Heraldry in South Africa
February 2010 / December 2013

History of South African heraldry

THE earliest known heraldic displays in South Africa were the stone beacons (padraos) bearing the Portuguese royal coat of arms, which explorers Diego Cao and Bartolommeo Dias erected along the coast in the 1480s.

The continuous history begins with the establishment of the first European colony in 1652.

On this page : 17th century ; 18th century ; 19th century ; 20th century ; 21st century.

17th Century

Some historical South African arms (1) VO Compagnie - Jan v Riebeeck - Olof Bergh.

  • The (Dutch) Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC) established a colony at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Under Roman-Dutch law, everyone has the right to assume and bear a coat of arms.
  • The VOC's coat of arms and logo served as official symbols. Early VOC officials and settlers, such as Jan van Riebeeck, bore personal coats of arms.
  • A stone beacon bearing the Dutch coat of arms and the VOC logo was erected at Saldanha Bay in the 1670s. Later overturned when the French briefly laid claim to the bay, it was recovered in the 1960s and may the oldest surviving heraldic item from the Dutch colonial period.
  • The coats of arms of the Netherlands and six Dutch cities were placed above the stone entrance to the Castle of Good Hope in 1684.
  • A portrait of Olof Bergh, painted in 1685, depicted his coat of arms ; he is the earliest settler who is known to have been armigerous.

18th Century

Some historical South African arms (2) Joan Blesius -
J. Swellengrebel -
Johann Kirsten.

  • The oldest surviving heraldic memorial board ('hatchment') dates from 1711. It honours Jo(h)an Blesius.
  • The symbolic figure of Hope became a symbol of the colony when she was chosen as the official silver hallmark in 1715. She was later adopted by the Dutch Reformed Church, and later still by the militia.
  • Stained glass windows displaying the coats of arms of wealthy congregants such as Johannes Swellengrebel, were installed in the Stellenbosch church in 1723. They were probably the first of their kind in South Africa, and one panel still survives.
  • Sumptuary laws issued in 1755 restricted the display of coats of arms on vehicles.
  • Johann Kirsten obtained a German imperial grant of arms in 1767 ; the only known imperial grant of arms to a Cape colonist.
  • Two items of military heraldry survive from the 1780s : a silver cup with what may have been the badge of the Burgher Artillery, and a silver gorget displaying the figure of Hope on a shield.
  • The colony was occupied by British military forces from 1795 to 1803.

19th Century

Some historical South African arms (3) Graaff Reinet -
Ewan Christian - John Heath -
Sir Jan Truter.

Some historical South African arms (4) Diocese of CT - Aidan Devereux - Orange Free State - Edward Carson.

  • The colony was ruled by the Batavian Republic (as the Netherlands were then called) from 1803 to 1806.
  • The Batavian Republic assigned armorial seals to Cape Town and the other local authorities, such as the Graaff Reinet drostdy, in 1804. This was the beginning of municipal heraldry in South Africa.
  • The colony was under British military occupation again from 1806 to 1814, and a permanent British possession from 1814. The Articles of Capitulation guaranteed the preservation of the burghers' rights and privileges, which has been interpreted as including their right to assume and bear coats of arms. From 1814, though, colonists could obtain grants of arms from the British heraldry authorities if they wished.
  • British settlers began to establish themselves at the Cape. Some were armigerous and English, Scottish and Irish arms thus took their place alongside the existing Afrikaner heraldry. Early examples include the arms of Ewan Christian and John Henry Heath.
  • In the 1830s, Charles Bell began collecting details of Afrikaner coats of arms. His collection became a valuable reference source.
  • From 1835 onwards, thousands of Afrikaners ('Boers') who disliked British rule left the colony and established settlements inland.
  • Sir Jan Truter obtained a coat of arms from the College of Arms in 1837. This was the first English grant to a South African.
  • The emigrant Boers ('voortrekkers') established the Republic of Natalia in 1839. Britain annexed Natalia in 1843 and renamed it 'Natal'.
  • The Diocese of Cape Town was established in 1848. Its coat of arms marked the introduction of Anglican Church heraldry in South Africa.
  • The Roman Catholic Church, too, becomes firmly established in southern Africa. It's customary for each bishop to use a coat of arms : an early example is that of Bishop Aidan Devereux.
  • Two more Boer republics – the Orange Free State and the South African Republic – were established in the 1850s. The OFS adopted official arms in 1857. The SAR approved arms in 1858, but appears not to have taken them into use until 1866.
  • Charles Bell designed a coat of arms for the SA College in 1859. They are the earliest known academic arms (though the college didn't take them into use until 1888).
  • Natal's capital, Pietermaritzburg, assumed a coat of arms in 1861. They were the first example of civic heraldry in Natal.
  • David Tennant was granted arms by the Lord Lyon in 1872 : the first Scottish grant to a South African. The second was to Edward Carson in 1883.
  • Cape Colony adopted an official coat of arms in 1875 ; they were formally granted by Queen Victoria in 1876.
  • A springbok was included in the crest of the arms granted to Edward Randles of Durban in 1875. This appears to have been the animal's debut in heraldry.
  • Bloemfontein assumed a coat of arms in 1882 : apparently the first civic arms in the Orange Free State. Cape Town had its coat of arms formally granted by the College of Arms in 1899 : the first English grant of arms to a South African town (and only the fourth in the British Empire).

20th Century

Some historical South African arms (5) KE VII High School - South Africa - Signals Corps - U of Stellenbosch.


Some historical South African arms (6) Diocese of Natal - Durbanville - Witbank - Bureau of Heraldry.



Some historical South African arms (7) Arthur Viney - Transkei - SANAE - Jacobus v Wyk.

Some historical South African arms (8) South Africa - Nketoana.

  • Several prominent schools, such as King Edward VII High School assumed coats of arms between 1901 and 1916. Three universities obtained English grants of arms.
  • The Orange Free State and South African Republic became British colonies in 1902 and were renamed 'Orange River Colony' and 'Transvaal' respectively. King Edward VII granted official arms to the ORC in 1904, and to Natal in 1907. The Transvaal had no arms.
  • Johannesburg and Pretoria obtained grants of civic arms in 1907.
  • The colonies united in 1910 to form the Union of South Africa. Each colony became a province, and continued its existing arms (or none in the case of the Transvaal). King George V granted official arms and a great seal to the Union. He granted coats of arms to the four provinces in 1911, but none of them was used.
  • The defence force standardised its helmet flashes in 1923. Several, such as that of the SA Corps of Signals, later formed the basis for unit coats of arms.
  • Under the first Afrikaner nationalist government, the Orange Free State dropped its old colonial coat of arms in 1925. Later, in 1937, it adopted the old republican arms as provincial arms.
  • From 1935, associations and institutions could register their coats of arms as 'badges' with the Department of the Interior. Early registrations included the arms of the University of Stellenbosch.
  • The navy began to use ships' badges during World War II, and they were placed on a proper footing after the war.
  • Between 1949 and 1954, the Anglican dioceses' arms were formally granted by the College of Arms, an example being those of the Diocese of Natal. Roman Catholic diocesan arms were introduced in 1951.
  • From the late 1940s, the provincial administrations encouraged improvements in municipal heraldry. Many new arms, such as those of Durbanville and Witbank, were designed. Natal introduced legal protection for municipal arms in 1949. Similar systems were later introduced in the Transvaal (1951), Cape (1953) and OFS (1953).
  • The Transvaal adopted the old SA Republic arms as provincial arms in 1951.
  • The SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns recommended in 1951 that the State Archives establish a heraldry section to promote proper heraldic practice. In 1959, the Department of Education, Arts & Sciences established a Heraldry Section, to take over the registration of 'badges' and provide other services.
  • The Heraldry Society of Southern Africa was formed in 1953.
  • The defence force established its own heraldry section in 1954.
  • South Africa became a republic and left the Commonwealth in 1961. College of Arms and Lord Lyon jurisdiction ceased.
  • The Heraldry Act, passed in 1962 and brought into operation in 1963, introduced legal protection for personal and corporate, as well as official and municipal coats of arms.
  • South West Africa assumed official arms in 1963.
  • The Bureau of Heraldry and the Heraldry Council were established in 1963. Dr Coenraad Beyers was the first State Herald 1963-64, and Judge Victor Hiemstra was Heraldry Council chairman 1963-84. Norden Hartman was State Herald 1964-82.
  • Among the earliest to register personal arms was Arthur Viney (1964).
  • The army introduced unit coats of arms in 1965.
  • In the 1970s, the government granted self-government to the ten African 'homelands' within the Republic. All assumed official arms, the Transkei (1970) being the first.
  • Government department arms were introduced in 1971, an early example being those of the Department of Transport's SA National Antarctic Expedition (SANAE).
  • The Bureau introduced many innovations, such as the 'gabled' line of partition seen in the arms of Jacobus van Wyk (1982).
  • Frederick Brownell was State Herald 1982-2002. Lt Gen Hein du Toit was Heraldry Council chairman 1984-95.
  • In 1994, the homelands were reincorporated into the Republic, which was reconstituted as a democratic state and divided into nine provinces.
  • Prof Deon Fourie was Heraldry Council chairman 1995-98. Prof Themba Msimang was chairman 1998-2008.
  • Provincial arms were assumed by the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Mpumalanga in 1996; by Limpopo, Northern Cape and North West in 1997; by the Western Cape in 1998; and by the Free State in 1999. New national arms were introduced in 2000.

21st Century

  • Themba Mabaso has been State Herald since 2002. His title was changed to 'National Herald' in 2004. Prof Deon Fourie was Heraldry Council chairman again 2008-11. Prof Thenjiwe Meyiwa has been chairman since 2011.
  • Dozens of arms were designed for new municipalities which emerged from local government reorganisation. Those of Nketoana are an example.
  • KwaZulu-Natal assumed provincial arms in 2004.

References :
  • Balfour Paul, J.; Ordinary of Scottish Arms (1893, 1903).
  • Brownell, F.G.; National and Provincial Symbols (1993), Heraldry in the Church of the Province of SA (2002).
  • Bureau of Heraldry Database.
  • Fox-Davies, A.C.; Armorial Families (1895, 1899, 1905, 1929), The Book of Public Arms (1915).
  • Groenwald, J.A.; 'Schapen ... nie sommer nog 'n Weskus-eiland nie' in Lantern (July 1985).
  • Laing, R.A.; 'Staiend Glass at the Cape during the DEIC Period' in SA Journal of Cultural History (June 2001).
  • National Library of SA (Cape Town) : Bell-Krynauw Collection (MSB 69).
  • Pama, C.; Wapens van die Ou Afrikaanse Families (1959), Lions and Virgins (1965), Heraldry of South African Families (1972), Die Groot Afrikaanse Familienaamboek (1983).
  • Welz, S.; Cape Silver and Silversmiths (1976).

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