Achievement of arms
February 2010 / September 2017

Design elements

THIS page gives an overview of charges, crosses, crowns, lines of partition, partitions of the field, and tinctures and furs as used in South African heraldry.


Animals — The lion is the king of heraldic beasts in South Africa as he is in Europe. Since the 19th century, a variety of southern African animals have also found their way into heraldry.

Army HQ - National Parks Board - Pietermaritzburg - Mtubatuba Primary School - Bhisho - Umvoti Commando.

The springbok, whose debut was in 1875, is probably the best known, though its use as a charge in new arms has apparently been discouraged over the past few decades. It was the emblem of the SA Army until 2001.

Others include the kudu (as in the National Parks Board arms (DoI 1956)) ; the elephant (as in the Pietermaritz-burg arms) ; the merino ram in various municipal arms ; the rhinoceros (as in the Mtubatuba Primary School arms (BoH 1999)) ; the sable antelope (popular as a supporter) ; and, of course, Natal's wildebeest.

Birds — The eagle is probably the most popular bird. A number of indigenous birds, such as the blue crane (as in the Bhisho municipal arms (BoH 1991), the Cape gannet, the Cape vulture, the hammerhead (as in the Umvoti Commando arms), the Knysna loerie, and the secretary bird are also found. Since 1988, birds have been used as supporters for the arms of regional services councils (now district municipalities).

Buildings and structures — The traditional castle and tower are found in many South African arms. A few local buildings have also been used, particularly in municipal arms. An example is the grain silo in the arms of the former Delmas Commando.

Delmas Commando - W Coast RSC - National Sports Council - KwaZulu-Natal - two stylised proteas.

Clothing — Items of traditional clothing, such as a BaSotho hat, a Mpondo headdress, and a Zulu woman's headdress, have occasionally been used. They are usually placed above the shield rather then on it.

Fish and sealife — The generic heraldic fish is found in many arms. A number of local species have also been adopted. Examples include a crayfish in the West Coast Regional Services Council arms (BoH 1992) and the snoek in the former South Peninsula Municipality arms.

Flowers — The traditional heraldic rose is very popular. A number of local flowers have been introduced over the past century, the protea being very popular (as in the National Sports Council arms. Others include the aloe, the arum lily, the Barberton daisy, the blushing bride, the Hilton daisy, the Namaqualand daisy, the Orange River lily, the strelitzia (as in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial arms), and the welwitschia.

In the 1970s, the Bureau of Heraldry developed two stylised proteas for government use, but they have seldom appeared in coats of arms. The full-face flower is used in Correctional Services insignia.

Order of Ethiopia
Grove Primary.

Fruit, vegetables and crops — Various fruit and crops are found, particularly in municipal arms. Examples are bunches of grapes (as in the Kraaifontein arms (CPA 1964)), apples, and rooibos tea twigs,

Human figures — A number of male and female figures appear in South African arms, sometimes as supporters. They include "an African mother" in the Order of Ethiopia arms (BoH 1995), a "Cape miner", a Griqua hunter, "a soldier of the Buffs", a Xhosa warrior, and a Zulu warrior. Classical allegorical figures such as Ceres, Hope, Mercury, and Minerva are also found.

Insects — Examples of species which have been used as charges are the colophon beetle, the mopani worm, the scorpion, and the spider. The bee is often used as a symbol of industry, particularly in Pretoria.

Mining and minerals — Mining equipment such as picks and shovels, hammers, mine headgear, and battery stamps have all been used as charges, particularly in municipal arms.

Minerals are represented by cut and faceted diamonds (as in the Rayton municipal arms (BoH 19xx)), gold ingots, and symbolic charges such as black lozenges (for coal) and bezants (for gold).

Monuments — Representations of a few monuments have been used as charges, usually in municipal or school arms. Examples are the campanile and the Donkin Memorial (both in Port Elizabeth), the Herschel obelisk (in the arms of Grove Primary School (BoH 1968)), the Paardekraal monument, and the Voortrekker monument. The Bureau of Heraldry does not encourage their use.

Boegoeberg Cdo
Royal Society

Mountains and hills — Conventionally, mountains are represented by dancetty lines, or by a stylised peak made up of several 'coupeaux' (as in the Boegoeberg Commando arms). Occasionally, specific mountains are depicted, such as Table Mountain, Isandhlwana (in the Nquthu municipal arms (BoH 2003), and the Maskam mountains.

Reptiles — The cobra and the crocodile appear in a few arms.

Science and technology — A few symbols, such as an atom and a sine curve, and pieces of equipment such as an astronomer's quadrant (in the arms of the Royal Society of SA (BoH 1979)), a Coolidge tube, a space satellite, and a tachymeter, can be found.

Transportation — The ox-wagon is a very popular charge, particularly in the former Transvaal, whose symbol it was. Wagon wheels are also used as charges. Locomotives, and sometimes locomotive wheels, appear in several municipal arms.

A variety of ships and boats, including a caravel, a fishing boat, and a Viking longboat, can be found.

Aircraft are occasionally found, usually in air force unit arms.

Trees — Several southern African trees have been used as charges, particularly in municipal and school arms. They include the baobab (as in the Limpopo provincial arms (BoH 1997), for instance), the camel-thorn, the cycad. the makalani palm, the marula, the quiver tree (kokerboom), the wonderboom, and the yellowwood (which is the national tree).

Weapons : assegai - knobkierie - Swazi / Zulu and Tswana battle-axes

Weapons — Traditional European weapons such as swords, daggers, halberds, and caltraps are well established as heraldic charges. Several African weapons, such as the assegai (spear), knobkierie (club), and battle-axe have been added to the armoury.


Crosses are rare in early Cape Dutch coats of arms (17th-18th centuries), and it appears to have been the British who brought most of the well-known varieties to South Africa during the nineteenth century. A few more were introduced in the twentieth century, most of them by the Bureau of Heraldry in its quest to create a unique South African heraldic idiom :

  • Bow and arrow cross (1978) : until it was given a name, it was blazoned as "a barbed fillet cross each limb surmounted crosswise by an unstrung bow" ;
  • Fir-twigged cross (1989) : four stylised fir-twigs (but when it's a fir-twigged Latin cross, only the three upper limbs are fir-twigged and the lower is plain) ;
  • Gable cross (or 'cross gably') (1979) : four stylised Cape Dutch farmhouse gables ;
  • Huguenot cross (1948) : a 17th-century French protestant symbol, comprising a Maltese cross (or sometimes a cross moline) with fleurs de lis in the angles, and a descending dove below, which is used to indicate connections with the French Huguenot settlers who arrived in 1688 ;
  • Protea cross (1970s) : four highly stylised protea flowers slipped and leaved and conjoined in cross; I've not found any example of its use in a registered coat of arms.

Crowns and coronets

Crowns and coronets have always been popular in South African heraldry.

Crest coronets — Several 18th-century seals show personal coats of arms ensigned of coronets in place of helmets and crests. This was a fashion in Europe at the time. Most of the coronets consist of leaves alternating with pearls.

Various British heraldic coronets, e.g. the ancient crown, astral crown, ducal coronet, mercantile crown, and naval crown, have been used over the past century or so.

There are also several South African designs, most of them unique. Those which have come into more general use are :

  1. A coronet of four fleurs de lis alternating with four pearls ;
  2. Fir-twig coronet (1984) : a plain circlet heightened of six stylised fir-twigs ;
  3. Protea coronet (1984) : a jewelled circlet heightened of four stylised protea flowers alternating with pearls.

Other coronets, which have been used only once, are generally made up of a gold circlet, heightened of charges such as roses and trefoils (1974), wolfhooks (1982), garbs and bees (1991), proteas and roses (1993), fleurs de lis and acorns (1997), proteas and fleurs de lis (1997), fountain pen nibs and protea flowers (2001), escallops and pearls (2002), Cape Dutch gables (2003), diamonds and emeralds (2003), and proteas and bees (2003).

Crowns and coronets of rank — From 1814 to 1961, the British crown was an official symbol in South Africa. The 'Tudor' pattern was laid down as the official version in 1901, and replaced by the 'St Edward' pattern in 1952.

Natal introduced a variant of the Tudor crown in 1930, and it was recorded with the provincial arms at the College of Arms in 1955. This 'Natal crown' is the same shape as the Tudor crown, but has eight crosses instead of four crosses and four fleurs de lis, there are no pearls on the transverse arch, and the cap is black instead of red.

The Barons Van Reede van Oudtshoorn (in South Africa since 1741) display a Dutch baron's coronet above their arms. The Barons De Villiers of Wynberg (created 1910) have a British baron's coronet. Their centuries-old crest, however, includes a French countly coronet.

Mural crowns — You'll find details and images here.


Decorative lines are rare in early Cape Dutch coats of arms, and their use was evidently popularised under British colonial rule in the nineteenth century. Today, South African heraldry displays all of the centuries-old lines, such as dancetty, engrailed, and wavy, and some of the 20th-century British / European innovations such as fir-tree-topped and wave-crested.

In addition, South African heraldic designers have modified some of the traditional lines to create new effects, and developed some new lines and some interesting partitions of the field, inspired by local architecture and scenery :

  1. 'Broad fitchy couped' (1992) : suggesting the outline of a minedump ;
  2. 'Cupolaed' (1984) : inspired by Indian temple domes ;
  3. "Dancetty the peaks couped" (2002) : suggesting flat-topped hills ;
  4. "Dancetty the peaks crenellated" (or 'embattled' or 'flattened') (1966) : suggesting flat-topped hills ('koppies') ;
  5. "Embattled in the form of minedumps" (1999) ;
  6. "Embattled pointed" (1983) ;
  7. 'Gabled' or 'gably' (1976) : inspired by Cape Dutch farmhouse gables ;
  8. 'Gably counter-gably' (1975) ;
  9. "In each flank a full and a half peak to base the half-peak against the respective edges of the shield" (1992) : a stylised outline of Table Mountain ;
  10. 'Nowy of a gable' (1982) ;
  11. 'Nowy of an Indian cupola' (1992) ;
  12. 'Nowy of a Karoo gable' (1988) : inspired by Karoo farmhouse gables; there are two versions.

Partitions of the field

Some of the conventional British / European partitions such as 'per fess', 'per bend', and 'per chevron', have been modified to serve specific purposes :

  1. "Per bend [or bend sinister] inclined in the flanks fesswise" (1996) ;
  2. "Per chevron the peak ensigned with a potent issuant" (1988) : used in the arms of several schools for handicapped children ;
  3. "Per chevron embowed, the peak couped" (2003) : suggesting the outline of the Amajuba mountain ;
  4. "Per fess of a trimount" (1981) ;
  5. "Per fess nowy of a trimount to base" (1981) ;
  6. "Per fess urdy of three pallets" (1981).

Tinctures and furs

South African heraldry uses the standard European range of tinctures (the collective term for colours and metals) and furs, plus a few other colours such as orange, brown, and ochre, and an oxhide pattern.

As in western Europe, blue is probably the most popular colour. Of the metals, silver seems to be slightly more popular than gold, despite the latter's economic importance.

Furs are fairly rare, and ermine seems to be the most popular of them.

The oxhide pattern, introduced in 1998, consists of irregular patches of black (or brown) and white, as found on traditional African war shields. It is blazoned as "pied at random"

In English, most of the tinctures are still called by their old French names such as 'azure' and 'argent', but in Afrikaans they're known by their everyday names, such as 'blou' en 'silwer'. Since 1982, the Bureau of Heraldry has generally used the term 'orange' instead of 'tenné'.

A lot has been written over the centuries about the specific meanings of tinctures. Red, for instance, is supposed to mean valour, and green to stand for honesty and love. However, this is fantasy. There has never been a universal colour code, and the significance of a particular colour or metal in a coat of arms really depends on what the designer of the arms wanted it to mean.

A number of colours and colour combinations have acquired specific meanings in South Africa, and some of them have been incorporated into heraldry. For example :

  • blue and silver (white) : the Cape of Good Hope ;
  • gold : gold-mining ;
  • green : the Transvaal, the dominant colour in the national flag ;
  • green and gold : the Springbok sports colours ;
  • murrey (maroon) : the medical profession (especially in the defence force) ;
  • orange : the Orange Free State, and the Orange River ;
  • orange, silver (white) and blue : the old (1928-94) national flag ;
  • red : Natal.

In the Army, each corps (branch) has its own distinctive arm-of-service colours, which are often used in unit coats of arms.

References :
  • Brownell, F.G.; 'Heraldry in South Africa' in Optima (Dec 1984); 'Finnish Influence on SA Heraldic Design' in Arma 116 (1986).
  • Bureau of Heraldry Database.
  • Government Gazette 9218 (11 May 1984), 23619 (19 Jul 2002), 26112 (12 Mar 2004).
  • Maree, B.; 'Unique Heraldic Tradition' in SA Panorama (Jul 1984).

This website has been created for interest and entertainment. It is unofficial and not connected with, or endorsed by, any authority or organisation. It is the product of the webmaster's research, and the content is his copyright. So are the illustrations on this page, unless stated otherwise. Additional information, and correction of errors, will be welcome.
© Arthur Radburn
Website hosted by Web Hosting