Bumpy launch for SA's new coat of arms

By Jean Le May Time of article published Apr 29, 2000

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The new South African coat of arms has got off to a shaky start, with the disclosure that the Heraldry Council was largely bypassed in its formulation as its suggestions were deemed "Eurocentric".

Opposition parties also object to the unilateral way it was chosen and the design has come in for strong public criticism.

The new crest was unveiled, unexpectedly, by President Thabo Mbeki at an army parade in Bloemfontein on Freedom Day this week.

The Democratic Party has slammed the government for launching a new national symbol without obtaining public approval first. This was typical of the "imperial presidency," said Douglas Gibson, chairperson of the party's federal executive.

And it has been discovered that suggested designs submitted by members of the public were ignored.

Following a request last year from the Department of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology, hundreds of people, including many children, sent in suggestions.

The Heraldry Council went through them carefully, tabulating the symbols which appeared most often, said an informant.

However they were all thrown out and the Government Communications and Information Services (GCIS) asked 10 commercial design studios to submit designs.

"They GCIS drove the entire process," said the informant. "The designers were told to forget the Eurocentric art of heraldry. The State Herald was brought in at the last minute, after the shortlist had been decided.

"The designs as submitted were very strange, with symbols floating all over the place."

Ian Bekker, head of the commercial studio which designed the coat of arms, said a clear brief was given by the GCIS.

There was a great deal of gold in the design, he said, which was also symbolic. Replying to criticism that the secretary bird (which forms the crest) was the wrong colour, Bekker said the bird and the elephant tusks were depicted entirely in various shades of gold, which were lost in printed reproductions of the crest.

"The President is probably the only person who will ever see the coat of arms in its correct colouring, as all his stationery and other state documents from his office will be embossed with gold," he said.

"The deputy president's stationery will also be embossed, but there will not be quite as much gold."

State Herald Frank Brownell said that the Heraldry Council was asked to comment on a shortlist chosen by GCIS "from a technical point of view".

Although the design was not a Bureau of Heraldry product, the bureau was involved in technical input, he said.

The coat of arms was "heraldically describable", he said. Any heraldic artist, anywhere in the world, would be able to draw it from the heraldic description contained in the Government Gazette, he said.

"The new coat of arms moves slightly out of the traditional heraldic field, which has adapted many times during the past 900 years," he said. It was "not quite conventional heraldry".

However, an independent heraldry expert has slammed the design as "overloaded with verbal interpretations" instead of being a clear visual symbol.

"The shield is the most important part of a coat of arms," said a heraldic artist.

"It is the symbol reproduced in all works of reference. It should be an instantly recognisable symbol of a country's identity. The rest of the design, the crest and the supporters and so on are not really important.

"In this case, although the San rock painting on which the shield is based is a beautiful piece of artwork, it fails as a visual symbol of South Africa. In my opinion, the new design is not a coat of arms at all. It is a commercial emblem."

The new coat of arms has had a mixed reception countrywide, with many people saying it represents only one aspect of the country's identity.

In a telephone poll, only 19 percent of the people who responded approved of the new design.

Readers' responses were typified by a man who said it "represented the new black government in power, just as much as the old one represented the white government. It doesn't represent the whole population." Basically, it was "reversed racism", he said.

But another caller said the design was "wonderfully conciliatory."

Joan Merrington of Fish Hoek, a member of the Heraldry Council, confirmed that the designs by the State Herald were rejected by the cabinet.

"At about this time the Government Communication and Information System indicated their interest in a corporate identity project and the Cabinet agreed that consideration be given to the involvement of commercial artistic designers in addition to the heraldic experts."

"The missed opportunity to visually link the new national coat of arms to the national flag is regrettable as there was an ideal chance to reinforce the visual impact of South Africa's national symbols, as strong easily identifiable associated images, by the world at large," Merrington said.

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