The first South Africa national aquatic sports championships combined a 500yards swimming Championship race with the first inter-provincial Currie Cup Water Polo Tournament between Eastern Province and Western Province.
The programme was common to 19th-century aquatic carnivals, combining water polo, a championship race (for men) with filler events like lifesaving, diving and ornamental swimming exhibitions. In addition, there were non-Championship handicapped and scratch swimming races for the men, and races for Ladies and Junior Boys.
In time more Championship events were added, Ladies were allowed their own Championship races, and diving also gained Championship status. Filler events later became limited relay races between local schools.
The nationals began as an inter-provincial event, held in at Cape Town 1900 and continued until 1995 when it was replaced with an inter-club competition. The various aquatic disciplines then also started to have their own separate national championships.
The first few years of the tournament featured only teams from the two main provinces of the Cape Colony, namely the Eastern Province, which was based in Port Elizabeth, and the Western Province, based in Cape Town.
As the tournament expanded, the Transvaal joined in 1905, Natal and the Orange River Colony followed. Rhodesia was a competing province from 1920 until 1980. Smaller centres like Mossel Bay, Kimberley and East London, which later became the Border province, also participated. In time the Transvaal split into four separate provinces, and later a small province of the Vaal Triangle was created between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Later South-West Africa also joined as a province, until it became Namibia in 1990.
Provinces selected teams from local swimming clubs, like the Cape Town Swimming Club, Green and Sea Point Amateur Swimming Club, Leanders SC, Suburbans SC in Cape Town. In Port Elizabeth there was the Port Elizabeth Amateur Swimming Club, established in 1898 and still going strong today. There were also clubs at Red House and Uitenhage. Queens Park in Durban is the oldest extant club in that province.
The event developed from the 19th century aquatic carnival style of entertainment which were designed to draw large crowds. These events were supported by the upper levels of society, as the local Mayor and other senior officials often attended. Women participated but did not compete in Championship events until 1921. Water polo was the main competitive sport at the championships, with only a 500yard Championship swimming race initially making up the programme. They were well advertised public entertainment events that would often include clown diving, "artistic" swimming and life-saving exhibitions, performed by the swimmers or professional entertainers.
Since 1921 the Ellis Brown Trophy was awarded to the team with the highest aggregated number of points from all disciplines. The inter-provincial Currie Cup Water Polo Trophy was donated by Sir Donald Currie of the Union Shipping Line in 1899, and later many trophies would be added for different events.