Honours system
June 2009

Historical development

SOUTH Africa's honours system has developed over three and a half centuries. The occasional award of medals by the Dutch colonial authorities in the 17th and 18th centuries was followed by inclusion in the British imperial honours system in the 19th and 20th. This was followed by the creation of an independent system of decorations and medals in 1952.

17th century

In April 1652, the Dutch Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) established the first European settlement in South Africa, at the Cape of Good Hope. There was no organised honours system as such, but from time to time the VOC awarded once-off medals for special achievements or services. They did not have ribbons, but some were suspended from chains.

1670s — In 1677, the VOC awarded a silver-gilt medal to governor Ysbrand Goske, to commemorate the completion of the Castle of Good Hope. It might be regarded as the first commemorative medal. 275 years later, the Castle's name was given to South Africa's highest military decoration.

1680s — In 1689, the VOC presented a gold medal to East Indies governor Jean de Hartog, for capturing two enemy ships in Table Bay.

1690s — In 1695, the VOC awarded a silver-gilt medal to the captain of the ship De Gouden Buys, most of whose crew had perished during a stopover at the Cape.

18th century

1700s — The VOC issued silver medals to mark its centenary in 1702. It is possible that some high-ranking officials at the Cape were among the recipients.

1740s — East Indies governor-general Baron Gustav van Imhoff was inaugurated at the Cape in 1743, and issued silver medals to mark the occasion.

1750s — In 1751, the VOC presented outgoing governor Hendrik Swellengrebel (the only Cape-born governor of the colony) with a medal in recognition of his years of service. It might be regarded as the first award for distinguished leadership.

1780s — The Netherlands and France were at war with Great Britain from 1780 to 1783. A British naval force was sent to seize the Cape in 1781, but was defeated by a French fleet under V Adm Pierre de Suffren. The VOC awarded medals to him and six VOC officials.

1790s — The VOC lost the Cape to a British invasion force in 1795, and went bankrupt soon afterwards. The British military occupation lasted until 1803.

19th century

1800s — The first British occupation was followed by a brief Dutch restoration (1803-06), and then by a second British occupation from 1806 to 1814.

1810s — In 1814, the Netherlands ceded the Cape of Good Hope permanently to the British. Cape colonists thus became British subjects, and were therefore eligible for British honours and awards.

1820s — Chief justice Jan Truter was knighted in 1823 : the first of more than 100 South Africans to be knighted over the following century.

1830s — In 1835, thousands of Afrikaners a.k.a. Boers (descendants of the Dutch colonists) trekked out of the colony, to establish new territories where they could be independent of British rule.

In 1840, Andries Stockenstrom was created a baronet : the first of about a dozen South African baronets to be created over the following eight decades.

1840s — Britain seized the Boer territory of Natal in 1842.

1850s — In 1851, Cape governor Sir Harry Smith awarded a medal to members of the colonial forces for gallantry during the Frontier War between the British and the Xhosa. The British government later agreed to pay for the medal, thus giving it semi-official status. It is now regarded as the first original South African medal.

Britain recognised the remaining Boer territories as independent states : the Oranje Vrystaat (OVS) and the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR).

1860s — In 1867, the highest British military decoration, the Victoria Cross, was made available to colonial forces.

1870s — In 1874, ZAR president Thomas Burgers established the Burgers Cross.

From 1877, Cape and Natal colonists featured regularly in the semi-annual British honours lists. The most widely conferred honour was the Order of St Michael and St George.

Cape and Natal forces fought in a succession of local campaigns against the Xhosa, the Zulu, the Basotho, and the BaTswana between 1877 and 1880. They received British campaign medals, and some were decorated, nine with the Victoria Cross. The first VC recipient was Maj Hans Garrett Moore, in 1877.

1880s — Medals were issued to celebrate Queen Victoria's golden jubilee in 1887. They were the first commemorative medals designed to be worn.

1890s — In 1893, the ZAR government proposed establishing an official honours system, but it was turned down by the Volksraad (legislature) because public opinion was against it.

In 1894, Queen Victoria authorised colonial governments throughout the British Empire to adopt and award selected military medals to their local forces. Both Natal and the Cape Colony introduced this system later in the year – the beginning of the development of the South African honours system that has continued to the present day.

20th century

1900s — From 1899 to 1902, the Boer republics were at war with the British Empire, including the Cape and Natal. The colonial forces received British decorations and medals, including eleven Victoria Crosses. The republics lost the war, and became British colonies in 1902. The Transvaal (formerly the ZA Republiek) then adopted the colonial military medals already used by Natal and the Cape.

1910s — The four colonies united to form the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion in the British Empire. A medal was issued to commemorate the event. The colonial honours system remained in force, and in 1913 the government adopted the available military medals for the new Union Defence Forces (UDF).

South Africa fought in World War I (1914-18). The British government awarded orders and decorations - including three Victoria Crosses - to the UDF and the SA Overseas Expeditionary Force, and in 1919 South Africa added its own version of the Victory Medal. Capt Andrew Beauchamp Proctor emerged as SA's most highly decorated servicemen of the war, with the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross and Bar, and Distinguished Flying Cross, all won while serving in the Royal Air Force in France in 1918.

After the war, SA volunteers served with the British forces fighting the communists in Russia. Several received Russian orders and decorations for their service.

In 1920, the government instituted a series of awards for Boer veterans of the Anglo-Boer War – the first of several original awards to be created by the Union government independently of the British crown.

1920s — The Union government established further awards to meet needs not provided for by the British honours system : a medal for the Prisons Department in 1922 and another for the SA Police in 1923.

In 1925, after an Afrikaner government had come to power, Parliament decided that South Africans should no longer be recommended for titles, baronetcies, or knighthoods.

1930s — In 1934, the government instituted the first medal for the SA Railways & Harbours Police Force. Later that year, South Africa became constitutionally independent of Great Britain.

In 1937, in his capacity as South African head of state, King George VI instituted a South African version of the King's Police Medal - the first of twenty royal South African medals to be established over the following sixteen years. In 1939, the king instituted the King's Medal for Bravery, as the highest South African civil honour, and a new series of military medals.

1940s — South Africa fought in World War II (1939-45). By special arrangement with the king, British orders and decorations - including three more Victoria Crosses - were awarded to South Africans serving in British formations, and from 1943 the Union government was able to award British honours to UDF personnel in South Africa. The Africa Service Medal was authorised for active service volunteers, and a medal was instituted for civilian volunteers.

Seventeen military and civilian personnel were decorated for rescue and salvage work after the UDF's Grand Magazine exploded in 1945: the largest number of decorations yielded by a single event up to that time.

Capt Edwin Swales SAAF (attached RAF) was South Africa's most highly-decorated serviceman of World War II, with a (posthumous) Victoria Cross and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Afrikaner nationalists won the 1948 general election and entrenched themselves in power for forty-six years. High on their agenda were a republic, and systematic race segregation (apartheid), both of which shaped the development of the honours system.

1950s — A small South African contingent served under American command in the Korean War (1950-53). Its members received American and South Korean decorations, the most highly decorated being Maj Johann Blaauw SAAF, who was awarded the American Silver Star and the Air Medal (four times).

In 1952, in preparation for a republic, the government introduced its own honours system, consisting largely of a series of decorations and medals for the UDF (later renamed SA Defence Force). A new table of precedence, issued in October 1954, ranked the new decorations and medals, together with some pre-1952 awards which were retained as a temporary measure, above British honours and awards, with the sole exception of the Victoria Cross.

In 1958 and 1959, the queen's role as fount of honour was transferred to the governor-general.

1960s — The Union became the Republic of South Africa (RSA) in May 1961, and left the Commonwealth. A state president replaced the queen and the governor-general, and inherited the role of fount of honour. He enlarged the honours system by creating new series of decorations and medals for the SA Police in 1963; the SA Railways Police Force in 1966; sports achievers in 1967; the SA Prisons Service in 1968; and civilians in 1970.

The 'Border War' against the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (which wanted to end South African rule of South West Africa) began in 1966.

1970s — South Africa's first order, the Order of Good Hope, was established in 1973.

A complete overhaul of the honours system began in 1975. It increased the number of available honours, and the number of awards granted each year. The process began with a new series of awards for the defence force in 1975, and continued with the creation of civil defence decorations in 1976; additional police awards in 1979; and new awards for the prisons service and the railways police in 1980.

As part of the apartheid system, three of the ten African homelands within the Republic were declared independent in the late 1970s, and each established its own honours system consisting of an order and a commemorative medal: the Transkei in 1976; Bophuthatswana in 1977; and Venda in 1979.

1980s — The RSA honours system was further enlarged by instituting awards for the National Intelligence Service in 1981; reorganising the national orders and establishing a Chancery of Orders in 1986; and introducing a Public Service decoration in 1987.

In 1982, Capt Arthur Walker SAAF became the most highly-decorated serviceman of the Border War by winning the Honoris Crux Gold twice in the space of a few months. In 1987, a dozen SADF combat swimmers were decorated for blowing up a bridge, under enemy fire, in crocodile-infested waters in Angola: the greatest number of combat decorations to be awarded for a single incident in the conflict. The war ended in 1989.

From 1985 to 1990, the government maintained a state of emergency in response to the armed struggle by the Azanian People's Liberation Army and uMkhonto weSizwe to end apartheid and establish majority rule.

Twenty-nine decorations were awarded to police and civilians for rescue work after a school bus plunged into the Westdene Dam in 1985: the largest number of decorations yielded by a single event up to that time.

South West Africa established decorations for its police force in 1981, and later also for its prisons service.

A fourth homeland, the Ciskei was declared independent in 1981. In addition to civil awards, it established a series of police decorations and medals. Military and prisons service awards followed in 1988.

Scores of decorations and medals were established in the other homelands during the 1980s. Bophuthatswana instituted its own military decorations in 1982, police awards c1983, and prisons service awards in 1984.

KwaZulu established police decorations in 1982, and prisons service awards in 1990. The Transkei instituted prisons service medals in 1982 and its first defence force award in 1987. Gazankulu instituted police decorations and medals in 1983.

Venda instituted defence force awards in 1984-85, and decorations for the Venda National Force, police, and prisons service in 1985.

Police decorations and medals were established by QwaQwa in 1985; by KaNgwane in 1986; by KwaNdebele in 1987; and by Lebowa in 1990.

1990s — Thirty-three defence force members were decorated for rescuing the passengers from the liner Oceanos, which sank in 1991: the largest number of decorations yielded by a single event up to the present time. A collective decoration was later awarded to the rescue teams.

In 1994, South Africa was reconstituted as a democratic state, under majority rule, and the homelands were reincorporated into the Republic. All their civil, military, and prisons service awards become obsolete as a result.

The SADF, the homeland defence forces, and the liberation armies amalgamated to form the SA National Defence Force, which took over the SADF decorations and medals. In 1996, the government instituted a series of decorations and medals for former members of uMkhonto weSizwe and the Azanian People's Liberation Army. The SAP and the homeland police forces amalgamated in 1995 to form the SA Police Service, which took over the SAP decorations and medals.

The National Intelligence Service awards became obsolete when the NIS was disbanded at the end of 1994. The prisons service awards were discontinued when the department "civilianised" in 1996.

In 1999, the Western Cape provincial government instituted its own honours system. They were the first (and, so far, the only) provincial awards in South Africa.

21st century

2000s — The government established an entirely new honours system, to replace the "old South African" orders, decorations and medals of the apartheid era. A new series of national orders was instituted in 2002; new defence force decorations and medals followed in 2003; new police awards in 2004; new intelligence service awards in 2005; and the first ever municipal/metropolitan police decorations and medals in 2008.

2010s — Decorations were established for military veterans in 2012.

© Arthur Radburn
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