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South Africa’s Coat of Arms

The complex design and symbolism of South Africa's new Coat of Arms

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Contrast between buildings from different periods, center of Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa
De Agostini / L. Romano/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

In 1999, the South African Government started its quest for a new Coat of Arms to reflect life in the Rainbow Nation. Designed to be the highest visual symbol of the State, the Coat of Arms sits in the centre of the Great Seal, used to impart absolute authority. It was felt that the symbolism of the design should reflect the democracy and patriotism of the new South Africa embodied in the Sesotho phrase Batho Pele meaning 'People First'.
The Government Communication and Information System asked Design South Africa, an umbrella organisation representing local design agencies to brief 10 top designers who presented their designs to cabinet. The design chosen was by Iaan Bekker of the FCB Group. It was launched by President Thabo Mbeki at Kwaggafontein, Blomfontein, on Freedom Day, 27th April, 2000.

The design
The Coat of Arms has many elements, organized into two oval groups, one on top of one another. Together the two ovals create the symbol of infinity. In addition, if you look at through the centre of the design, it seems as if the secretary bird is hatching from the cosmic egg before the rising sun - symbolic of the rebirth of the nation.
The lower or foundation oval
At the base, in a green semicircle is the motto: !ke e: /xarra //ke ('diverse people unite') written in the Khoisan language of the /Xam people. On either side are pairs of elephant tusks symbolizing wisdom, strength, moderation and eternity. Enclosed by the tusks are two ears of wheat. A traditional emblem of fertility, these represent the idea of germination, growth, the development of potential, as well as agriculture and the nourishment of the people.
At the centre of the foundation oval is a gold shield, a symbol of spiritual defence. On it are two Khoisan figures. As the oldest inhabitants of South Africa and some of the oldest people on the planet, the Khoisan are perfect representatives for the whole of humanity. These two, based on the Khoisan Linton Stone, a world-famous piece of rock art now in the South African Museum in Cape Town, face each other in greeting and unity. The drawing represents the collective sense of belonging that comes from national identity. Above the shield are a spear and a knobkierie (Zulu fighting stick), symbols of defence and authority, arranged to form the top of the foundation oval and the legs of the secretary bird above. They are lying down, in peace.

The upper or ascendant oval
At the centre of the Coat of Arms is the South African National Flower, the King Protea, in stylized form. It looks a bit like a diamond, its triangular petals mirroring the patterns commonly found in traditional crafts. A symbol of country's beauty and African Renaissance, the protea has been given Africa's most popular colours - green, gold, red and black. It forms the breast of the secretary bird whose head and wings stretch out above it. Known for eating snakes and for its grace in flight, the secretary bird acts as a messenger of the heavens and protects the nation from its enemies. Between its wings, the rising sun is an emblem of brightness and splendour, it is the source of life and light. It promises rebirth, new beginnings and, ultimately the oneness of humanity.


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