Story by David P. Bargueño

History sits uneasily alongside the present in Pretoria, the administrative capital of the Republic of South Africa. Even the physical landscape speaks to the legacies of the past. On one hill sits Freedom Park, opened at the recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the nation’s transition to democracy 25 years ago. The impressive memorial honors those who died in the liberation struggle against apartheid, as well as South African heroes of World War I and II and the two national wars between the British settlers and Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch-speaking settlers.

On a hill adjacent to Freedom Park is the Voortrekker Monument, which commemorates the Afrikaners who migrated by covered wagon from the British Cape Colony in the mid-nineteenth century. Opened by the first leader of the apartheid government, the granite structure houses the world’s longest marble frieze and to this day is one of the most visited monuments in the country. On the third hill—and the city’s highest point—are the Union Buildings, the official seat of the presidency, with clock chimes identical to those of the Big Ben in London. A statue of Nelson Mandela overlooks the gardens and law prohibits any building from obstructing the view between the Union Buildings and the Voortrekker Monument. 

POM-Pretoria Image 2
Spring in Pretoria brings wonderful and vibrant jacaranda. Photo by Vanessa Bentley

Beneath these three monuments, but still 4,000 feet above sea level on the Highveld plateau, is a city with as many names as it has contested histories. Dating back to 1855, the name of Pretoria is derived from the Afrikaner folk hero Andries Pretorius, who defeated thousands of Zulu warriors at the Battle of Blood River in present-day KwaZulu-Natal province. In 1910, Pretoria became the administrative capital of the Union of South Africa, which brought the two independent Boer Republics and two former British colonies together under one flag. Since then, the city has served as the capital for executive power, evolving from the beating heart of apartheid in 1948, to the spirit of Afrikaner republicanism with the country’s formal withdrawal from the British Commonwealth in 1961 and finally into a beacon of hope with the dawn of multi-racial democracy in 1994.

Situated within the arc of this history is the U.S. Mission; formal diplomatic relations between the two nations date back to 1929. In addition to serving and protecting American citizens in South Africa, Embassy Pretoria works hand in glove with the U.S. Consulates General in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban to advance the interests of the United States, particularly in health, investment and education. Today, 28 U.S. government agencies employ approximately 1,200 U.S. and locally employed staff. Together with the consulates, Embassy Pretoria partners with South Africans as they build one of the most robust and prosperous democracies on the continent.

Reflecting transformation efforts during the mid-2000s and amid the nation-wide campaign to redefine cities to reflect South Africa’s rich cultural heritage, the municipal government renamed Pretoria and neighboring towns “Tshwane” municipality, meaning “we are the same” in the indigenous Setswana language (one of the country’s 11 official languages). In addition to Tshwane and Pretoria, locals today call their home the “jacaranda city,” referring to the 70,000 trees that line the leafy boulevards and decorate the city in bright purple flower blossoms each spring. Others prefer the epithet of “academic town,” noting its three prominent universities, including the University of South Africa, the largest university in Africa with more than 350,000 students.

Arguably the city’s most accurate moniker—for the sister city to both Washington, D.C., and Tehran, Iran—is “mini South Africa,” where all the contradictions of the past and present converge in a single place. Across the central business district, the colonial balustrades of the Dutch and British architectural styles of the nineteenth century confront the severe modernist cement structures cherished by the former apartheid officials of the twentieth century. New glass buildings line the electronic toll highway that connects Pretoria to Johannesburg 40 miles south, the country’s financial capital and largest city. The majestic natural beauty of Cape Town, the parliamentary capital, and the warm beaches of Durban, home to the largest concentration of people of Indian descent outside India, are also within easy reach of Pretoria.

Built in the nineteenth century, the Palace of Justice was the location of the most politically trying times in South Africa’s history, the Rivonia trial, which ultimately led to the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and a number of other prominent African National Congress members. Photo by Elizabeth Van Tonder

South Africans from across the country move to Tshwane for work, and the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, described it as the fastest growing metropolitan economy in South Africa last year. Located in the shadows of the gold reef of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, in the country’s smallest province of Gauteng (“Place of Gold” in the Sotho language), Pretoria never developed its own industrial base, and its downtown still tends to bustle with civil servants. Outside town, however, emerging businesses in financial services and manufacturing increasingly attract young professionals.
Newcomers flock to shiny new malls, trendy cafés, tapas bars, restaurants and numerous outdoor food markets and hiking trails. With a low cost of living compared to other major cities, Pretoria hosts roughly 200 diplomatic missions. It’s a regional hub for foreign representations to neighboring countries and reputedly home to the second-most bilateral foreign missions in the world after the United States.

U.S. scholars pursuing the ghosts of the past also descend upon the “academic city,” which houses the historic archives of former administrations. With support from the Fulbright Scholar U.S. Scholar program, Jill Kelly, an associate professor of African history at Southern Methodist University in Texas, recently uncovered a trove of police and intelligence files in Pretoria’s National Archives on rural Zulu women resisting apartheid. In her new book, “To Swim with Crocodiles: Land, Violence, and Belonging in South Africa, 1800—1996,” Professor Kelly combined oral interviews and archival research to explain how traditional authorities created social and physical security during times of conflict. With the support of her broad network in rural communities, Professor Kelly successfully nominated the first president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, Chief Mhlabunzima Joseph Maphumulo, 1949—1991, for the Order of Luthuli Award, one of the highest presidential honors recognizing South Africans who have promoted democracy. Professor Kelly is one of 375,000 Americans who visit Pretoria each year, in addition to the estimated 60,000 U.S. citizens who live and work in South Africa.

Church Square is the square at the historic centre of the city of Pretoria, South Africa. The founder of Pretoria, Marthinus Pretorius, determined that the square be used as a market place and church yard. It was subsequently named for the church buildings that stood at the centre of the square from 1856 to 1905. Photo by Paul Saad

To ensure educational and professional exchange programs run both ways, the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Section works with the three constituent posts to recruit South Africans for U.S. government funded exchanges. In 2018, more than 200 South Africans went to the United States on such exchanges, and a total of more than 1,700 South Africans enrolled in U.S. universities. Through the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs brought 46 young South African leaders to 24 U.S. colleges and universities, where they studied business and entrepreneurship, public management and civic engagement.
The U.S. and South Africa Fulbright Program is among the most vibrant in the region, and in 2018, more than 70 American and South African students and scholars participated in a range of lecture, research and study programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service has trained over 130 South Africans in agriculture and trade programs through the Cochran Fellowship Program, in addition to the post-graduate agricultural research of over two dozen South Africans through the Borlaug Fellowship Program. Sustaining relationships with these alumni allows the Embassy to harness the potential of Africa’s youth as a force for economic ingenuity and prosperity, a priority outlined by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy. 

Buttressing people-to-people relationships are the robust commercial and economic ties between South Africa and the United States, a key priority in President Trump’s Africa strategy and a priority for the current South African administration. Since assuming office in February 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa has committed to improving the investment climate after a “lost decade” of corruption and maladministration; he wants to attract $100 billion in investment over the next five years. Daunting challenges still remain. In 2018, the World Bank ranked South Africa as the most unequal country in the world, with one of the highest unemployment rates for youth—over fifty percent. Investors are hopeful that South Africa will continue along a path of pragmatic economic reforms following the general elections, May 8.

Through close collaboration with the Foreign Commercial Service, Foreign Agricultural Service and USAID, the Department strives to promote South Africa’s economic development with increased trade and investment. As the entry point and main engine for U.S. business on the continent, South Africa is the most advanced, broad-based economy and the largest export market for U.S. goods on the continent. In fact, many U.S. products make their way across the continent through South African retailers. An estimated 600 U.S. companies in South Africa generate revenues equivalent to 10 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product and employ an estimated 200,000 South Africans, directly and indirectly. Since 2000, the African Growth and Opportunity Act has similarly helped South African companies by offering duty-free access for more than 6,000 products to markets in the United States, creating thousands of jobs across several South African industries.

The massive granitic Voortrekker monument, located in Pretoria, commemorates the Pioneer history of Southern Africa. Photo by WitR

Health is a cornerstone of the U.S. government’s unwavering commitment to South Africa. Since 2004, the United States has invested more than $6 billion in South Africa through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to address HIV and tuberculosis. Although more than 7.5 million South Africans still live with HIV, PEPFAR has supported the South African government in moving away from AIDS denialism to a full commitment to addressing the world’s largest HIV-infected population. In his inaugural State of the Nation Address in 2018, President Ramaphosa delivered a “call to action” to provide life-saving HIV treatment to two million more South Africans by 2020. Since then, Americans and South Africans jointly developed a surge plan to accelerate HIV testing, treatment and retention. South Africa also runs more than 300 high-impact research projects with support by the U.S. National Institutes for Health, which focus on key priorities for both the U.S. and South African governments, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, maternal and child health, cancer and mental health.

Embassy Pretoria celebrates the myriad benefits from the breadth and depth of U.S. ties with South Africa. Hopeful for the future, but ever sensitive to the legacies of the past, the Embassy community looks forward to deepening the partnership with South Africa on our many shared priorities. 

David P. Bargueño is a political officer at U.S. Embassy Pretoria.

The Lynnwood Bridge in Pretoria, South Africa, glows in a vibrant array of colors as dusk falls over the city. Photo by Orangecrush

Map South Africa produced by the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues .


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