The Unveiling of the South African National Coat of Arms

If South Africa were a person, the Coat of Arms would be equivalent to a signature. The Coat of Arms signifies an official stamp or seal on legal documents, like your birth certificate. It can also be used as a badge on government buildings and as an emblem on coins to show that they are authentically and officially South African.
The National Coat of Arms is made up of several symbols, each with a specific meaning, which together helps to tell the story of South Africa.

©Roger de la Harpe

Presidential Speech

When the new Coat of Arms was first unveiled at Kwaggafontein on 27 April 2000, President Thabo Mbeki gave this speech: “Today, on our Freedom Day, we are also gathered here to unveil yet another symbol of our national identity, our new Coat of Arms. It is both South African and African. It is both African and universal. It serves to evoke our distant past, our living present and our future as it unfolds before us. It represents the permanent yet evolving identity of the South African people.

Through this new Coat of Arms, we pay homage to our past. We seek to embrace the indigenous belief systems of our people, by demonstrating our respect for the relationship between people and nature. It recollects the times when our people believed that there was a force permeating nature which linked the living with the dead. It pays tribute to our land and our continent as the cradle of humanity, as the place where human life first began.

A central image of our new coat of arms is the legendary secretary bird with its uplifted wings. This overarching protector is a bird which slays serpents and thus protects us against those who would do us harm. Above the bird is the rising sun, a force that gives life while it represents the flight of darkness and the triumph of discovery, knowledge, the understanding of things that have been hidden, illuminating also the new life that is coming into being - our new nation as it is born and evolves. Below the bird, is the protea, an indigenous flower of our land which represents beauty, the aesthetic harmony of our cultures, our flowering as a nation as we grow towards the sun.

The ears of wheat are emblems of the fertility of our land which has provided sustenance to our people for millennia as it will do in perpetuity. The tusks of the African elephant, reproduced in pairs to represent men and women, symbolise wisdom, steadfastness and strength.

At the centre stands a shield which signifies the protection of our being from one generation to the other. Above it, repose a spear and a knobkierie. Together, this ensemble asserts the defence of peace rather than a posture of war. This shield of peace, that also suggests an African drum, thus, simultaneously, conveys the message of a people imbued with love for culture, its upper part as a shield being imaginatively represented by the protea. Contained within the shield are some of the earliest representations of the human person in the world.

Those depicted, who were the very first inhabitants of our land, the Khoisan people, speak to our commitment to celebrate humanity and to advance the cause of the fulfilment of all human beings in our country and throughout the world.

These figures are derived from images on the Linton Stone, a world famous example of South African Rock Art. They are depicted in an attitude of greeting, demonstrating the transformation of the individual into a social being who belongs to a collective and interdependent humanity.

The motto of our new Coat of Arms, written in the Khoisan language of the /Xam people, means: diverse people unite or people who are different join together. We have chosen an ancient language of our people. This language is now extinct as no one lives who speaks it as his or her mother-tongue.

This emphasises the tragedy of the millions of human beings who, through the ages have perished and even ceased to exist as peoples, because of people’s inhumanity to others. It also says that we, ourselves, can never be fully human if any people are wiped off the face of the earth because each one of us is a particle of the complete whole.

By inscribing these words on our Coat of Arms - !ke e: /xarra //ke - we make a commitment to value life, to respect all languages and cultures and to oppose racism, sexism, chauvinism and genocide. Thus do we pledge to respect the obligation which human evolution has imposed on us - to honour the fact that in this country that we have inherited together is to be found one of the birthplaces of humanity itself.

Here in the language of our ancient past, we speak to present generations and those who are still to come about the importance of human solidarity and unity. We say that in the heart of every individual resides an inner necessity, essential humanity that compels each person, each people, to unite with another. This impulse and this conscious action makes us who we are and tells us where we as a South African people want to go.

The design carries within it images of the egg, symbolising the eternal reproduction of life. It is this forward movement that must take us to the African Century and the victory of the African Renaissance. I ask you all who are gathered here today to embrace this Coat of Arms as your own, to own it as a common possession, representing the aspirations of a winning nation that is conscious of the challenges that lie ahead and is confident of its capacity to overcome its difficulties.

As our flag flies proudly on its mast, evoking an intense spirit of an inclusive national identity, so must this Coat of Arms, which exemplifies the extraordinary creativity of our people through the ages, inspire our united and diverse nation to strive, to shine as brightly as the sun. ” - Thabo Mbeki