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OOne of the most delightful pedestrian thoroughfares in Cape Town is Government Avenue, where you are as likely to see a nut-munching squirrel as you are to see a passing politician on lunch break.
Strolling seawards past the lush Company’s Garden, you have the South African Library on your left and the rather grand Houses of Parliament on your right.
The original Parliament structure, complete with Corinthian porticos and a huge dome, was designed by Charles Freeman. The House of Assembly was the design of well-known architect, Sir Herbert Baker.
Built in 1885, the South African Houses of Parliament have since been one of the most dramatic political arenas in the world, at times rivalling even the British House of Lords for its lively debates.
In 1890, Cecil John Rhodes was elected prime minister of the Anglophile Cape Colony and he and his empire-building stalwarts occupied these halls of power for 5 years. In 1895 Rhodes, having backed the ill-fated Jameson Raid aimed at overthrowing President Paul Kruger’s gold-rich Transvaal, and was forced to resign his position.
The Houses of Parliament in Cape Town were witness to debates concerning the South African Anglo-Boer War, World War I, World War II and the political changing of the guard, from the United Party of General Jan Smuts to the National Party, whose brainchild was the loathed apartheid system.
In 1960, shortly before South Africa was declared a republic, the prime minister of Britain, Sir Harold MacMillan, made a speech in the South African Parliament that resounded around the world.
Dubbed the ‘Winds of Change speech’, it presaged Britain’s intent to free herself of her African colonies and ushered in a new era for the continent.
A scant 6 years later, there was high drama in the House of Assembly as a parliamentary messenger called Dimitri Tsafendas stabbed to death one of the grand masters of apartheid, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, prime minister of South Africa at the time.
Some of the most stirring events in the Houses of Parliament during the apartheid era took place when opposition party members stood up to hold the Nationalist government to account for the disastrous effects of apartheid.
In 1994, the Houses of Parliament were witness to yet another phase for South Africa when Nelson Mandela became president after the country’s first democratic elections.
Politics aside, some of the main features enjoyed by visitors to the Houses of Parliament today are the 4 000-odd collected artworks on display.
They embrace a wide range of creativity throughout the passing generations, and include a busy landscape painting by the jaunty French explorer Francois le Vaillant, pieces of satire by Daniel Boonzaier, a portrait of General Smuts by Sir William Orpen and an enormous Keiskamma Tapestry woven by the women of the village of Hamburg in the Eastern Cape.
Travel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Parliament Tours Administrator
Tel: +27 (0) 21 403 2266
Cape Town Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)861 322223
How to get here
If you are driving, there are various parking garages on Plein Street where you can secure your vehicle. Otherwise just find some street parking where guards are evident. Cape Town Tourism has walking maps to help you find your way. Enter the Parliamentary building through the visitors’ centre on the ground floor at 120 Plein Street.
Best time to visit
Contact Parliament's booking office to find out when specific debates that are open to the public will take place.
Things to do
Visit the Company’s Garden, the various Iziko Museums in the area, the South African National Gallery and St George’s Cathedral, which also offers a good breakfast or lunch in the crypt. There is also a restaurant in the Company’s Garden.
There is a tour of Parliament every week day on the hour, from 9am to 12am (except public holidays). Group numbers are limited to 25. Remember to book ahead (see the listed contact number) and bring your passport.
What to pack
Pack lightly – and don’t forget your passport, which you'll need to get into Parliament. You'll have to check-in your mobile phone and camera at the visitors’ centre reception desk.
Where to stay
There are many hotels and guest houses to suit all pockets in this area – check the listed Cape Town Tourism website for options.