What’s that image that appears on your birth certificate, passport and R5 coin? What does KE E: /XARRA //KE mean? (Whose language is that?) What do the springbok, blue crane, giant protea and real yellowwood have in common?
Here’s a quick guide to the national symbols of South Africa, from the coat of arms and national orders to the animals and plants the country holds dear.
South Africa’s coat of arms, or state emblem, is the highest visual symbol of the state. Its central image is a secretary bird with uplifted wings, a sun rising above it. Below the bird is the protea, an indigenous South African flower, representing the aesthetic harmony of all cultures and the country flowering as a nation.
The ears of wheat are emblems of the fertility of the land, while the tusks of the African elephant symbolise wisdom, steadfastness and strength.
At the centre stands a shield signifying the protection of South Africans, above which are a spear and knobkierie. These assert the defence of peace rather than a posture of war.
Within the shield are images of the Khoisan people, the first inhabitants of the land. The figures are derived from images on the Linton Stone, a world-famous example of South African rock art. The motto of the coat of arms – !ke e:/xarra//ke – is in the Khoisan language of the /Xam people, and means “diverse people unite”, or “people who are different joining together”.
National orders are the highest awards that a country, through its President, bestows on its citizens and eminent foreign nationals. The President, as the fount of honour in the country, bestows these orders and decorations, assisted by the director-general in the Presidency, who is the chancellor of national orders.
The country’s national animal is the springbok, which also gives its name to the South African rugby team – fondly known as “the Boks”.
The springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) gets its common name from its characteristic jumping display – pronk in Afrikaans. The animal stands 75cm high and weigh about 40kg.
Both sexes have horns, but those of the ram are thicker and rougher. The species has adapted to dry, barren areas and open grass plains, and so is found in the Free State, North West and Karoo up to the west coast. They move in small herds during winter, but often crowd together in bigger herds in summer.
The national bird of South Africa is the blue crane (Anthropoides paradisia), the distribution of which is almost entirely restricted to the country. Standing about a metre tall, the bird is a light blue-grey, with a long neck supporting a rather bulbous head, long legs and elegant wing plumes which sweep to the ground.
Blue cranes lay their eggs in the bare veld, often close to water. They are common in the Karoo, but are also seen in the grasslands of KwaZulu-Natal and the highveld, usually in pairs or small family parties. Although usually quiet, the blue crane can emit a distinctive high-pitched and rattling croak which can be heard from some distance.
The giant or king protea (Protea cynaroides) is widely distributed in the south-western and southern areas of the Western Cape, from the Cedarberg up to just east of Grahamstown. South Africa’s national flower is the largest of the proteas, which make up an important part of the Cape Floral Region, a major global biodiversity hotspot and a Unesco World Heritage site. The proteas also give their name to South Africa’s national cricket team.
South Africa’s national fish is the galjoen (Dichistius capensis). The galjoen was chosen as the country’s national fish because of its endemism – it is found along the coast from Namibia to Durban, and nowhere else in the world – fighting qualities, abundance and popularity. It keeps to mostly shallow water, is often found in rough surf, sometimes right next to the shore, and is known to anglers as a game fighter. Near rocks, the colour of the galjoen is almost completely black, while in sandy areas the colour is silver-bronze.
The yellowwood family is ancient, having grown in this part of Africa for over 100- million years. The real yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius), South Africa’s national tree, is found from Table Mountain, along the southern and eastern Cape coast, in the ravines of the Drakensberg up to the Soutpansberg and the Blouberg in Limpopo.
In forests, the trees can grow up to 40m in height with the base of the trunk sometimes up to 3m in diameter. But trees that grow in unsheltered places such as mountain slopes are often short, bushy and gnarled. The bark of the real yellowwood is khaki-coloured to grey when it is old, deeply split and peels off in strips. The crown is relatively small in relation to its height and is often covered with grey lichen.