Gauteng’s two major cities are just 50km apart, but could hardly be more different. With its graceful government buildings, wide avenues of purple flowering jacarandas, and stolid Boer farming origins, PRETORIA – or TSHWANE as the metropolitan area is now officially known – was for a long time a staid, sleepy city. However, since the arrival of democracy, the country’s capital has become increasingly cosmopolitan, with a substantial diplomatic community living in Arcadia and Hatfield, east of the city centre, and middle-class blacks swelling the ranks of civil servants. Nowadays, most Pretorians are not Afrikaners, but Pedi and Tswana; and thousands of black students studying at the city’s several universities have further diluted Pretoria’s traditional Afrikaans roots.

Pretoria is close enough to Johannesburg’s airport to provide a practical alternative base in Gauteng. It feels safer and is less spread out than Jo’burg (though don’t make the blithe assumption that Pretoria is crime-free), there are more conventional sights and the nightlife is energetic and fun.

Pretoria’s city centre is a compact grid of wide, busy streets, easily and comparatively safe to explore on foot. Its central hub is Church Square, where you can see some fascinating architecture; and there are other historic buildings and museums close by. To the north lie the vast National Zoological Gardens, while the Arcadia district is the site of the city’s famous Union Buildings. On the southern fringes of the city is the remarkable Voortrekker Monument, and The Freedom Park, a memorial that attempts to come to terms with South Africa’s past conflicts.

While other parts of central Pretoria are fairly safe to walk around if you take the normal precautions, be extra careful when wandering north of Church Square around busy Proes and Struben streets, and also be vigilant in the Sunnyside district, east of the CBD.

Brief history

Unlike Johannesburg, Pretoria developed at a leisurely pace from its humble origins as a Boer farming community on the fertile land around the Apies River. When the city was founded in 1855 by Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, who named it after his father, Andries Pretorius, it was intended to be the capital around which the new South African Republic (ZAR) would prosper. Embodying the Afrikaners’ conviction that the land they took was God-given, Pretoria’s first building was a church. The town was then laid out with streets wide enough for teams of oxen brought in by farmers to make U-turns.

In 1860, the city was proclaimed the capital of the ZAR, the result of tireless efforts by Stephanus Schoeman to unite the squabbling statelets of the Transvaal. From this base, the settlers continued their campaigns against local African peoples, bringing thousands into service, particularly on farms. Infighting also continued among the settlers, and violent skirmishes between faction leaders were common. These leaders bought most of the best land, resulting in the dispossession of many white trekkers, and also in the massacre of most of the animals of the region, particularly its elephants.

The Boer Wars

The British annexed Pretoria in 1877, and investment followed in their wake. Although the town prospered and grew, farmer Paul Kruger, who was determined not to be subjugated by the British again, mobilized commandos of Afrikaner farmers to drive them out, resulting in the first Anglo-Boer War (1877–81). After defeat at Majuba on the Natal border, the colonial government abandoned the war and ceded independence in 1884. Paul Kruger became ZAR president until 1903. However, his mission to keep the ZAR Boer was confounded by the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand, which precipitated an unstoppable flood of foreigners. Kruger’s policy of taxing the newcomers, while retaining the Boer monopoly on political power, worked for a while. Most of the elegant buildings of Church Square were built with mining revenues, while the Raadsaal (parliament) remained firmly in Boer hands. ZAR independence ended with the second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), but, despite the brutality of the conflict, Pretoria remained unscathed. With the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the city became the administrative capital of the entire country.

In 1928, the government laid the foundations of Pretoria’s industry by establishing the Iron and Steel Industrial Corporation (Iscor), which rapidly generated a whole series of related and service industries. These, together with the civil service, ensured white Pretoria’s quiet, insular prosperity. Meanwhile, increasing landlessness among blacks drove many of them into the city’s burgeoning townships. Marabastad and Atteridgeville are the oldest, and Mamelodi is the biggest and poorest.

After the introduction of apartheid by the National Party in 1948, Pretoria acquired a hated reputation among the black population. Its supreme court and central prison were notorious as the source of the laws that made their lives a nightmare.


Mandela’s inauguration at the Union Buildings in 1994 was the symbolic new beginning for Pretoria’s political redemption. Through the 1990s, the stages of South Africa’s revolution could be seen as clearly here as anywhere else: the gradual replacement of the diehards from institutions like the army and civil service, new faces in almost all the old government offices, the return of foreign diplomats and the influx of students.

Pretoria’s metropolitan area was renamed Tshwane in 2005 by the city council, after a Tswana-Ndebele chief who ruled in the area before Boer settlers arrived. The central business district remains Pretoria, but the compromise is awkward, with most media, and indeed most citizens, still calling the whole city Pretoria. Many Afrikaners resent what they see as a spiteful and costly attempt to erase the city’s historic origins from public memory, while many black Pretorians don’t see why a post-apartheid, mainly black city should still bear a name deeply associated with racial oppression. It seems likely that the city will lug two names around for years to come.

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