Cape Town Time:


Cape Town Proud to Welcome Parliament to Historic City Hall

10 February 2022

Statement by Cape Town Mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis

As a former Member of Parliament and now Mayor of Cape Town, today marks a bittersweet moment. I was deeply saddened to witness our majestic national parliamentary buildings, situated right at the heart of Cape Town, gutted by flames earlier this year.  However, I am proud that we were able to offer Parliament the use of one of the jewels in Cape Town’s crown — our newly-restored City Hall — to ensure that this year’s State of the Nation (SONA) can still go ahead. City Hall will also be used as the venue for the post-SONA debates, safeguarding the stability of an important institution in our democracy.

The design and history of Cape Town’s City Hall is a micro-example of the City’s complex and diverse cultural heritage. Built at the dawn of the twentieth century, City Hall put Cape Town on equal footing with other capital cities across the world. Mayor Thomas Ball laid the cornerstone of the building in August 1900 and it was officially opened to the public in 1905. Its architects, Messers Howard and Scott of Johannesburg, elected to design the building in Victorian style. It is one of the last Victorian buildings to have been built in South Africa.

City Hall’s various components were sourced from all over the world. The honey-coloured limestone from which it was built was imported from Bath, England. The building’s tower houses a clock and a number of bells, modelled on London’s Big Ben. The clock’s faces were modelled from iron filled with opal, most likely mined in Australia.

For nearly 70 years, City Hall served a dual purpose. In its administrative wing, it served as the headquarters of the administration of Cape Town and the seat of its mayoralty. Its other portion was the Grand Hall, which has been used, until today, as a venue for music and the arts.

For many years, the Grand Hall was the only civic venue of significant capacity in the city, and was the performance venue of the famous Malay Choir and the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (and its predecessors), as well as a venue for boxing competitions, musical competitions, civic banquets, and other government functions. The Grand Hall’s most impressive feature is a massive, 3 165-pipe organ, which is world-renowned for the quality of its workmanship and the beauty of its sound. The bass notes have been said to “reverberate through the body of the listener” and the higher notes to carry a pleasant tone that rivals the world’s best instruments.

In 1947, Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) celebrated her 21st birthday at City Hall. City Hall has also been an important site in South Africa’s transition to democracy.

On February 11, 1990 mere hours after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela made his first public speech from the City Hall’s main balcony. Notably, today is the day before the anniversary of President Mandela’s release and of speech, delivered to 10 000 people gathered on the Grand Parade.

Madiba’s speech began with immortal words, which still hold relevance for us today: “Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.” The iconic event is memorialised by a life-sized statue of Madiba on the balcony, in the exact position from which he delivered his address.

An extensive refurbishment project on City Hall has been undertaken by the City of Cape Town since 2017, ensuring that the building will remain a beautiful and useful building that all Capetonians can be proud of. The refurbishment included (from 2017 to 2018) an extensive revamp of the auditorium space in which SONA will be held, during which the seating was replaced; the floor, mouldings and ceiling were restored; the organ was repaired; and new ventilation and sound systems were installed.

To mark the auditorium’s closure for refurbishment in 2017, the City hosted a free concert in the hall with a diverse range of musical acts, attended by hundreds of Capetonians. The auditorium was reopened to the public in 2018 with a multi-cultural event where visual art was on display, celebrating the diverse heritage in Cape Town and reaffirming the city’s values of inclusivity and diversity.

Tonight’s SONA is another milestone in this building’s important cultural history, and an important moment for Cape Town. In the spirit of the unity that City Hall represents, I am pleased that our offer of the building as a venue for Parliament was accepted by the Speaker and can be used by our President to communicate this year’s SONA to the public.

We hope to build on this collaborative spirit in the future, and wish Parliament and the President every success for SONA and the debates thereafter.