Achievement of arms
December 2013

Heraldic flags

FLAGS are closely related to coats of arms. They have been used continuously in South Africa since 1652, by governments, local authorities, military and naval units, corporate bodies, and private individuals.

Only flags of an heraldic nature are discussed on this page, namely standards, banners of arms, flags derived from arms, and flags displaying arms.


Standard of the city of Pretoria Standard of Pretoria (CoA 1914), displaying the city's arms, badge, motto and crest.

A standard is a long narrow flag, tapering to a rounded or split end. In the Middle Ages, it was used to identify a military commander's headquarters. It displayed the owner's badge(s), which were also worn by his retainers.

The standard is usually divided into four panels, displaying the owner's arms in the first, and his badge(s) and / or crest in the other three. The second and third panels and the third and fourth panels are separated by bends displaying the motto. The standard is surrounded by a fringe in alternating metal and colour.

Standards fell into disuse in the 16th century. They were reintroduced in England in 1906, together with the granting of badges. The badge and standard granted to the Pretoria municipality in 1914 may have been the first in South Africa.

South Africa has not developed a tradition of using standards. A couple of dozen have been registered over the years, but the majority of them belong to people in other countries.

Banners of arms

Some South African armorial banners Banners : Dept of the Interior - Johannesburg - Kgalagadi DM - Mpumalanga.

A banner of arms (or 'armorial banner') is the same design as the owner's shield. Traditionally, it is used to indicate the presence of its owner.

It would be appropriate for a municipality or a corporate body or a school to fly its banner outside the building(s) which it occupies. A private individual could fly his banner outside his home (although his neighbours might think him rather pretentious!)

A few banners have been registered at the Bureau of Heraldry, although this is not necessary if the arms themselves are registered. A banner, being the same design as the shield, is automatically covered by the registration of the arms.

Registered banners include those of : the Department of the Interior (BoH 1979), Johannesburg (TPA 1965), the Kgalagadi district Municipality (BoH 2004), and Mpumalanga province (BoH 1996). To date, Mpumalanga is the only province to have registered its own flag.

Flags derived from arms

Some South African flags derived from coats of arms Flags derived from arms : Colenso - SA Museum - Stellaland DC - University of SA.

Some flags are derived from arms, without following the shield design exactly. Several such flags have been registered. Unlike banners, they would not automatically be covered by the registration of the original arms.

Examples are the flags of Colenso (BoH 1989), the SA Museum (BoH 1988), the Stellaland Divisional Council (BoH 1984), and the University of South Africa (BoH 1986).

The Colenso and Unisa flags are simplified versions of their arms, omitting detailed charges. The SA Museum and Stellaland DC flags contain all the elements of their arms, but they are rearranged so that the chiefs on the shields become vertical bands on the flags (as was also done in the Unisa flag).

Flags displaying arms

Some South African flags displaying shields Flags bearing shields : Piet Retief - Stellenbosch DC - Union Airways - University of Pretoria.

Many flags consist simply of coats of arms (or the shields alone) placed on backgrounds. Some have plain single-colour fields, while others show a bit more creativity and have multi-coloured backgrounds.

A number of flags of this type have been registered at the Bureau. Examples are those of the Piet Retief municipality (BoH 1971), the Stellenbosch Divisional Council (BoH 1971), Union Airways (c1929), and the University of Pretoria (BoH 1975).

There were several official flags of this type before 1994 : the Cape Colony governor's flag and civil ensign (1876-1910) ; the Stellaland government 'standard' (c1883-85) ; the South African governor-general's flag (1910-30), civil ensign (1910/11-28), merchant ensign (1910/11-60) and state president's flags (1961-94) ; and the Bophuthatswana state president's flag (1977-94).

Legal protection

It's been possible, since 1935, to register flags as protection against unauthorised use. From 1935 to 1963, associations and institutions could register their flags as 'badges' under the Protection of Names, Uniforms and Badges Act. Since 1963, anyone has been able to register a flag, under the Heraldry Act. Details of registered flags can be found on the Bureau's database on the National Archives website.

References :
  • Brownell, F.G.; Some South African Flags 1940-1991 (SAVA Journal No 1/92) (1992) ; National and Provincial Symbols (1993).
  • Bureau of Heraldry Database.
  • Flags of the World website.
  • Friar, S.; A New Dictionary of Heraldry (1987).
  • Illsley, J.W.; In Southern Skies (2003).

Picture credit :
  • Bodel,J.D.; 'The Coat of Arms and Other Heraldic Symbols of the City of Pretoria' in Pretoriana No 96 (November 1989) (reprinted in Arma No 130 (1990)) : picture of Pretoria standard.

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