter-state tensions were high. The Orange Free State this time refused to even discuss the idea, and Prime Minister John Molteno of the Cape Colony called the idea badly informed and irresponsible. In addition, many local leaders resented the way it was imposed from outside without understanding of local issues. The Confederation model was also correctly seen as unsuitable for the disparate entities of southern Africa, with their wildly different sizes, economies and political systems.
The Molteno Unification Plan (1877), put forward by the Cape government as a more feasible unitary alternative to confederation, largely anticipated the final act of Union in 1909. A crucial difference was that the Cape’s liberal constitution and multiracial franchise were to be extended to the other states of the union. These smaller states would gradually accede to the much larger Cape Colony through a system of treaties, whilst simultaneously gaining elected seats in the Cape parliament. The entire process would be locally driven, with Britain’s role restricted to policing any set-backs. While subsequently acknowledged to be more viable, this model was rejected at the time by London. At the other extreme, another powerful Cape politician at the time, Saul Solomon, proposed an extremely loose system of federation, with the component states preserving their very different constitutions and systems of franchise.
Lord Carnarvon rejected the (more informed) local plans for unification, as he wished to have the process brought to a conclusion before the end of his tenure and, having little experience of southern Africa, he preferred to enforce the more familiar model of confederation used in Canada. He pushed ahead with his Confederation plan, which unraveled as predicted, leaving a string of destructive wars across southern Africa. These conflicts eventually fed into the first and second Anglo-Boer Wars, with far-reaching consequences for the subcontinent.
After gold was discovered in the 1880s, thousands of British men flocked to the gold mines of the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. The newly arrived miners were needed for the mines but were distrusted by the politically dominant Afrikaners, who called them "uitlanders" and imposed heavy taxes and very limited civil rights, with no right to vote. The British, jealous of the gold and diamond mines and highly protective of its people, demanded reforms, which were rejected. A small-scale private British effort to overthrow Transvaal's President Paul Kruger, the Jameson Raid of 1895, was a fiasco, and presaged full-scale conflict as diplomatic efforts all failed.
War started on 11 October 1899 and ended on 31 May 1902 as Great Britain was aided by its Cape Colony, Colony of Natal and some native African allies. The British war effort was further supported by volunteers from across the Empire. All other nations were neutral, but public opinion in them was largely hostile to Britain. Inside Britain and its Empire there also was a significant Opposition to the Second Boer War because of the atrocities and military failures.
The British were overconfident and under prepared. Prime Minister Salisbury and his top officials, especially colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain, ignored the repeated warnings of military advisors that the Boers were well prepared, well armed, and fighting for their homes in a very difficult terrain. The Boers struck first, besieging Ladysmith, Kimberly, and Mafeking in early 1900, and winning important battles at Colenso, Magersfontein and Stormberg. Staggered, the British fought back, relieved its besieged cities, and prepared to invade first the Orange Free State, and then Transvaal in late 1900. The Boers refused to surrender or negotiate, and reverted to guerrilla warfare. After two years of hard fighting, Britain, using over 400,000 soldiers systematically destroyed the resistance, raising worldwide complaints about brutality. The Boers were fighting for their homes and families, who provided them with food and hiding places. The British solution was to forcefully relocate all the Boer civilians into heavily guarded concentration camps, where about 28,000 died of disease. Then it systematically blocked off and tracked down the highly mobile Boer combat units. The battles were small operations; most of the dead were victims of disease. The war ended in victory for the British and the annexation of both republics, which became the Transvaal Colony and the Orange River Colony.
At the close of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902, the four colonies were for the first time under a common flag, and the most significant obstacle which had prevented previous plans at unification had been removed. Hence the long-standing desire of many colonial administrators to establish a unified structure became feasible.
The matter of trade tariffs had been a long-standing source of conflict between the various political units of Southern Africa. Essentially at the heart of the crisis lay the fact that the Transvaal was a landlocked economic hub that resented its dependence on its neighbours, as well as the costs it was incurring through rail and harbour customs.
The Cape Colony was heavily dependent upon customs as a source of tax revenue and subsequently was directly competing with both Natal and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). At the time of unification the bulk of cargo destined for the Witwatersrand area entered through Lourenço Marques (now Maputo in Mozambique) owing largely to the relative distance and the ZARs policy of reducing its dependence on the British Empire. The South African Customs Union came into existence in 1906, but various problems existed with the arrangements particularly because the Transvaal was insistent on dominating the Union.
After Unification the South African Customs Union continued to exist including the other British territories (the Protectorates and Rhodesia).
In 1922 the colony of Southern Rhodesia had a chance (ultimately rejected) to join the Union through a referendum. The referendum resulted from the fact that by 1920 British South Africa Company rule in Southern Rhodesia was no longer practical with many favouring some form of 'responsible government'. Some favoured responsible government within Southern Rhodesia while others (especially in Matabeleland) favoured membership in the Union of South Africa. Politician Sir Charles Coghlan claimed that such membership with the Union would make Southern Rhodesia the "Ulster of South Africa".
Prior to the referendum, representatives of Southern Rhodesia visited Cape Town where the Prime Minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts, eventually offered terms he considered reasonable and which the United Kingdom government found acceptable. Although opinion among the United Kingdom government, the South African government and the British South Africa Company favoured the union option (and none tried to interfere in the referendum), when the referendum was held the results saw 59.4% in favour of responsible government for a separate colony and 40.6% in favour of joining the Union of South Africa.
The inhospitable coast of what is now the Republic of Namibia remained uncolonised up until the end of the 19th century.
From 1874, the leaders of several indigenous peoples, notably Maharero of the Herero nation, approached the Cape Parliament to the south. Anticipating invasion by a European power and already suffering Portuguese encroachment from the north and Afrikaner encroachment from the south, these leaders approached the Cape Colony government to discuss the possibility of accession and the political representation it would entail. Accession to the Cape Colony, a self-governing state with a system of multi-racial franchise and legal protection for traditional land rights, was at the time considered marginally preferable to annexation by Portugal or Germany.
In response, the Cape Parliament appointed a special Commission under William Palgrave, to travel to the territory between the Orange and Cunene rivers and to confer with these leaders regarding accession to the Cape. In the negotiations with the Palgrave Commission, some indigenous nations such as the Damara and the Herero responded positively (Oct 1876), other reactions were mixed. Discussions regarding the magisterial structure for the area's political integration into the Cape dragged on until, from 1876, it was blocked by Britain. Britain relented, insofar as allowing the Cape to incorporate Walvis Bay, which was brought under the magisterial district of Cape Town, but when the Germans established a protectorate over the area in 1884, South West Africa was predominantly autonomous.
Thereafter, South West Africa became a German colony, except for Walvis Bay and the Offshore Islands which remained part of the Cape, outside of German control.
Following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the Union of South Africa occupied and annexed the German colony of German South West Africa. With the establishment of the League of Nations and cessation of the war, South Africa obtained a Class C Mandate to administer South West Africa "under the laws of the mandatory (South Africa) as integral portions of its territory". Subsequently the Union of South Africa generally regarded South West Africa as a fifth province, although this was never an official status.
With the creation of the United Nations, the Union applied for the incorporation of South West Africa, but its application was rejected by the U.N., which invited South Africa to prepare a Trusteeship agreement instead. This invitation was in turn rejected by the Union, which subsequently did not modify the administration of South West Africa and continued to adhere to the original mandate. This caused a complex set of legal wranglings that were not finalised when the Union was replaced with the Republic of South Africa. In 1949, the Union passed a law bringing South West Africa into closer association with it including giving South West Africa representation in the South African parliament.
Walvis Bay, which is now in Namibia, was originally a part of the Union of South Africa as it was a part of the Cape Colony at the time of Unification. In 1921 Walvis Bay was integrated with the Class C Mandate over South West Africa for the rest of the Union's duration and for part of the Republic era.
In 1990 South West Africa gained independence as Namibia, but Walvis Bay remained under South African sovereignty. At midnight on 28 February 1994 South Africa formally transferred sovereignty over Walvis Bay and the Penguin Islands to Namibia.
The Statute of Westminster passed by the Imperial Parliament in December 1931, which repealed the Colonial Laws Validity Act and implemented the Balfour Declaration 1926, had a profound impact on the constitutional structure and status of the Union. The most notable effect was that the South African Parliament was released from many restrictions concerning the handling of the so-called "native question". However the repeal was not sufficient to enable the South African Parliament to ignore the entrenched clauses of its constitution (the South Africa Act) which led to the coloured-vote constitutional crisis of the 1950s wherein the right of coloureds to vote in the main South African Parliament was removed and replaced with a separate, segregated, and largely powerless assembly.