Best viewed at screen resolution 1024 x 768

Updated: May 2006
© Arthur Radburn

Honours of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek

First published in Military Medal Society
of SA Journal
No 38 (April 1998)

It is well known that the old Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek never possessed any official honours and awards. But this was not for want of trying on the part of the Kruger administration: the stumbling block was actually the reactionary Volksraad (legislature). Its attitude not only prevented the ZAR from honouring its burghers, but established a mindset which hampered the full development of the South African honours system for seventy years after the ZAR had ceased to exist. This is the story.

Order of Merit
The Kruger government made its first attempt to establish state honours in August 1893. One suspects that it was the Dutch-born State Secretary, Dr Willem Leyds's idea that the republic should possess suitable honours with which to reward its citizens and to reciprocate to the various European governments which had already conferred honours on himself, Commandant-General Piet Joubert, and other dignitaries.

The proposal was an order of merit with the working title "Orde van den Gouden Adelaar" ("Order of the Golden Eagle"), and Volksraad approval was sought on 8 September 1893.

Opinion among the legislators was divided (though they had not hesitated to approve of Kruger and others accepting foreign awards), so they stalled by asking for draft regulations for the proposed order. These were duly produced. They provided for an order in five classes, with both military and civil divisions, to be conferred for meritorious service to the ZAR. The State President would be grand master. Insignia too were designed: a green Maltese cross, embellished with eagles, and a green ribbon with a red centre stripe.

The draft regulations were gazetted for public comment in February 1894, and generated adverse reaction. On 6 July, on the basis of forty-eight memorials bearing more than 1200 signatures, the Volksraad vetoed the proposal, and that was the end of the "Orde van den Gouden Adelaar".

Further Proposals
Undaunted, the Executive Council returned to the Volksraad ten months later, to seek approval for three awards: a military decoration for "exceptional courage, leadership, and devotion"; a decoration for gallantry in saving the lives of others; and a campaign medal for service in commando expeditions.

If one compares the four proposed awards with the Dutch honours system of that time, one finds a correlation: the proposed military decoration for gallantry comparable to the Militaire Willemsorde; the life-saving decoration comparable to the Eerepenning voor Menschlievend Hulpbetoon; the "Orde van den Gouden Adelaar" comparable to the Orde van Oranje-Nassau; and the commando medal comparable to the Ekspeditiekruis.

This time, the Volksraad wasted no time in rejecting the proposal, on the grounds that the previous year's experience had shown that public opinion was against honours. One member declared that honours were suitable only for monarchies. Another stated that, as commando duty was obligatory, there was no need to issue medals for it. And a third asserted that, as it was already well known that the Afrikaners were a brave race, it was unnecessary to present decorations to prove it!

After this second rebuff, the government let the matter rest until the outbreak of war with the British Empire in 1899. With the Volksraad suspended for the duration, there was nobody to veto the announcement gazetted on 9 May 1900 that the government had decided to issue a cross for distinguished service once the war had ended.

Commanding officers were invited to submit nominations whenever suitable occasions arose. But the British victory in May 1902 put paid to this idea. The ZAR government ceased to exist, without being able to carry out its intention.

Though the ZAR itself never succeded in establishing an honours system, its government's ideas eventually bore fruit in more indirect ways. In 1920, the government of the Union of South Africa instituted three military awards for surviving oudstryders (Boer war veterans), namely the Dekoratie voor Trouwe Dienst, the ZA Republiek en Oranje Vrystaat Oorlogsmedalje, and the unique Lint voor Wonden. In 1952 came the Honoris Crux decoration for gallantry in action, whose insignia were clearly modelled on the designs for the abortive "Orde van den Gouden Adelaar".

In due course, a new republic was created and new decorations were established. But no orders: the prejudice against such "monarchical" honours had lasted long past 1902. In 1925, Parliament had made South Africans ineligible for British titles, and it was not until 1973 that the government began to break free of this mindset, by instituting the Order of Good Hope - but for foreign citizens only. Only in 1974 - eighty years after the "Orde van den Gouden Adelaar" had been proposed - did Parliament give the green light for the establishment of the military Order of the Star of South Africa, from which other orders later flowed.

And in 1987, the National Intelligence Service named one of its medals for distinguished service after Dr Leyds. One wonders what he would have thought of it.

South African
Medal Website
Hosted by