South African Constitution of 1961

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Republic of South Africa Constitution Act, 1961
Coat of Arms of South Africa (1932-2000).svg
Act to constitute the Republic of South Africa and to provide for matters incidental thereto.
CitationAct No. 32 of 1961
Enacted by Parliament of South Africa
Date of royal assent 24 April 1961
Date commenced31 May 1961
Date repealed3 September 1984
1 July 1986
South Africa Act 1909
Official Languages of the Union Act, 1925
Status of the Union Act, 1934
His Majesty King Edward the Eighth's Abdication Act, 1937
Repealed by
Republic of South Africa Constitution Act, 1983
Provincial Government Act, 1986
Status: Repealed

The Constitution of 1961 (formally the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act, 1961) was the fundamental law of South Africa for two decades. Under the terms of the constitution South Africa left the Commonwealth and became a republic. Legally, the Union of South Africa, which had existed since 1910, came to an end and was re-established as the "Republic of South Africa".

Constitution Set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed

A constitution is an aggregate of fundamental principles or established precedents that constitute the legal basis of a polity, organisation or other type of entity, and commonly determine how that entity is to be governed.

South Africa Republic in the southernmost part of Africa

South Africa, officially the Republic of South Africa (RSA), is the southernmost country in Africa. It is bounded to the south by 2,798 kilometres (1,739 mi) of coastline of Southern Africa stretching along the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans; to the north by the neighbouring countries of Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe; and to the east and northeast by Mozambique and Eswatini (Swaziland); and it surrounds the enclaved country of Lesotho. South Africa is the largest country in Southern Africa and the 25th-largest country in the world by land area and, with over 57 million people, is the world's 24th-most populous nation. It is the southernmost country on the mainland of the Old World or the Eastern Hemisphere. About 80 percent of South Africans are of Bantu ancestry, divided among a variety of ethnic groups speaking different African languages, nine of which have official status. The remaining population consists of Africa's largest communities of European, Asian (Indian), and multiracial (Coloured) ancestry.

Commonwealth of Nations Intergovernmental organisation

The Commonwealth of Nations, normally known as the Commonwealth, is a political association of 53 member states, nearly all of them former territories of the British Empire. The chief institutions of the organisation are the Commonwealth Secretariat, which focuses on intergovernmental aspects, and the Commonwealth Foundation, which focuses on non-governmental relations between member states.



Republicanism was always a major tenet of Afrikaner nationalism. Even when nationalists controlled the government, however, political realities prevented this goal from being attained prior to the 1960s.

Republicanism is a representative form of government organization. It is a political ideology centered on citizenship in a state organized as a republic. Historically, it ranges from the rule of a representative minority or oligarchy to popular sovereignty. It has had different definitions and interpretations which vary significantly based on historical context and methodological approach.

On 3 August 1960, the National Party government announced a referendum would be held in October of that year so that voters might weigh in on the question of whether the Union of South Africa should become a republic. The vote was restricted to white South Africans. More than 90% of eligible voters participated in the referendum, and 52.3% of those who did vote in favour of "a Republic for the Union." [1]

The Republic of South Africa Constitution Bill was introduced in January 1961. It came into force on 31 May 1961; 31 May was a significant day in South African history, being both the day in 1902 on which the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed, ending the Second Anglo-Boer War, and the day in 1910 on which the Union of South Africa came into being.

Treaty of Vereeniging peace treaty that ended the Second Anglo-Boer War

The Treaty of Vereeniging was a peace treaty, signed on 31 May 1902, that ended the Second Boer War between the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, on the one side, and the United Kingdom on the other.


The structure of the government of the Republic under the 1961 constitution was a Westminster system very similar to that of the Union under the South Africa Act 1909, except that the Queen and the appointed Governor-General were replaced by a State President elected by Parliament.

Westminster system democratic parliamentary system of government

The Westminster system is a parliamentary system of government developed in England, now a constituent country within the United Kingdom. This term comes from the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the British Parliament. The system is a series of procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once used, in the national and subnational legislatures of most former British Empire colonies upon gaining responsible government, beginning with the first of the Canadian provinces in 1848 and the six Australian colonies between 1855 and 1890. However, some former colonies have since adopted either the presidential system or a hybrid system as their form of government.

South Africa Act 1909 United Kingdom legislation

The South Africa Act 1909 was an Act of the British Parliament which created the Union of South Africa from the British colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Orange River Colony, and Transvaal. The Act also made provisions for admitting Rhodesia as a fifth province of the Union in the future, but Rhodesian colonists rejected this option in a referendum held in 1922. The South Africa Act was the third major piece of legislation passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom with the intent of uniting various British colonies and granting them some degree of autonomy. Earlier, the British North America Act, 1867 had united three colonies and the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900 had united the Australian colonies.

Governor-General of South Africa

The Governor-General of the Union of South Africa was the highest state official in the Union of South Africa between 31 May 1910 and 31 May 1961. The Union of South Africa was founded as a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire in 1910 and the office of governor-general was established as the representative of the monarch. Fifty-one years later the country declared itself a republic and the historic link with the British monarchy was broken. The office of governor-general was abolished.


The executive power was formally vested in the State President, who as head of state had all powers previously belonging to the monarch or the Governor-General. The role of the State President was largely ceremonial, as he was required to act on the advice of the Cabinet. Actual executive power rested with the Prime Minister, who was head of government.

A head of state is the public persona who officially represents the national unity and legitimacy of a sovereign state. Depending on the country's form of government and separation of powers, the head of state may be a ceremonial figurehead or concurrently the head of government. In a parliamentary system, the head of state usually has mostly ceremonial powers, with a separate head of government, although in some parliamentary systems, such as Botswana, the head of state is also the head of government. Likewise, in some parliamentary systems the head of state is not the head of government, but still has significant powers, for example Morocco. In contrast, a semi-presidential system, such as France, has both heads of state and government as the leaders de facto of the nation. Meanwhile, in presidential systems such as the United States, the head of state is also the head of government.

Cabinet of South Africa cabinet of the national government of the Republic of South Africa

The Cabinet of South Africa is the most senior level of the executive branch of the Government of South Africa. It is made up of the President, the Deputy President, and the Ministers.

Prime Minister of South Africa position

The Prime Minister of South Africa was the head of government in South Africa between 1910 and 1984.

The State President was elected, for a non-renewable seven-year term, by a joint sitting of Parliament in which each Senator or member of the House of Assembly had one vote. He could be removed for misconduct or incapacity by resolutions passed by both houses of Parliament after an investigation by joint committee. When the office of State President was vacant the President of the Senate would serve as Acting State President.

The State President would appoint a cabinet (formally the Executive Council) consisting of members of the Senate and the House of Assembly. The Westminster constitutional conventions that had applied under the Union were preserved by the 1961 constitution, so in effect the State President was required to appoint a Prime Minister and Cabinet that commanded the support of the House of Assembly; commonly the Prime Minister would be the leader of the majority party.


The legislative power was vested in Parliament, which consisted of the House of Assembly (the lower house) and the Senate (the upper house). Parliament sat in Cape Town and was required to meet at least once a year. The parliament of the Union elected in 1958 would continue as the parliament of the new Republic. The House of Assembly consisted of 150 members elected by white voters from single-member electoral divisions using first-past-the-post voting, six members elected by white voters in South-West Africa, and four members elected by coloured voters in the Cape Province. (The number of ordinary members was increased to 160 in 1966 and to 165 in 1974; the coloured representative members were removed in 1970, and the members representing South-West Africa in 1977.) The House of Assembly was elected for a five-year term, but could be dissolved early by the State President (acting on the advice of the cabinet). The Senate consisted of:

Elected senators held office for a term of five years, while nominated senators held office until a change of government in which a new Prime Minister was appointed. The whole Senate could also be dissolved within 120 days after the dissolution of the House of Assembly. The Senate was permanently abolished in 1981. Bills passed by both Houses of Parliament would become law when assented to by the State President (on the advice of the cabinet), and if he refused assent he could return the bill to Parliament with proposed amendments. Once assented to, no court had the power to review the validity of an Act of Parliament unless it affected one of the entrenched clauses of the constitution.


The provisions detailing the structure of the Supreme Court of South Africa had been removed from the South Africa Act in 1959 and re-enacted in the Supreme Court Act, 1959. The structure and powers of the judiciary were not affected by the new constitution.


The provincial governments were continued essentially unchanged. The Administrator of each province was appointed for a five-year term by the State President. The provincial council was elected by white voters from single-member electoral divisions using first-past-the-post voting. In the Cape and Transvaal, the provincial councils consisted of the same number of members as the number of members of the House of Assembly elected from the province, elected from the same electoral divisions. In Natal and the Orange Free State, which each elected less than twenty-five members of the House of Assembly, the provincial councils consisted of twenty-five members. The provincial council elected four members who, with the Administrator, formed an Executive Council for the province.

Other provisions

While the South Africa Act had made English and Dutch the official languages of South Africa, with Dutch defined to include Afrikaans under the Official Languages of the Union Act in 1925, the 1961 Constitution made English and Afrikaans the official languages and defined Afrikaans to include Dutch. [2] This clause was entrenched by the requirement that it could only be amended by an absolute majority of two-thirds of Senators and members of the House of Assembly sitting together in joint session.

See also

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  1. "Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd". South African History Online. Retrieved 20 March 2013. On 5 October 1960 a referendum was held in which White voters were asked "Do you support a republic for the Union?" — 52 percent voted 'Yes'.
  2. Mixed Jurisdictions Worldwide: The Third Legal Family, Vernon V. Palmer, Cambridge University Press, 2001, page 141