History and heritage

South Africa's national symbols

What is the coat of arms that appears on your birth certificate, passport and R5 coin?

What does the South Africa motto !ke e: /xarra //ke mean? (Whose language is that?)

What do the springbok, blue crane, giant protea and real yellowwood have in common?

Here's a guide to the national symbols of South Africa, from the flag, coat of arms, the national orders and the animals and plants the country holds dear.

National flag

The national flag of the Republic of South Africa was adopted on Freedom Day, 27 April 1994, and first flown 10 May 1994 - the day Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President.

The central design of the flag, beginning at the flag-pole in a V form and flowing into a single horizontal band to the outer edge of the fly, can be interpreted as the convergence of diverse elements within South African society, taking the road ahead in unity.

The South African flag is the only national flag to display six colours as part of its primary design.

Officially, the South African flag colours do not hold any symbolism, although they have unmistakable historical origins. Black, yellow and green are the colours of ruling ANC party. Red, white and blue are a nod to both the flags of the European colonists as well as the old Boer republics.

On a more abstract level, the colours can be seen to represent South Africa's natural beauty (green and blue, nature and the oceans), agreeable climate (yellow and red, sun and soil) and its people (black and white).

National coat of arms

South Africa's coat of arms, or state emblem, is the highest visual symbol of the state.

Its central image is a secretary bird with uplifted wings, a sun rising above it. Below the bird is the protea, an indigenous South African flower, representing the aesthetic harmony of all cultures and the country flowering as a nation.

The ears of wheat are emblems of the fertility of the land, while the tusks of the African elephant symbolise wisdom, steadfastness and strength.

At the centre stands a shield signifying the protection of South Africans, above which are a spear and knobkierie. These assert the defence of peace rather than a posture of war.

Within the shield are images of the Khoisan people, the first inhabitants of the land. The figures are derived from images on the Linton Stone, a world-famous example of South African rock art.

National motto

!ke e:/xarra//ke

The motto of the coat of arms is derived from the extinct Khoisan language of the /Xam people, and means "diverse people unite", or "people who are different joining together".

*Former Presidents Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk receive the National Order in 2002

National orders

National orders are the highest awards that a country, through its President, bestows on its citizens and eminent foreign nationals. The President, as the fount of honour in the country, bestows these orders and decorations, assisted by the director-general in the Presidency, who is the chancellor of national orders.

The Order awards include:

  • The Order of Mapungubwe is awarded for excellence and exceptional achievement. Recipients include Nelson Mandela, FW De Klerk, Tim Noakes and HIV/Aids researcher Quarraisha Karim.
  • The Order of the Baobab is awarded for distinguished service in business and the economy; science, medicine, technological innovation; and community service. Recipients include Yusuf Abramjee, Cyril Ramaphosa, Roelf Meyer and cleric Barney Pityana.
  • The Order of the Companions of OR Tambo is awarded to heads of state and other dignitaries for promoting peace, cooperation and friendship towards South Africa. Recipients include Harry Belafonte, Sepp Blatter and US politician Ted Kennedy.
  • The Order of Luthuli is awarded to Africans who have made a meaningful contribution to the struggle for democracy, human rights, nation- building, justice and peace, and conflict resolution. Recipients include Josiah Gumede, Peter Mokaba and early ANC activist AB Xuma.
  • The Order of Ikhamanga is awarded for excellence in arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport. Recipients include Natalie Du Toit, Gary Player and Alan Paton.
  • The Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery is awarded to South African citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery. Recipients include Solomon Mahlangu and the South Africa Defence Force operating during the 2000 Mozambique floods.

National animal

South Africa's national animal is the springbok, also giving its name to the South African rugby team, the Springboks or the "Boks".

The springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) gets its common name from its characteristic jumping display - pronk in Afrikaans. The animal stands 75cm high and weigh about 40kg.

Both sexes have horns, but those of the ram are thicker and rougher. The species has adapted to dry, barren areas and open grass plains, and so is found in the Free State, North West and Karoo up to the west coast.

They move in small herds during winter, but often crowd together in bigger herds in summer.

National bird

The national bird of South Africa is the blue crane (Anthropoides paradisia), which is almost entirely indigenous to the country.

Standing up to a metre tall, the crane is a light blue-grey, with a long neck supporting a rather bulbous head, long legs and elegant wing plumes which sweep to the ground.

Blue cranes lay their eggs in the bare veld, often close to water. They are common in the Karoo, but are also seen in the grasslands of KwaZulu-Natal and the highveld, usually in pairs or small family parties. Although usually quiet, the blue crane can emit a distinctive high-pitched and rattling croak which can be heard from some distance.

National flower

The giant or king protea (Protea cynaroides) is widely distributed in the south-western and southern areas of the Western Cape, from the Cedarberg up to just east of Grahamstown. South Africa's national flower is the largest of the proteas, which make up an important part of the Cape Floral Region, a major global biodiversity hotspot and a Unesco World Heritage site. The proteas also give their name to South Africa's national cricket team.

National fish

South Africa's national fish is the galjoen (Dichistius capensis).

The galjoen endemic to South Africa, found only along the coastline from Namibia to Durban, and nowhere else in the world. The fish is also known for its fighting qualities, abundance and popularity.

The galjoen keeps to mostly shallow water, is often found in rough surf, sometimes right next to the shore, and is known to anglers as a game fighter.

Near rocks, for adaptability and protection, the colour of the galjoen is almost completely black, while in sandy areas it can change its colour to silver-bronze.

National tree

The yellowwood family of trees have grown in southern Africa for over 100 million years. The tree (Podocarpus latifolius) is South Africa's national tree, and can be found on Table Mountain, along the southern and eastern Cape coast, in the ravines of the Drakensberg up to the Soutpansberg and the Blouberg in Limpopo.

The trees can grow up to 40m in height with the base of the trunk, sometimes up to 3m in diameter. But trees that grow in unsheltered areas, such as mountain slopes, are often short, bushy and gnarled.

The bark of the real yellowwood is khaki-coloured to grey when it is old, deeply split and peels off in strips. The crown is relatively small in relation to its height and is often covered with grey lichen.

*This article was updated during October 2015

SAinfo reporter and South African Government Online

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South Africa's national symbols

South Africa's coat of arms and national flag, and the country's national flower (king protea), bird (blue crane), tree (real yellowwood), and animal (springbok) (Images: South African Government Online / South African Tourism)

South Africa's coat of arms

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