Military decorations and medals
June 2009 / March 2013

Military decorations and medals : overview

MILITARY orders, decorations, and medals dominate the South African honours system. There have been thirteen series of official awards since 1894, but only one is now in use.

Colonial forces — As British colonies, the Cape of Good Hope, Natal and, from 1902, the Transvaal, were under the British honours system. From 1894, the colonial governments were allowed to adopt some medals, and award them directly to their local forces. The rest of the honours system remained under British control.

Boer republican forces — Neither of the Boer republics - the Oranje Vrystaat and the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek - had official honours systems, but in 1920 a retrospective series of decorations and medals was instituted for Boer veterans who had fought in the Anglo-Boer War.

Union Defence Forces / SA Defence Force and RN Volunteer Reserve — The colonial system continued after the colonies united to form the Union of South Africa in 1910. In 1913 and 1914, the Union government re-adopted the decorations and medals for the new Union Defence Forces (later the SA Defence Force). They were superseded by a new series in 1939. The long service awards of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve were also adopted.

A third series was introduced in 1952. It was the first entirely South African series of awards, created in preparation for the republic which was established in 1961. It was superseded by a fourth series, which was instituted in 1975, and which the SADF used until it was incorporated into the new SA National Defence Force in 1994.

Homeland defence forces — Between 1976 and 1981, four of the African homelands within South Africa were declared independent, as part of the apartheid system. Each of these "national states" had its own defence force, and introduced its own military decorations and medals.

The Bophuthatswana Defence Force awards were introduced in 1982; the Venda Defence Force awards were established in 1984-85; the first Transkei Defence Force medal was instituted in 1987; and awards were authorised for the Ciskei Defence Force in 1988.

The homeland awards became obsolete when the national states were reincorporated into the Republic of South Africa in 1994, and their defence forces were integrated into the new SANDF.

Liberation armies — Neither of the liberation armies – uMkhonto weSizwe and the Azanian People's Liberation Army – which were integrated into the SANDF in 1994, had decorations or medals while they existed. A retrospective series of awards was instituted for ex-members in 1996.

SA National Defence Force — The SANDF, which was formed by amalgamating the SADF, the homeland defence forces, and the liberation armies, took over the former SADF decorations and medals, and used them until 2003, when the current series was instituted.

Military veterans — A series of decorations and medals for military veterans was instituted in 2012. To date, they have been awarded only to uMkhonto weSizwe veterans.

Unofficial awards — In the 19th century and early 20th century, in addition to the official military decorations and medals, there were a few unofficial awards which have become very well known (and which command high prices when specimens come on the market). The best-known are described here.

© Arthur Radburn
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