Why Does South Africa Have Three Capitals?

A Compromise That Led to a Balance of Power

South Africa, aerial view of Cape Town
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The Republic of South Africa does not have a single capital city. Instead, it is one of a few countries in the world that divides its governmental powers among three of its major cities: Pretoria, Cape Town, and Bloemfontein.

The Many Capitals of South Africa

South Africa's  three capital cities are strategically placed throughout the country, each hosting a separate segment of the nation's government.

 When asked about a single capital, most people would point to Pretoria.

  • Pretoria is the administrative capital. It is home to the executive branch of the South African government, including the President of the Cabinet. The city also hosts many departments of government and foreign embassies.
    • Located in the province of Gauteng, Pretoria is in the northeast part of South Africa and near the city of Johannesburg.
  • Cape Town is the legislative capital. It is home to the country's legislative parliament, including the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces.
    • Located in the southwest corner of South Africa in the province of Western Cape, Cape Town is the second largest city in population.
  • Bloemfontein is considered the judicial capital. It is home to the Supreme Court of Appeal, the second highest court in South Africa. The Constitutional Court (the highest court) is located in Johannesburg.
    • Located in the province of Free State, Bloemfontein is in the center of South Africa. 

    In addition to these three capitals on the national level, the country is divided into nine provinces, each with their own capital city.

    • Eastern Cape - Bhisho
    • Free State - Bloemfontein
    • Gauteng - Johannesburg
    • KwaZulu-Natal - Pietermaritzburg
    • Limpopo - Polokwane
    • Mpumlanga - Nelspruit
    • Northern Cape - Kimberley
    • North West - Mahikeng (formerly Mafeking)
    • Western Cape - Cape Town

    When looking at a map, you will also notice Lesotho in the middle of South Africa. This is not a province, but an independent country formally called the Kingdom of Lesotho. It is often referred to as an 'enclave of South Africa' because it is surrounded by the larger nation.

    Why Does South Africa Have Three Capitals?

    If you are even briefly aware of South Africa, then you know that the country has struggled politically and culturally for many years. Apartheid is only one of the many issues the country faced since the 20th century.

    In 1910, when the Union of South Africa was formed, there was a great dispute about the location of the new country's capital city. A compromise was reached to spread a balance of power throughout the country and this led to the current capital cities.

    There is ​a logic behind choosing these three cities:

    • Both Bloemfontein and Pretoria were capital cities of one of the traditional Boer provinces prior to the Union of South Africa. Bloemfontein was the capital of the Orange Free State (now Free State) and Pretoria was the capital of Transvaal. There were four traditional provinces in total; Natal and Cape of Good Hope were the other two.
    • Bloemfontein is located in the center of South Africa, so it is logical to place the judicial branch of government in this location.
    • Pretoria had long been the home to foreign embassies and governmental departments. Its location near the country's largest city of Johannesburg also makes it a convenient location.
    • Cape Town had been host to a parliament since colonial days.