Honours system
December 2009

Categories of award

THE orders, decorations, medals, and emblems which make up the South African honours system are divided into seven categories, based on the services and achievements which they recognise. This is international practice and, for historical reasons, South Africa's system is based on that of the United Kingdom.

The categories are : gallantry; distinguished service; meritorious service; campaign service; commemorative medals; long service; sports achievements; and shooting.

Gallantry decorations — Decorations which are awarded to individuals (and nowadays also to military units collectively) for risking or sacrificing their lives in the course of military or police action, or in order to save the lives of others, or to protect property. Many have been awarded posthumously. They enjoy high ranking in the table of precedence, and most carry the privilege of using post-nominal letters.

Following British practice, decorations for gallantry recognise four levels of bravery, which are defined by the degree of risk and, in the case of military decorations, the individual's level of training and experience. The fourth class, which exists only in the military honours system, consists of an emblem.

South African decorations for gallantry include the Castle of Good Hope Decoration (1952-2003); the Honoris Crux Decoration (1975-2003); the Queen's Medal for Bravery (1939-70); the SAP Cross for Bravery; and the current Nkwe ya Gauta (2003- ) and the Order of Mendi for Bravery.

Orders — From 1814, South Africans were eligible for British orders for distinguished and meritorious service, and they featured in the annual honours lists from the mid-1870s until the mid-1920s. The first proposal to establish a South African order – the 'Order of the Golden Eagle' – was made in the South African Republic in 1894, but it failed because public opinion was against it. This Afrikaner prejudice persisted well into the 20th century, and was responsible for the cessation of nominations for British orders in 1925. The Orders of the Bath and of the British Empire were conferred again during World War II, but almost exclusively on military officers.

When South Africa established its own honours system in 1952, awards which should have been orders were called 'decorations', though they were worn on neck ribbons like the badges of orders. It was not until 1973 that the first order, the Order of Good Hope, was finally established. Others followed, and in 1986 they were centralised under a Chancery of Orders and collectively labelled the 'National Orders'. A new series of orders was established in 2002-03 to replace the apartheid-era honours. The president is the patron of each order and is ex officio a member of its highest class while he serves as president.

Orders are conferred for achievements and services to the country (or, in the case of the Western Cape provincial honours, to the province). They are divided into 2-5 classes, some simply called 'gold', 'silver' and 'bronze', while others have been given the traditional European designations of 'grand cross', 'grand officer', 'commander', 'officer', and 'member'. Recipients of the higher classes of the orders are authorised to use post-nominal letters.

The national orders of the 'old' South Africa were: Order of the Southern Cross, Order of the Star of SA (Military), Order of the Star of SA (Non-Military), Order for Meritorious Service, and Order of Good Hope.

The current national orders are: Order of Mapungubwe, Order of Mendi for Bravery, Order of the Baobab, Order of Luthuli, Order of Ikhamanga, and Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo. The only provincial order is the Order of the Disa, in the Western Cape.

The four 'independent' homelands also had orders, which became obsolete when the homelands were reincorporated into South Africa in 1994: the Order of the Aloe (Transkei 1976-94), Order of the Leopard (Bophuthatswana 1977-94), Order of Thohoyandou (Venda 1979-94), Order of Indwe (Ciskei 1981-94), Order of Ntaba ka Ndoda (Ciskei 1981-94), and Order of Transkei (1987-94).

Meritorious service awards — Decorations which are awarded to recognise outstanding achievements and above-average performance of duty in the defence force, the police and, in the past, the railways police, correctional services and intelligence services. These honours rank after decorations for gallantry and before campaign medals. Most carry the privilege of using post-nominal letters.

Since 1975, there has been a clear hierarchy of three levels of awards, which are usually granted progressively and cumulatively from the third level upwards. As a result, the 1st-level awards usually go only to high-ranking officers and warrant officers. Decorations in this category include the Southern Cross Decoration (1975-2003); the SAP Star for Outstanding Service (1978-2004); and the current iPhrothiya yeGolide (2003- ).

Campaign medals — Medals which are awarded for taking part in wars, campaigns, and other operations. The qualification is usually to have served for a minimum period of time (anything from one day to six months) in a designated operational area, between specified dates. The nature or quality of the service is seldom material.

In terms of precedence, campaign medals rank after decorations, and before commemorative medals and long service medals (except in the police forces from 1974 to 1990, when they ranked after long service medals).

South African campaign medals have been: the Cape of Good Hope General Service Medal (1900), the Natal Native Rebellion Medal (1907), the Victory Medal (1919), the Zuidafrikaanse Republiek en Oranje Vrijstaat Oorlogsmedalje (1920), the Africa Service Medal (1943), the Korea Medal (1953), the SA Police Medal for Combating Terrorism (1974), the Pro Patria Medal (1974), the SA Railways Police Medal for Combating Terrorism (1980), the Southern Africa Medal (1989), the General Service Medal (1989), the Southern Africa Service Medal, the Operational Service Medal for Southern Africa, and the current Tshumelo Ikatelaho (2003).

Commemorative medals — Medals which are issued to commemorate specific events. Until 1917, they took precedence after decorations and before campaign medals, but since then they have ranked between campaign medals and long service medals (except for a few years in the 1980s, when police commemorative medals were ranked at the very end of the row, after all other categories of award).

South African commemorative medals have been: the Union of South Africa Commemoration Medal (1910), the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal (1953), the SA Police 75th Anniversary Commemoration Medal (1988), the Unitas Medal (1994), the SA Police Service Amalgamation Medal, the SAPS Ten Year Commemoration Medal (2004), and the Municipal/Metropolitan Police Inauguration Medal (2008). The various homeland police forces issued medals to commemorate their establishments as separate organisations.

Long service medals — These are or have been awarded to members of the defence force, police, correctional services and intelligence service, to recognise completion of prescribed periods of service in those organisations. Good conduct is also a requirement. Until 1917, long service decorations ranked after decorations for gallantry while long service medals ranked after campaign medals, but since then all long service awards have ranked after campaign and commemorative medals. Alternative terms such as "good service", "faithful service" and, currently, "loyal service", are also used.

Until 1952, the defence forces used British long service awards, which differentiated between full-time and part-time forces, between officers and other ranks, and between the different branches of service. The prisons service, police, railways police also followed the military model. In 1952, the defence force eliminated rank differentiation, and the other organisations followed their lead in the 1960s. In 1975, the defence force rationalised qualifying periods to a system of granting awards cumulatively at 10-year intervals, and this too was later adopted by the other services. Finally, in 2003, the defence force abolished the differentiation between regular and reserve personnel, and it now has a single medal open to everyone.

Because of these changes in the system, South Africa has had a considerable number of long service medals since they were introduced in 1894. They include the Faithful Service Medal of the Prisons Department (1922-68), the John Chard Decoration (1952-2003), the Prime Minister's Award (1978-84), and the current Medalje vir Troue Diens (2003- ). The homelands had similar systems of long service medals.

Sports awards — Since 1967, the South African government has presented annual awards to top sportsmen and -women and others connected with organised sport. There were originally two awards : the State President's Sports Award (1967) and the SA Sports Merit Award (1971). They were replaced by a single Presidential Sports Award in 1994.

Shooting medals — From 1924 to 2003 (except during World War II), the winners of the defence force's annual shooting championships were awarded medals: the King's/Queen's Medal (1924-61), the Commandant-General's Medal (1962-75), and the SADF Champion Shot Medal (1976-2003). A medal for school cadet shooting champions was added in 1987. Bophuthatswana and Ciskei also had shooting medals for their defence forces.

© Arthur Radburn
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