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High Commissioner in and for South Africa (1878-1931)

Last modified: 2011-06-24 by bruce berry
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[SAHC flag] image by Martin Grieve, 11 May 2003 See also:


The Office of the High Commissioner in and for South Africa was created by the Letters Patent in 1878. The High Commissioner was, until 1899, charged with the conduct of British relations with the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, as well as those with "native states and tribes outside the colonies of Natal and the Cape, including Swaziland, which was administered by the Government of the South African Republic under the Convention of 1894". The High Commissioner was also Governor of Basutoland (now Lesotho) and supervised the affairs of the Bechuanaland Protectorate and Swaziland.
Bruce Berry, 13 Jan 1997

The office of High Commissioner was one that evolved in a strange way, having been attached to the Governorship of the Cape in 1847 when Sir Henry Pottinger was appointed.

The title came from the fact that the Lieutenant-Governor of the Eastern Province (of the Cape Colony) had been called Commissioner-General to cover his function of negotiating with the indigenous peoples outside the colony. It was originally given to Sir Henry chiefly to justify his being given a larger salary than had previously belonged to the Governor of the Cape.

(The title Commissioner-General was revived under apartheid when it was given to the officials appointed to liaise between the autonomous Homeland (Bantustan) assemblies and the apartheid government, functioning effectively as deputy heads of state. Following Bantustan “independence” in Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei, these Commissioners-General became ambassadors).

The High Commissionership grew in importance through the 19th century, as a result of this official’s powers of negotiation with neighbouring states and his authority over other territorial administrators, including the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal.

For most of the period from 1847 to 1910 the office of High Commissioner was tied to the Governorship of the Cape, with two exceptions:

1) During 1879-81 there was a second High Commissionership (the High Commissioner for South Eastern Africa) based in Natal, with authority for the Transvaal and (for a short period) Griqualand West.  From 1877 to 1881 the British official in charge of the Transvaal (previously and subsequently the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek) was styled the Administrator.  (This was the first use in South Africa of the title Administrator. From 1910 to 1994 the four provinces (Transvaal, Natal, Cape Province and Orange Free State) were headed by Administrators appointed by the Prime Minister).

2) During and after the South African War, the High Commissionership was separated from the Governorship of the Cape when High Commissioner Sir Alfred Milner resigned as Cape Governor in 1901 while retaining the Governorship of the Orange River and Transvaal Colonies. (Later that same year he became Lord Milner).  Milner lived in Johannesburg while ruling through Administrators in Pretoria and Bloemfontein. 

The separation of the office of High Commissioner from the Cape governorship ended in 1905 when Milner left the country and the new Cape Governor was again appointed High Commissioner.

From the time of the Union (of South Africa) in 1910 until 1931, the office of High Commissioner was attached to that of Governor-General. The flag badge bearing the initials “S.A.H.C.” was used from 1910 to 1928, although Brownell does not spell out under what circumstances the flag bearing it was flown.

This official was now based in both Cape Town and Pretoria, since the government of the Union moved between these two centres:

- Cape Town was (and remains to this day) the legislative capital, and the government was seated there during the parliamentary session.
- Pretoria was (and still is) the administrative capital, where the government was seated for the rest of the year. The diplomatic corps also migrated between the Western Cape and the Transvaal.

Between 1928 and 1931, the initials read “H.C.”, and the crown and initials were surrounded by a circular wreath.  In 1931 two men were appointed separately to the positions of Governor-General and High Commissioner, to signify a change in the status of South Africa (and the other British Dominions). The Governor-General now represented the British Sovereign, not the government in Westminster. The High Commissioner represented the British Government, and continued to be responsible for the administration of Basutoland, Swaziland and Bechuanaland.

More and more the High Commissioner became a diplomat, and in fact all of the Dominions now appointed High Commissioners (“ambassadors”) to represent themselves in other Dominions.  The High Commissioner in South Africa became purely a diplomat when Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana became independent.

South Africa had a High Commissioner in London from the 1930s until 1961. The official there then became the ambassador of the Republic of South Africa after 31 May 1961. The post again became a High Commissionership in 1994, when South Africa returned as a full member of the Commonwealth.
Mike Oettle
, 02 Feb 2002

Flag of the High Commissioner in and for South Africa (1878-1931)

[SAHC badge] image by Martin Grieve, 11 May 2003

SAVA Journal 3/94 [brL94] mentions the following:
The British Union Flag charged in the centre, on a white roundel, with the letters S.A.H.C. in black, ensigned with a Tudor Crown proper, within a green garland of laurel. This flag which seems to have been taken into use in 1907, is similar in design to that used by the Western Pacific High Commissioner.

There are some details about the SAHC flag which might be incorrect:
A letter of 29 January 1907 referred to this flag -
"Special flag when embarking or paying official visits at ports in South Africa. Following similar case of Western Pacific High Commissioner.  Badge consisting of the letters S.A.H.C. surmounted by a Tudor crown emblazoned in the centre thereof on a white ground encircled by a garland."
The garland was standard laurel leaves.
Source: Public Record Office, Kew ADM 116/1063D.  

One would suppose that this flag went out of use in 1931, at the same time that the Union Jack of the Governor-General of the Union of South Africa was replaced by the royal crest and scrolls on a blue flag.  However the S.A.H.C. replacement, a Union Jack with the letters H.C. on a white circle surrounded by a laurel-leaf garland in the centre, did not receive a warrant until 16 August 1935; so perhaps the S.A.H.C. badge continued to be used until then.  The H.C. badge fell out of use in September 1968 when Swaziland gained independence.
David Prothero, 16 May 2002

I have a history book with a map as of 1895 which shows:
(1) British Protectorate of Bechuanaland;
(2) British Colony Bechuanaland; and
(3) Togoland (north of Zululand)

Was the British High Commissioner's flag used both in (1) and (2)?
Where was Togoland (Amatogoland) and what flag was flown?
Nozomi Kariyasu, 15 Nov 2003

Nozomi, the British South Africa High Commissioner's flag was not introduced until 1907.

To answer you other queries:
(1) On land the flag of a British colony or protectorate was the Union Jack. The High Commissioner's flag (1935 design) may have been used on land after 1942; before that it should have been used only when the High Commissioner was embarked in a vessel.
(2) The colony of Bechuanaland was incorporated into Cape Colony in 1895
(3) I think the spelling should be Tongaland / Amatongaland. It became a British protectorate in 1895. In 1897 it was incorporated into Zululand, which was annexed to Natal in the same year.  I believe the Union Jack was used.
David Prothero, 15 Nov 2003

High Commissioner's Flag:
26 July 1902. High Commissioner's Office Johannesburg to Colonial Office. Ref. Secretary of State telegram 19th July No.5 regarding Colonial Office Regulations,
Chapter 20 on flags. There are no provisions for High Commissioners. Presume Lieutenant-Governor's fly Union Flag and Royal Standard in accordance with regulations, but is not High Commissioner for South Africa, as a diplomatic officer, entitled to flag on page 281 (No.1 in Foreign Office List) ?
Note in minute.
Not a diplomatic post, but he should have a special flag like that of Western Pacific High Commissioner.
David Prothero, 21 Mar 2005