Union Building - Governmental Nucleus of South Africa

Herbert Baker was commissioned in 1910 to design the Union Building in Pretoria. This was to become the administrative center for the Government of the Union of South Africa, and in November 1910 the corner brick was laid. The Union of South Africa only changed its name to the Republic of South Africa in 1961 upon gaining independence from Britain.

Bakers vision was to resemble Acropolis City in Greece in the English monumental style of light sandstone, and chose a site which had a sprawling view of Salvo Kop, also known as Meintjies Kop, in Pretoria. The excavation sites of this area, which was a disused quarry, became the foundations of the amphitheatre, complete with sculptures, fountains and ornamental pools. The backdrop of the amphitheatre forms the semicircular colonnade that joins together the identical office blocks on either side. There are three inner courtyards built into each office block, which stands three stories above ground with a basement below. The curved building behind the colonnade houses the conference room, library and committee rooms, while the kitchen, lounges and dining rooms are located in the basement. The interior was decorated with white plaster walls, heavy doors, teak fanlights, dark ceiling beams and wood furniture. The courtyards were furnished with granite and the wood paneling from Rhodesian Teak and Stinkwood. The 275 meter long Union Building in Pretoria was completed in 1913.

In 1956, a group of women 20,000 strong, marched to the doors of the Union Building, chanting “Wathint’ Abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo!” which means “strike the women, strike the rock”. When Wilma Cruise and Marcus Holmes were approached to design a memorial to commemorate the Women’s March, they made use of the “imbokodo”. The imbokodo is a grinding stone used by the women to grind maize. Cruise and Holmes, rested the imbokodo, representing nurturing and sustenance, on bronze plates, representing the earth and fire. There are two sets of stairs leading to the memorial, and on each step, raised in bronzed letters are the words from ‘The Demand of the Women of South Africa for the Withdrawal of Passes for Women and Repeal of the Pass Laws.’ On approaching the imbokodo, you will trigger infrared beams, which activates history’s “whispered voices”, echoed in all eleven official languages, the rally cry, repeated softly.

Over the years, the history connected to this building has grown, and this is where, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa in 1994. And today, the Union Building is the residence of the current presidency, President Jacob Zuma and his government.


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