South African Architecture: History & Examples

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.

Small, utilitarian homes, grand structures of colonial dominance, and buildings of a post-apartheid state; all of these attribute to the narrative history of South African architecture. In this lesson we will take a closer look at some examples of South African architecture.

Rhodes Memorial on Devils Peak in Cape Town
Rhodes Memorial

A Complex History

If you happened across the Rhodes Memorial on a trip across South Africa, you may think to yourself 'Wow! I never realized the Romans came this far south in Africa!' On closer inspection, you'll note that this monument is different. It's inscribed in English, and it's dedicated to Cecil Rhodes. Why would a memorial for the British Prime Minister of South Africa look like it was a tomb built for an emperor?

A tour of South Africa's architecture reveals the diverse and tumultuous past of indigenous clans, colonization, apartheid, and the reconciliation of a post-apartheid state. From the simple rondevals of the Xhosa, to the modern designs of Mokena Makeka, architecture in South Africa has been built to conquer, divide, connect and heal.

Xhosa and Zulu Architecture


Prior to British colonization, various indigenous clans were spread across all of South Africa. The Xhosa and Zulu inhabited the southeast region of the country in small, village communities. The Xhosa lived and held community meetings in structures called rondavels. These circular huts were usually made of mud, and had conical, thatched grass roofs. After contact with the British and Boer colonizers, the Xhosa began to incorporate set, stone walls, and more 'modern' elements, such as glass windows, into the traditional rondavel. The Zulu lived in iQukwanes, also known as beehive huts. These dome-shaped structures were made of woven grass and reeds, and supported by a wooden frame and central support beam. Imagine making your house from the grass and trees in your yard!

Colonial Architecture: Herbert Baker

Have you ever looked at a big, flashy mansion and felt just a little bit intimidated by its size? South African colonizers wanted to create this feeling, and architecture was one of the ways they went about doing it. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes, British colonizers were determined to create a dominant society in South Africa. Rhodes selected architects that would create impressive structures, structures that would in turn create an air of power and superiority. One of the architects chosen by Rhodes was Herbert Baker. Baker went all-out in designing houses of government, culture, and industry in South Africa. He was inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, and the Rhodes Memorial is a clear example of this classical influence.

Baker designed structures that suited the South African climate by combining elements of Palladian, (Andrea Palladio, Italian Renaissance) with Neoclassical architecture (the style of ancient Greece and Rome). These combined styles, along with Cape Dutch, created the defining look of South African colonial buildings. The Union Buildings at Pretoria, for example, mix the columns of Neoclassical design with Palladian architecture, projecting the dominance of the British.

Union Buildings at Pretoria
Union Buildings at Pretoria

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