Armoria patrić

South Africa / Mzantsi Afrika / Afrika Borwa /

Suid-Afrika / Ningizumu Afrika /Afrika Dzonga /Afrika Sewula / Afrika Tshipembe

South Africa (2000)

Arms taken into use on 27 April 2000 and published (Notice 425) in Government Gazette No 21 131 of 28 April 2000. This device is the product of a design studio and is not a work of heraldry. However there is a blazon, which reads:

Arms: Or, representations of two San human figures of red ochre, statant respectant, the hands of the innermost arms clasped, with upper arm, inner wrist, waist and knee bands Argent, and a narrow border of red ochre; the shield ensigned of a spear and knobkierie in saltire, Sable. Thereabove a demi-secretary bird displayed Or, charged on the breast with a stylised representation of a protea flower with outer petals Vert, inner petals or and seeded of nine triangles conjoined in three rows, the upper triangle Gules, the second row Vert, Or inverted and Vert, and the third row Vert, Or inverted, Sable, Or inverted and Vert. Above the head of the secretary bird an arc of seven rays facetted Or and Orange, the two outer rays conjoined to the elevated wings.

Upon a riband vert, the motto !KE E:/XARRA //KE in letters Argent. Issuant from the ends of the riband two pairs of elephant tusks curving inwards, the tips conjoined to the wings of the secretary bird, Or, therewithin and flanking the shield, two ears of wheat Brunâtre.

As explained below, the word San is used mistakenly in the belief that it is not offensive. However, it does give offence, and the word Bushman (Bushmen) is in fact preferred. The device is constructed in two circles, described as the circle of foundation and the circle of ascendance.

Circle of foundation - lower half of the arms of of South Africa (2000)

Circle of foundation:
In a coat of arms most of the design is contained within the shield. In this design the shield is a small part of the whole. Around the outer edge of the shield is an outline; it is unclear whether this is intended to be a demi-border, or is merely an artistic convenience to mark the edge of the shield.

The two figures on the shield are taken from a Bushman[1] rock painting known as the Linton stone, now housed in the South African Museum in Cape Town.

The official description of them reads: “The Khoisan, the oldest known inhabitants of our land, testify to our common humanity and heritage as South Africans. The figures are depicted in an attitude of greeting, symbolising unity. This also represents the beginning of the individual’s transformation into the greater sense of belonging to the nation and by extention, [sic] common Humanity.”

The colouring of the two men is intended to be red ochre (as stated in in the blazon), but in many versions appears rather dark and suggests a stronger connection than actually exists between the Bushman ethnic group and the Nguni[2] and Sotho,[3] which are Bantu-speaking[4] communities of Negro[5] origin.


The spear is not specified as to type, and can represent any type between the long throwing spear of the early Nguni and the short stabbing assegai of the Zulu[6] kingdom. The knobkierie and spear together symbolise defence and authority, and since they lie at a flat angle, they symbolise peace. They are also mentioned in the official description as representing “the powerful legs of the secretary bird”, which seems a little remote, to say the least.


On either side of the shield is a wheat ear, grossly out of proportion to the rest of the elements. The official description reads: “An emblem of fertility, it also symbolises the idea of germination, growth and the feasible development of any potential. It relates to the nourishment of the people and signifies the agricultural aspects of the earth.”

The colour of the wheat is specified as brown (Brunatré), which is rare as a heraldic colour.

The use of wheat in this position is derived directly from the socialist state symbols of China, the former Soviet Union and the socialist states of Eastern Europe, where wheat, rice or some other grain crop was invariably used with just the symbolism mentioned above. When seen in the context of other symbols of this type it becomes clear that this is an unthinking addition to the composition, as well as a compliment to a political system that has elsewhere proved itself unworkable.


On the outside of the wheat ears is a pair of elephant tusks on each side (four in all), of which the official description states: “Elephants symbolise wisdom, strength, moderation and eternity.”

The tusks naturally represent the world’s largest land mammal, Loxodonta africana, which is currently found in nature in the game reserves of the northern and eastern parts of the country, as well as a remnant population in the Knysna Forest and a thriving herd at Addo, near Port Elizabeth, but were once found as far west as the Cape Peninsula. Several South African rivers are named Olifants (elephant’s), including two in the Western Cape Province. The African elephant belongs to a different genus from the only other surviving elephant species, the Indian elephant (Elephas maximas). A third species, the Syrian elephant, was known in classical times, and was used in warfare by the Roman Empire and its enemies. Elephants are traditionally symbols of power and authority, especially in African cultures. They can be seen in the arms of KwaZulu, Venda and Swaziland.

The tusks are not in ivory colour, but appear in two different shades of gold, distinct from the gold of the shield and in contrast to the brown of the wheat (which in other emblems, whether heraldic or socialist, is usually shown as being gold). Although the gold shades used here can be likened to the dusty patina often seen on unpolished ivory, they are in fact darker and more uniform than this patina.

The use of different shades of gold is in conflict with heraldic practice, which acknowledges only one gold colour, although on different coats of arms (or in different renditions of the same arms) it might appear quite different from one shield to the next. Usually yellow ink or paint, or gold dust or gold leaf, would be used.

[1] It is fashionable to refer to Bushmen as San, since “Bushman” (“Bosjesmannen” in Dutch) was originally a taunt used to describe the rough shelters used by these Stone Age hunters. However, “San” is also a taunt, used by Khoikhoi to dismiss the hunter-gatherers as being “almost animals”. A conference of surviving Bushman/San bands in Namibia in 1995 agreed to use the term Bushman for their ethnic group.

[2] The abaNguni, comprising the linguistic communities called Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, and Ndebele, are the southernmost extension of the Bantu language group. Other Nguni groups are found north of South Africa, notably the Ndebele of western Zimbabwe, but also the Ngoni of Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, remnants of the Mfecane, which have mostly lost their Nguni dialects, but which still retain a pride in a military past. The Tsonga of Mpumalanga and southern Mozambique speak a language which has been influenced by isiNguni.

[3] The Sotho language group, which includes the written languages South Sotho (Sesotho sa Borwa), Tswana (Setswana) and North Sotho or Pedi (Sesotho sa Lebowa, or Sepedi), covers much of the central and northern parts of South Africa, extends into Lesotho and Botswana and also includes the Lotse people, who inhabit the Barotseland province of Zambia and Eastern Caprivi in Namibia.

[4] The word Bantu, having been used extensively to signify the “inferior” status of the indigenous peoples under apartheid, has been stigmatised. However, it is also the scientific name of the language group which covers Central and Southern Africa from the Eastern Cape northwards to both Cameroon and Kenya, and extends into Nigeria’s south-easternmost parts, where the Republic of Biafra existed briefly in the 1960s. The word Bantu is derived from the Xhosa abantu, meaning “people”, and points to the fact that the word for people in most Bantu languages is derived from the same root. It is a sincere compliment to the Xhosa people.

[5] The word Negro (meaning “black”) has also been stigmatised, chiefly because of its racist usage in the United States, but like Bantu it is also a scientific name, in this case indicating a distinct human type. It was first used by the Portuguese to describe the black-skinned people they encountered in Guinea. Anthropologists have established that the Negro are one of the major sub-groupings of the species Homo sapiens, which evolved in the West African rain forest in adaptation to the intensely hot, humid and disease-ridden climate. From West Africa (the region from Senegal to Nigeria) the Bantu-speaking branch of the Negro race had, by the 16th century, spread by overland migration down the Atlantic coast to the Kunene River and to the Indian Ocean coasts between Transkei and Kenya, and through the evil transatlantic slave trade (ending in the mid-19th century) vast numbers of individuals were carried to most parts of the Americas. The Negro race is completely distinct from the black-skinned peoples of Australia and of the South Pacific island region of Melanesia, of which Papua New Guinea is the largest state. The darkest-skinned Melanesians are also known as Negrito.

[6] Originally a small Nguni clan living among several others in the region between the Thukela (Tugela) and Phongolo (Pongola) rivers (now in KwaZulu-Natal), the amaZulu rose to prominence through the seizure of power within the Mthethwa confederacy in 1818 by Shaka ka Senzangakhona. This began a period of conquest that created a kingdom in the Thukela-Phongolo area and a large buffer zone of devastation around it. It sparked off a period of inter-tribal raiding, warfare, vast devastation, migration and further kingdom formation (known as the Mfecane or Difaqane) that affected areas as far away as Lake Victoria and only ended following the death of Shaka in 1828.


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To Part 2 of this article (the circle of ascendance)

  • Sources: A new Coat of Arms for South Africa, booklet issued by the Government Communication and Information System, as well as other sources.

  • Scan courtesy of the Eastern Province Herald; illustrations of its subdivisions prepared using MS Picture It!

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    Comments, queries: Mike Oettle