There are various legal aspects to the South African honours system. The following is an overview (by a layman, not a lawyer) of some of them: the fount of honour, the use of post-nominal letters, the order of precedence, the forfeiture of awards, offences, and restrictions on the disposal of awards.
Fount of Honour
The "fount of honour" is the authority which establishes, regulates and confers state orders, decorations and medals. In Great Britain, the king or queen is the fount of honour, and official honours and awards are usually established by means of Royal Warrants signed by the monarch. They are often accompanied by Regulations issued by the cabinet ministers responsible for administering the awards.
When the South African colonial governments were authorised, from 1894 onwards, to grant selected military medals to members of their local defence forces, the role of the fount of honour began to split. The medals were still established by Royal Warrant, but the Regulations were issued by the colonial governments and published in the colonial Government Gazettes. This practice continued after the colonies united in 1910, and various Acts of Parliament specifically authorised the Union government to issue regulations for the conferment of awards on members of the Prisons Department (1911), the Union Defence Forces (1912), and the SA Police (1913).
In 1920, the government re-interpreted these provisions and used them to establish entirely new awards by means of Regulations. They included Anglo-Boer War service medals, and long service medals for the prisons service, police and railways police. It might be said, then, that the South African Parliament became a fount of honour.
In 1937, after South Africa had become constitutionally independent of the British government, King George VI began to institute medals for South Africa by Royal Warrant in his capacity as South African – not British – head of state. The Regulations were, however, issued by the South African government. The same method was used by Queen Elizabeth II to institute the 1952 series of military decorations which formed the foundation of the independent South African honours system. As part of the process of converting the country into a republic, parliament later transferred the queen's role as fount of honour to the governor-general in respect of military (1958), police (1958) and prisons service (1959) awards.
When South Africa finally became a republic in 1961, the new Constitution made the state president (successor to the queen and the governor-general) the fount of honour, and all successive Constitutions (1983, 1994 and 1996) have maintained that position. However, the presidential prerogative is usually exercised under specific authority of the Defence Act, the Police Act etc. Warrants and Regulations are usually (but not always) published in the Government Gazette.
The president's position as fount of honour is not absolute. The Province of the Western Cape's provincial constitution (1997) authorises the provincial legislature to institute honours, and the Intelligence Services Act (2002) authorises the Minister of National Intelligence to establish decorations and medals for members of the intelligence services. However, it was the president, not the minister, who instituted the current intelligence services awards in 2005.
In the self-governing homelands which existed from the 1970s until 1994, the executive councils, i.e. cabinets, seem to have been the founts of honour. In the four homelands which were declared independent, the respective Constitutions made their state presidents their founts of honour.
South Africa follows the British practice of allowing recipients of most orders and decorations to place initials behind their names to indicate that they have received those awards. It is a privilege, not a right, and has to be specifically provided for in the Warrants and/or Regulations governing those awards. Click here for an alphabetical list of authorised post-nominal letters.
Order of Precedence
The relative ranking of official orders, decorations and medals is determined by a Table of Precedence which is issued by the government from time to time. Click here for details. Recipients of South African honours and awards are not granted any special personal precedence as, for instance, knights and members of orders are in Great Britain.
Forfeiture of Awards
Many Warrants and/or Regulations governing official orders, decorations and medals authorise the conferring authority to withdraw an award if the recipient is convicted of a serious crime such as high treason, sedition or mutiny, or harming the interests of the country. An authority may also withdraw an award if the recipient is imprisoned, or is dishonourably discharged from any of the uniformed services, or has behaved disgracefully or dishonourably or dishonestly in some way. Conversely, the authority may restore an award if circumstances justify it. If a member of the defence force is convicted of any offence by a military or civilian court, and sentenced to any punishment, he can be ordered to surrender any or all of his military decorations and medals, for a period of up to five years.
Various Acts of Parliament make it a punishable offence for anyone to wear an order, decoration or medal which has not officially been awarded to him. Someone convicted of this can be fined or even imprisoned, and in the 1980s there were indeed a few reported cases of people being prosecuted for wearing SA Police medals to which they were not entitled. Nevertheless, it is a long-established practice for civilians to wear their deceased relatives' medals when attending Remembrance Day and other memorial parades, and this has, at last, been officially sanctioned in the Defence Act 2002.
Restrictions on Disposal
Many Warrants and/or Regulations governing official orders, decorations and medals prohibit a recipient from pledging, bartering, selling or otherwise disposing of an award in his lifetime. He is, however, allowed to leave it to someone else in his Last Will and Testament. If a recipient loses an award, or it is stolen, he is supposed to report the loss or theft to the awarding authority concerned.