Archaeology and Symbolism in the New South African Coat of Arms

By Smith, Benjamin; Lewis-Williams, J. D. et al. | Antiquity, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Archaeology and Symbolism in the New South African Coat of Arms


Smith, Benjamin, Lewis-Williams, J. D., Blundell, Geoffrey, Chippindale, Christopher, Antiquity


South Africa celebrated its sixth Freedom Day on 27 April 2000. President Thabo Mbeki paid fitting tribute to South Africa's first democratic elections of 1994 by unveiling a new national coat of arms. The old coat of arms, derived from that adopted at Union in 1910, looks fussy today and evokes the values of a long-gone age.

The new coat of arms (FIGURE 1), designed by Iaan Bekker, uses a series of motifs symbolizing another kind of national identity -- one which is South African, African and universal. A central motif is a pair of human figures (FIGURE 2) derived from San rock-art. They are modelled on a human figure on the famous panel (Lewis-Williams 1988) which was removed from Linton (Eastern Cape Province) to the South African Museum in Cape Town in 1918 -- in our view the greatest rock-art panel in any museum anywhere in the world. The San figures are a conscious historical reference intended to escape the colonial legacy and the racial divisions of the old South Africa.

[Figures 1-2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Government chose San figures for the central human image, as representing a heritage that unites all South Africans in common humanity. The particular choice of the figure was made by the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, the national research centre for rock-art. Its form and poise, and the manner in which a standing human figure is depicted, are characteristic of the hunter-gatherer rock-paintings of southern Africa. As the President explains it, this figure serves to evoke South Africa's distant past, in a country which seeks to embrace the indigenous belief systems of its people.

The motto underneath, also drafted by one of us at the Rock Art Research Institute (JDL-W), is in the /Xam language, one of the several known but extinct languages of the South African San people. The /Xam, like most San groups, did not use abstract nouns; and the motto `Unity in Diversity' which it expresses therefore has no exact /Xam equivalent. It is rendered in the phrase `!ke e: /xarra //ke', which -- translated literally -- means `Diverse people unite', or `People who are different join together'. The colon `:' in the phrase is an accent indicating the preceding `e' is a drawn-out vowel. The `!' and `/' and `//' represent three click-sounds of the /Xam language in the standard system of writing Khoisan languages (see e.

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