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The Union Buildings: Pretoria’s favourite landmark

The Union Buildings at night, Arcadia

The Union Buildings are easily the most famous building in South Africa. No visit to Pretoria can be complete without a visit to this beautiful landmark.

Mandela Statue at Union BuildingsLike a castle on a hill, the Union Buildings tower over the Pretoria city centre. The buildings are situated near the top of Meintjieskop and from this vantage point a visitor has uninterrupted views of Pretoria’s tall skyscrapers and the surrounding jacaranda-lined suburbs. Also clearly visible on some of the opposite hills cradling the city are two other landmarks: Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument.

The Union Buildings, a national heritage site, house the offices of the President of South Africa and act as the seat of the South African Government. They also provide a spectacular backdrop to presidential inaugurations and other special events and public gatherings of national significance. It is also where thousands of people came to pay their last respects to Nelson Mandela when he lay in state there.

History of the Union Buildings

The Union Buildings were designed by British architect Sir Herbert Baker, who also designed a number of other notable buildings around South Africa.   Construction started around 1910 and was completed in 1913.

Commissioned to house the entire public sector of the Union of South Africa, it was the largest building in South Africa at the time of completion. The amphitheatre that connects the two wings and towers was built to represent the union of the different governments of the time.

Union Buildings seen from front, situated on Meintjieskop, Pretoria

Attractions and Activities around the Union Buildings and Public Gardens

As one of Pretoria’s (as well at the greater City of Tshwane‘s) most visited tourist attractions, they are a must-see for anyone passing through the city. Not only are they some of South Africa’s most beautiful buildings but the grounds also house a magnificent terraced garden, with the centre being the  Mandela statue,  as well as many memorials including the South African Police Memorial.

Mandela Statue

Mandela Statue

On 16 December 2013 (Reconciliation Day), the impressive bronze statue of Nelson Mandela was unveiled by President Jacob Zuma. The breathtaking and inspiring statue takes a central position within the southern lawns of the Union Buildings and can be seen from far and wide. The statue of Madiba, designed by sculptors André Prinsloo and Ruhan Jansen van Vuuren, stands where the statue of former Prime Minister Barry Hertzog once stood; now moved to the eastern part of the lawn with the consent of the Hertzog’s family.

“He is embracing the country. Both hands are embracing the entire nation,”  – President Jacob Zuma.

A visit to the statue is a must for any visitor to Pretoria. Not only is it, at 9-metres, the tallest statue of Mandela in the country but its positioning seems to unite the two wings of the Union buildings with his outstretched hands. Visitors gazing upon this sight will find themselves reflecting upon this great man and the role he played in history of South Africa. His outstretched arms symbolise a united South Africa and his stance, taking a step forward, could be interpreted as South Africa being “a country moving forward.”

The Mandela statue is an astounding addition to the already majestic Union Buildings and it will be the highlight of any visit to Pretoria.

View from Union Buildings with Voortrekker Monument and Skyscrapers

Significance

Many historic events have taken place at the Union Buildings. Among the most notable were when 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in protest against South Africa’s apartheid-era  pass laws on 9 August 1956, and Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa on 10 May 1994.

For three days in December 2013, the eyes of the world were again upon the Union Buildings for the same man. Nelson Mandela passed away on the 5th of December 2013 and during the mourning period, his body lay in state from 11 to 13 December at the amphitheatre (now called the Nelson Mandela amphitheatre) of the Union Buildings. Approximately 100 000 people queued and made their way through the amphitheatre to pay their respects.

Activities

The landmark is easily accessible by car, with free public parking at the foot of the buildings alongside Government Avenue. It can also be reached by public transport which includes the Gautrain busses (see here for details on the Gautrain) while pedestrians and joggers have free access from various sides to the lawns and gardens surrounding the buildings.

Unfortunately the inside of the buildings are not open to the public but visitors can walk right up to them, while the terraced gardens and lawns present many spots and angles from which to photograph this magnificent structure. During the day there are arts and crafts for sale next to the parking area and one might even spot a local artists busy sketching pictures of their surroundings. The public spaces are open until late in the evening and the parking area and grounds are well patrolled by police. At night many people come here by car for a quick stop to enjoy the view of city’s night lights.

It’s not only tourists who visit this landmark; this beautiful attraction equally loved by the locals and residents of Pretoria. Couples take long romantic walks and families have picnics while bureaucrats and diplomats can be spotted taking a quick breather and taking a photo before rushing back to a meeting. In the afternoons and evenings, joggers can be seen circumnavigating the public grounds while students come here for an open-air gym session or to play some rugby, while many locals just come here to take an afternoon nap. 

Whether it’s just for a five-minute stop while driving to a meeting, or a lazy Sunday afternoon picnic with your family on the lawns, the Union Buildings are truly a place not to be missed.

Union Buildings and surrounding city block seen from air.

Location and tips

By car: Drive along Government Avenue, which takes you right up alongside the buildings, where you will find the car park area, public toilets, a small crafts market and great views of city.

By foot or by bus: Corner of Stanza Bopape (Old Church) & Wessels Street (Note that arriving in this way means you can only enter the public gardens through pedestrian gates which are situated along Church Street. Note also that it’s a bit of a walk across the lawns to get from here to the terraced gardens and there are many steps one must climb to reach the main level of Government Avenue, which is right alongside the buildings and is where the parking, craft markets, viewing spots and public toilets are located).

Gautrain bus stop called: Church & Wessels (in front of Sheraton Hotel on Church Street). For more details on using the Gautrain click here.

Opening times:

Public gardens and parking is open 7 days a week and from 05:00 to 23:00.

Pretoria must-see attractions



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