From Union to South African Republic 1900-1976

Becoming a Republic and withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 1961

Celebrating Republic Day 1961 © Bailey's Archives

In 1958 after the voting age was decreased to 18, the National Party (NP) was able to increase their majority again, this time to 108 seats. Verwoerd, like his predecessors, was convinced that unity between the English and the Afrikaner could be achieved only within a new republic. In January 1960 he announced that a referendum would be held that year on the issue of a republic. It was decided that South Africa, like India, would also try to become a republic, while remaining in the Commonwealth.

At this time in South Africa there were various crises that had an impact on the way that people voted in the referendum. First the Sharpeville Masacre (1960) and the resultant banning of the ANC and PAC. Many gave their support to the NP after this incident as they believed the NP could protect them. South Africa also came under international criticism, and in this atmosphere many felt that some withdrawal from international affairs was best. Other incidents that deeply affected South Africans in 1960 were the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Verwoerd, the Orange Free State Coalbrook mining disaster on 21 January 1960 where 435 labourers were buried alive, and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s ‘Winds of Change’ speech. Their effect was to bring greater coherence and unity amongst white South Africans.

Further reading on these incidents:

  1. Sharpeville
  2. British Prime Minister Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech in Cape Town:
  3. Assassination attempts on Verwoerd (1960 and 1966):
  4. Coalbrook mining disaster

The referendum was held on 5 October 1960 and the majority of white South African voters (not just white Afrikaans speakers) were in favour of a republic. Black, Coloured and Indian people were not allowed to vote. Both the United Party and the Progressive Party called for votes against the republic at this time. Some white English-speakers voted in favour of a republic, presuming that this would not affect South Africa’s membership of the commonwealth. The government did not use the two-third-majority rule, but only a simple majority. This went against what Strijdom had believed when, thinking only of whites, he said it should be determined by the ‘broad basis of the people’s will’. The result was 850 458 in favour with 775 878 against, meaning that the referendum was won by only 74 580 votes. In 1961 the monetary system was changed from the British imperial currency to a metric, South African system of Rands and cents.

On 3 March 1961 Verwoerd went to the Imperial Conference in London. His apparent intention was to discuss South Africa becoming a republic while remaining in the commonwealth. At the 1960 Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference the diplomat, Eric Louw had been told that a decision regarding whether South Africa would be allowed to stay in the Commonwealth or not could not be made in advance. The reason for this decision was that it could have been seen as interference with the internal affairs of another country. Verwoerd now needed to obtain a statement on South Africa’s position that would be acceptable to both the Commonwealth and to South Africans. He was however faced by a lot of opposition to South Africa’s apartheid policy. Some countries had been thinking that South Africa should be expelled from the Commonwealth as a result of apartheid, and there had been campaigning in Britain by the Anti-Apartheid Movement calling for this.

Verwoerd returns to South Africa after the expulsion from the Commonwealth © Rapport

The Afro-Asian countries were especially critical of apartheid, with Nkrumah and Nehru leading the discussion. Canada also criticized South Africa openly, and the call was for South Africa to abandon her racial policy. Verwoerd refused and felt that nobody should have the right to dictate to South Africa what actions should be followed. In South Africa even the white parliamentary opposition agreed with him on this point. Verwoerd decided it would be best to leave the Commonwealth before South Africa was expelled or faced even more criticism, and so suddenly resigned on 15 March. It had also become clear by this time that some other countries would leave the Commonwealth in protest if an unrepentant South Africa were allowed to remain.

On 31 May South Africa became a republic, with her membership of the Commonwealth simultaneously expiring. The choice of this particular day was no accident, but was deeply significant in the Afrikaner psyche. The date of Republic day (31 May) coincided with the end of the South African War in 1902, the date of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and the date when the South African flag had first been flown in 1928. The new constitution had been finalized in April, but did not resemble that of the old Boer republics or the 1941 draft as many had expected. It combined the old powers of the Queen and the Governor General and invested them in the new position of State President - a position without a political role and elected by the legislature. Equality between English and Afrikaans was retained.

Date Head of government (Political power) Head of state (No political power)
Prior to 1910 British colonial areas: Governor General representing the British crown which was supreme. Boer republics: Afrikaner leaders  
1910 - 1961 South African Prime Minister British Governor General representing the British crown
1961 - 1983 Prime Minister British Governor General representing the British crown
1983 - Executive State President (combined the power of both positions)