Change of heart in the temple of apartheid

Despite its Afrikaner monuments, Pretoria wants to be South Africa's sole capital. Mary Braid reports
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The Independent Online
Hester Lambrecht is trying to sell me the new, improved, rainbow- nation Pretoria. Can this be the same city - home of beer-bellied Boers, khaki shorts and military uniforms, reviled for decades of slavish administration of apartheid?

"Pretoria changed overnight," insists Ms Lambrecht, public relations officer for the Pretoria Capital Initiative, which is bidding to wrest the country's parliament from Cape Town and unite South Africa's executive and administrative arms for the first time since the Brits and the Boers divided them up in 1910.

She dates Pretoria's change of heart to President Mandela's emotional inauguration in the city's Union Buildings. But does a city stuffed with statues of Nationalist presidents and monuments to 19th century Voor- trekkers, which white supremacists still insist will one day be the capital of an Afrikaner volkstaat, not have a tiny image problem?

That is the argument Cape Town uses, she says briskly. Pretoria, despite having all the civil servants, foreign embassies and government buildings, at the centre of the most populous area of the country, is too weighed down by history. "If you want to get technical about it," she says with a tight smile, "this was the administrative centre of apartheid, but all the legislation was passed through the Cape Town parliament."

Two years after the National Party effectively handed over the reins to the ANC, the proposed removal of parliament from Cape Town to create a single capital is one of the country's most delicate and emotive political issues. A free vote was promised in parliament, but somehow delays keep setting in. Meanwhile, hundreds of politicians, scores of diplomats and an army of civil servants spend more time in the air between Pretoria and Cape Town, nearly 1,000 miles apart, than they do at their desks.

The PCI claims that among the diplomatic corps, much larger since South Africa was brought in from the cold, only the wife of the Chilean ambassador would plump for the status quo. It is hard to see why many would prefer dusty Pretoria over its rival's beaches, architecture, wines and dazzling scenery, but Cape Town has one crippling political disadvantage: its mainly white and mixed-race population was the only one in the country to give control over local affairs to the Nationalists, apartheid's former masters.

While the politicians prevaricate, Pretoria is slugging it out with Bloemfontein (which got the highest court in the 1910 carve-up), Cape Town and worrying young whippersnapper, Midrand, a prosperous and expanding town within half an hour of both Pretoria and Johannesburg, the country's commercial heart.

If Pretoria's reinvention is surprising, so is its backing from President Mandela, though he is hardly consistent. Meeting South Africa's Olympic medallists in his office, he said he fancied a new parliament being built on land behind the Union Buildings. Last year he saw the new legislature being sited on the hill in front. And he is reported to have told the visiting Prince Edward that his favourite spot would be the golf course next door.

At least all the sites are in Pretoria, say the city's supporters. Nor is he the only one in the new South Africa to have changed his mind: the PCI is chaired by Peter Maluleka, ANC head of the Greater Pretoria Metropolitan Council, who once wanted to burn the whole place down.

But then the ANC, unlike eastern Europe or neighbouring Zimbabwe, has shown little zeal for the renaming or destruction of old symbols. Monuments to the struggle have yet to appear. A giant sculpture of a hand reaching through broken bars - already nicknamed Nelson's Hand - was commissioned for Pretoria earlier this year, but is now on hold.

Near Pretoria is Verwoerdburg, named after the architect of apartheid, which recently changed its name to Centurion, with no fuss. Pretoria changed Jan Smuts Drive to Nelson Mandela Road, but Britain probably boasts more Mandela Roads than South Africa.

Such is life after an extraordinary negotiated peace; no war trials, no outright victor or vanquished and the old and new forced to live side by side. "That's why Pretoria should become the capital," insists Ms Lambrecht. "It is the reality of the new South Africa."