Pretoria/Tshwane an Overview

Pretoria came to prominence in 1852 when it was established as the capital of the former Transvaal Republic, succeeding Potchefstroom in that role. Almost immediately it became a centre of government, and retained that function through to 1910 when it was formally declared the administrative capital of the Union of South Africa. Originally the area had been inhabited by Nguni-speaking groups, known as Ndebele, who had migrated into there in the mid-1500s, but as the immigrant Dutch settlement grew, so then these clans were dispossessed of their lands and forced to migrate eastward into the Middelburg district. For a brief period, also, during the 1820s, the region north of Pretoria was inhabited by the amaKhumalo who, under the leadership of Mzilikazi, had moved out of northern Zululand, and would eventually settle in western Zimbabwe as the Matabele.

Because of its geographical position on the highveld, and its proximity to the Witwatersrand gold fields, Pretoria was never able to develop an industrial base in its own right, and has always remained a city populated by government employees. During the apartheid era attempts were made to artificially give it an industrial base, most notably the establishment of the ISKOR steel smelting plant and the Saturn cement works, but these were ultimately superceded by political events elsewhere. Nonetheless, the location of the Voortrekker Monument, the (now collapsed) Strydom Monument, and a number of other symbolic structures significant to Afrikaner culture has made Pretoria the symbolic heart of conservative White values. Ironically, since the establishment of democratic government in April 1994, many of these self-same monuments have become symbols of the new South Africa.

Pretoria has also played an important symbolic role in the struggle towards democracy, being at the centre of a number of prominent trials, beginning in the 1950s, and witnessing Nelson Mandela’s swearing in as the nation’s first democratically-elected President in 1994.

The city is also known for its profusion of trees, and has often been referred to as the “Jacaranda City”, with more than 70,000 of these lining its broad streets, originally designed to accommodate the wide turning circle of ox-drawn transport.

Last updated : 19-Feb-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-Sep-2011