State President of South Africa

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This article is about the position of South African head of state from 1961 to 1994. For the position of South African head of state and head of government from 1994, see President of South Africa.
State President of South Africa
Staatspresident van Suid-Afrika
Coat of Arms of South Africa (1932-2000).svg
Coat of Arms of South Africa
Frederik Willem de Klerk.jpg
Frederik Willem de Klerk
Style The Honourable (until 1985)
Appointer Parliament of South Africa
Term length 7 years (until 1984)
Duration of Parliament
(normally 5 years) (1984–94)
Formation 31 May 1961 (ceremonial)
15 August 1984 (executive)
First holder Charles Robberts Swart
Final holder Frederik Willem de Klerk
Abolished 10 May 1994
Succession President of South Africa
Deputy Vice State President of South Africa (1981–1984)
Standard of the State President (1961–1984)
Standard of the State President (1984–1994)

State President (Afrikaans: Staatspresident) was the title of South Africa's head of state from 1961 to 1994. The office was established when the country became a republic in 1961, and Queen Elizabeth II ceased to be monarch of South Africa. The position of Governor-General of the Union of South Africa was accordingly abolished.

Ceremonial post[edit]

Republicanism had long been a plank in the platform of the ruling National Party. However, it was not until 1960, 12 years after it took power, that it was able to hold a referendum on the issue. A narrow majority—52 percent— of the minority white electorate voted in favour of abolishing the monarchy and declaring South Africa a republic.

The Republic of South Africa was proclaimed on 31 May 1961. Charles Robberts Swart, the last Governor-General, was sworn in as the first State President. The title 'State President' was originally used for the head of state of the Boer Republics,[1] and like them, the holder of the office wore a sash with the Republic's coat of arms. He was elected to a seven-year term by the Parliament of South Africa, and was not eligible for re-election.

The National Party decided against having an executive presidency, instead adopting a minimalist approach as a conciliatory gesture to English-speaking whites who were opposed to a republic. As such, the State President performed mostly ceremonial duties, and was required to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and the cabinet. In practice, the post of State President was a sinecure for retired National Party ministers, as the Governor-General's post had been since 1948. Consequently, all State Presidents from 1961 to 1984 were white, Afrikaner, male, and over 65.

Executive post[edit]

Following constitutional reforms, in 1984, the office of State President became an executive post, as in the United States. The office of Prime Minister of South Africa was abolished, and its powers were de facto merged with those of the State President. He was elected by an electoral college of 88 members—50 Whites, 25 Coloureds, and 13 Indians. The members were elected by the respective racial groups of the Tricameral Parliament—the House of Assembly, House of Representatives and House of Delegates. He held office for the Parliament's duration—in practice, five years. The last Prime Minister, P. W. Botha, was elected as the first State President.

The State President was vested with sweeping executive powers—in most respects, even greater than those of the President of the United States. He had sole jurisdiction over matters of "national" concern, such as foreign policy and race relations. He was chairman of the President's Council, which resolved disputes between the three chambers regarding "general affairs" legislation. This body consisted of 60 members – 20 members appointed by the House of Assembly, 10 by the House of Representatives, five by the House of Delegates and 25 directly by the State President.

The composition of the electoral college and President's Council made it all but impossible for the white chamber to be outvoted on any substantive matter. Although the reforms were billed as a power-sharing arrangement, in practice the real power remained in white hands—and in practice, in the hands of the National Party, which had a large majority in the white chamber. As Botha was leader of the National Party, the system placed nearly all governing power in his hands.

Botha resigned in 1989 and was succeeded by F. W. de Klerk, who oversaw the transition to majority rule in 1994.

End of white minority rule[edit]

Under South Africa's first non-racial constitution, adopted in 1994, the head of state (and of government) is known simply as the President. However, for some time, the State President had been referred to as simply the "president" in non-South African sources. The leader of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela, was sworn in as President on 10 May 1994.

List of State presidents of South Africa (1961–1994)[edit]


  National Party

No. Name
Picture Took office Left office Elected
Political Party
State presidents as head of state (Ceremonial, 1961–1984)
1 Charles Robberts Swart
CR Swart 1960.jpg 31 May 1961 31 May 1967 National Party
Theophilus Ebenhaezer Dönges
Dönges cropped.jpg Elected but did not take office because of illness National Party
Jozua François Naudé
Acting President
Tom Naudé 1962.jpg 1 June 1967 10 April 1968 National Party
2 Jacobus Johannes Fouché
JJ Fouche.jpg 10 April 1968 9 April 1975 National Party
Johannes de Klerk
Acting President
Jan de Klerk.jpg 9 April 1975 19 April 1975 National Party
3 Nicolaas Johannes Diederichs
Nicolaas Diederichs.jpg 19 April 1975 21 August 1978
(Died in office)
National Party
Marais Viljoen
Acting President
Marais Viljoen.jpg 21 August 1978 10 October 1978 National Party
4 Balthazar Johannes Vorster
John Vorster.jpg 10 October 1978 4 June 1979
National Party
5 Marais Viljoen
Marais Viljoen.jpg 19 June 1979
Acting since
4 June 1979
3 September 1984 National Party
State presidents as head of state and government (Executive, 1984–1994)
1 Pieter Willem Botha
PW Botha 1962.jpg 14 September 1984
Acting since
3 September 1984
15 August 1989
1987 (20th) National Party
2 Frederik Willem de Klerk
Frederik Willem de Klerk.jpg 20 September 1989
Acting since
15 August 1989
10 May 1994 1989 (21st) National Party

Living former heads of state[edit]

There is one living former South African State President:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Blazes Along a Diplomatic Trail: A Memoir of Four Posts in the Canadian Foreign Service, J. C. Gordon Brown, Trafford Publishing, 2000, page 58

External links[edit]