The South African rand (ZAR) is the currency of South Africa and is issued by the South African Reserve Bank. The name is derived from the word ‘Witwatersrand’, which means ‘ridge of white waters’ in Afrikaans – the ridge is where most of South Africa’s gold deposits were found and where Johannesburg was built. Originally, the word “rand” hails from Old and Middle English, meaning “edge, border, margin, rim, shore”, and also from the ancient Germanic word “rand”, which referred to the rim of a shield. It is fascinating how the rand has depicted much of our history and heritage over the years.
In the early days of South Africa, bartering with items of value was the prevalent form of trading. Commercial banks kept and secured people’s items of value and in return issued them with promissory notes. Currency usage was formalised with the introduction of coin in about 1652. Since then, different currencies and coins which were made from copper, silver and gold have been used.
The South African Reserve Bank (SARB) was established in 1921 – making it the oldest central bank in Africa. At that time, banknotes that commercial banks issued to the public had to be backed by gold. The SARB was created as a result of the unusual financial/monetary conditions after World War I (1914–1918). The SARB has thus been issuing banknotes for over 100 years.
A commission was established in 1956, and they recommended giving up the British Pound and the associated terms pounds, shillings and pence in favour of a new currency named “Rand”. In 1961, the Republic of South Africa was proclaimed, and a decimal system was adopted. The South African Rand was introduced on 14th February 1961.
Between 1961 and 1991, the banknotes’ front had the face of Jan van Riebeeck, with the original issues carrying just his face. Later issues had various additional symbols accompanying his face, such as the protea, Cape Dutch Architecture, vines, the Voortrekker Monument, the Great Trek, Union Buildings, and the springbok. The reverse sides had imagery depicting Jan van Riebeeck’s sailing ship, the Johannesburg city centre, farming, agriculture, mining, and fauna and flora. The SARB’s first banknote collection comprised the R1 note, R2, R10, and R20. The second issue added a R5 note, while the third issue added an R50 note.
The picture above shows samples of the R2 and R5 banknotes released in the third issue.
From 1992 to date, South Africa has had five banknotes with four editions. Between 1992 to 2011, the first three had the country’s big five animals on their faces, with the different economic sectors on the reverse. In 1994, African languages appeared for the first time (they were previously limited to English and Afrikaans).
The most drastic change came in 1992 when the fourth issue, ‘Big Five’, was released. These new notes now included and still include Afrikaans, English, isiSwati, isiNdebele, Setswana, Tshivenda, isiXhosa, Sepedi, Xitsonga, Sesotho, and isiZulu.
In 2012, the SARB brought in new banknotes commemorating South Africa’s first democratic President Nelson Mandela. The notes were also released 28 years after his release from prison. The note face front featured the former President, and unlike in the editions directly before, the big five animals were placed on the reverse side of the notes.
In 2012, the SARB announced the release of the sixth issue, ‘Nelson Mandela’. These banknotes were nicknamed the “randela” notes.
In 2018, a commemorative note was released celebrating the 100th year since the birth of Mandela. They were an ode to his life and his role during the apartheid struggle, featuring his face on the front and depicting places of significance in his life on the back. The R10 note depicts Madiba’s birthplace – Mvezo in the Eastern Cape. The R20 note features Mandela’s Soweto home, where his political life was defined. The R50 note shows the site where Madiba was captured near Howick in KwaZulu-Natal on 5 August 1962 (after 17 months in hiding). The R100 note reflects on Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment (mostly on Robben Island) and the inspiration for the R200 note comes from the moment Madiba greeted the nation for the first time as President.
A once-off seventh issue, ‘Nelson Mandela Centenary’.
In keeping with international standards, the SARB endeavours to upgrade South Africa’s banknotes and coins every six to eight years. On 3 May 2023, SARB released the upgraded Mandela banknotes and a fourth decimal coin series, which have new designs and enhanced security features that utilise the latest technological advancements to protect the integrity of our currency.
As per the SARB web site: “There are six denominations of South African coin in circulation: 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2 and R5. The minting of the 1c, 2c and 5c having been discontinued. The 10c coin features the Cape honey bee, which is indigenous to Southern Africa. The bee plays a vital role in South Africa’s agriculture and agricultural economy by pollinating crops and producing honey. The 20c features the bitter aloe, a tall and single-stemmed plant that can reach a height of up to 10 feet (3 metres). It has thick and fleshy leaves that are arranged in rosettes and adorned with reddish-brown spines on the margins, along with smaller spines on the upper and lower surfaces. The 50 cents features the Knysna turaco, which is commonly known in South Africa as a Knysna Lourie or in Afrikaans as the Knysna loerie. It is found in the green forests of southern and eastern South Africa and Swaziland. The R1 features the king protea, the national flower of South Africa. It is a distinctive member of the protea family, known for its large flower head. The king protea is not only a symbol of South Africa’s natural beauty, but it is also used as an emblem by our national sports teams, including cricket and netball. The R2 denomination features the springbok, which is the national animal of South Africa and is predominantly found in southern and southwestern Africa. It is also the nickname of our national rugby team. The R5 denomination features the southern right whale, which can be found throughout the southern part of the southern hemisphere. During the winter months in the southern hemisphere, these whales migrate to the coastal waters of South Africa, with more than 100 of them known to be in the Hermanus area. They are considered endangered.”
Our new coins – front (above) and back (below).
The new notes continue to pay homage to Nelson Mandela, with his portrait featured on the front of all five denominations, while the Big Five are depicted with their young, to celebrate diversity in age.
SARB governor Lesetja Kganyago stated that the new notes and coins “mark a culmination of engagement with various government departments and organisations such as the Pan African Language Board, the South African National Biodiversity Institute and banks”. “These engagements have ensured our money reflects our culture and heritage, while offering high quality safety features,” he stated during the launch of the upgraded bank notes and coins, at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in Johannesburg.
These notes have state of the art security features within each note as well as features to assist those who are sight-impaired (please take a look at the videos detailed in the info block). As this ‘new’ money filters into the system, take a moment to appreciate the beauty, the incredible design and the security features in each note. Each one is, in my humble opinion, a little work of art… #VivaSouthAfrica
Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team
South Africa’s 2023 upgraded banknotes:
Banknotes security features:
Fact Sheet – Upgraded Bank notes:
South Africa’s deep ecology coin series
R5 Coin security features: