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A Brief History Of Coinage And Currency In South Africa

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

Early Days:

Long before explorers such as Bartholomew Dias and Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape, earlier travelers visited our shores. From their ships, some of which were shipwrecked, Egyptian and Roman coins from 200BC were washed ashore on the East Coast of Pondoland. Likewise, gold coins (Zecchinos), minted in Venice in 1280, were found in the possession of this country’s inhabitants. For the most part the inhabitants of South African carried out their extensive trading activities by barter. For instance, ostrich shell beads; iron spear points and cattle were exchanged, earning the status of currency as time went by. Once explorers started visiting our shores, they also traded items such as copper bracelets and colored glass beads for the local products they desired.

The Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company:

The formation of the United East Indian Company in 1602 saw an increase in trade between the Western countries and those of the Far East. One of the many ships used for this purpose, the Haarlem, went aground in Table Bay. After the survivors were rescued a year later, their favourable report prompted the VOC to establish a refreshment station at the Cape. For this purpose, Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape on 6 April 1652. When Jan van Riebeeck founded the settlement at the Cape, the Spanish dollar 8 Real was the basic coin in use in the Netherlands. The VOC received permission from Spain to use similar pieces of eight but with different designs for trade with the East. However in the hectic trading that ensued at the Cape, coins from many currencies were used. To clear up the confusion with regard to the rate of exchange, the authorities introduced the Cape Rix Daller. This was a theoretical currency that linked all the different coins and made trading much easier because it assigned a relative value to all acceptable coins. In 1726 copper Doits began to be struck for the VOC as well as silver Ducatoons and Guilders. The English East India Company had also set into circulation Indian silver Rupees as well as gold Pagodas and Mohurs. Besides these coins Japanese Koban, English Guinea, Portuguese Joannes, Russian Roubles and several other nationalities’ coins are mentioned in historical records.

The First British Occupation:

The British first occupied the Cape in 1795. To alleviate a critical shortage of coins, they introduced coins from St. Salvador and St. Helena. Amongst these coins were Half Johannas, Spanish Dollars, Ducats, Sequins, Mohurs, Guilders, Shillings and Copper Pennies. As soon as these coins were circulated they disappeared – in all likelihood melted down or taken away by visiting sailors. As an emergency measure, a shipment of captured Spanish Dollars was over stamped with a small punch bearing the bust of George III on the neck of the Spanish King! The penny that was brought to the Cape was a large coin – 41 mm in diameter, 5 mm thick and had a mass of 2 oz. On the reverse, Britannia with a trident in her hand appears. The English called this coin The Cartwheel Penny but the Capetonians referred to it as the Devil’s Penny as they assumed that only the devil used a trident.

The Batavian Republic:

The Cape reverted to Dutch control in 1803 and the colony was named The Republic of Batavia. The Commissioner-General at the time, Jacobs de Mist, and Governor Janssens had the inevitable task of reforming the currency in use. De Mist’s plans to establish a Mint at the Cape were never realized and were shelved with his drawings of the intended coins. At his subsequent request silver coins to the value of 1, ½, ¼, 1/8 and 1/16 guilders and 1 and ½ Doits in copper, which had been minted in the Netherlands in 1802, were used in the Cape. These coins, first known as Cape Guilders, and later, on the strength of a design of a ship on the obverse, as Ship Guilders, may be regarded as the first coins in a South African currency. The usefulness of British copper had however by now spread itself through the Colony.

The Second British Occupation:

In 1806, to ease the scarcity of small coins, the ship Guilder coins were put into circulation. A further supply of Shillings and Pennies were circulated and the Spanish Doubloon of sixteen dollars is mentioned for the first time. Troops continued to be paid in Spanish dollars. In Griqualand in 1815 four denominations of coins were put into circulation. A silver ten and five pence and bronze half penny and farthing were circulated. However the experiment was not a success and these were withdrawn. Patterns were later struck in 1890.

In 1823 the Cape Colony proposed producing its own coinage. This came to nothing as British Government planned to put the currency of all its colonies on a sterling basis. It did this in the Cape with effect from 1826. When the supply of British coinage was insufficient for paying garrison troops, other silver coinage such as Spanish dollars, Sicilian dollars, United State dollars, French francs and Indian rupees were also used. Sydney mint sovereigns were also declared legal tender.

In Natal there was no official currency although British gold and silver coins were the primary coins in circulation. Copper was practically unknown and due to the shortage of small change stores issued tokens and "good-fors". Indian rupees were imported from Mauritius, but were not popular. Before and after the declaration of independence in 1854 of the Orange Free State, British coinage was extensively used. Government payments were however often assessed in rix-dollars. Due to the shortage of small change and extensive use of the unpopular "good-fors" and tokens, suggestions were made that the government should have its own metal coinage. This never went any further. However various patterns of different denominations were made.

Burgers Ponde:

In 1872, Reverend Burgers became President of the ZAR (Zuid Afrikaansche Republik) and introduced reforms to rid the Republic of worthless paper money. He bought alluvial gold from the Pilgrims Rest area and had dies engraved of his bust. In 1874, he had 837 pound pieces minted by R Heaton & Sons of Birmingham, England. The Parliament (called "Volksraad") did not share Burger’s enthusiasm for the coins and prohibited the further minting of any gold or silver coins. They did however declare the original coins legal tender at the same value as the British sovereign.

"Staatsmunt Te Velde (1902) (“Mint in the field”):

When the British forces occupied Pretoria in 1900, the Mint was closed. The Boers used the one pound gold blanks that were in storage for payment of State expenditure. They were named "naked pounds". An attempt was made to establish a mint at an abandoned goldmine near Pilgrims Rest. Soft hand-cut dies and an improvised fly press were used to strike Pound pieces of practically pure gold to the intrinsic value of 22 shillings. The "Veldponde" (field pounds) were exchanged with the burger for their British sovereigns. This facilitated trading with the local residents who would only accept the "coin with the horse on it". With a single set of dies, 986 coins were minted after many trials. Ironically, striking was actually completed a few days after the Boers had conceded victory to the British forces. The "Veldpond" is amongst the most precious historical treasures a collector can hope to possess and there have been many known forgeries. After the Anglo Boer War, the British currency became legal tender in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. British currency was the accepted currency in South Africa when the four provinces became the Union of South African in 1910.

Royal Mint – Pretoria (1923 – 1941):

There was a strong feeling amongst the mining and banking community that South Africa should have its own refinery and mint. This would negate the need to send South African gold overseas and to import coinage. After many requests, dating back as far as 1902, the Pretoria Mint Act of 1919 provided for the establishment of a Royal Mint branch in Pretoria. The Royal Mint Pretoria, corner of Visagie and Bosman Streets, was established when Prince Arthur of Connnaught struck the first gold pound on 3 October 1923. The equipment used was British and Kruger Gray produced the master dies at the Royal Mint in London. The coins minted at this Mint were identical in size, metal content and denomination to the British coins. However, the South African silver and bronze coins had unique reverse designs. The pound and half-pound were identical to the British pound except for the letters "SA" on the reverse. (The first proof sets were sold to collectors in 1923). The last South African gold pounds were issued in 1932 when South Africa stepped off the Gold Standard. It was only in 1952 that the minting of the South African half-pound and the one pound coin was resumed. When South Africa became a Republic in 1961, the R2 coin replaced the Sovereign and the R1 coin replaced the half sovereign. These two coins may be seen as South Africa’s first gold bullion coins. The last R1 and R2 gold coins were minted in 1983.

South African Mint (1941 – 1988):

In 1941 the South African Government took over the Royal Mint. The new South African Mint continued to produce the same coins as before. 1961 heralded great changes. The Republic of South Africa was proclaimed and the country ceased to be a member of the British Commonwealth. South Africa released a decimal coin system in 1961. The coins were converted to decimal equivalent. The half-pound became the new monetary unit, the Rand, and the one-shilling became 10c. A new one-cent and half cent were introduced to replace the penny and half penny. All coins were still the same size as the British coins. From 1960 to 1962, a parliamentary committee investigated the possibility of a new coin series. The British size coins were considered too large and a new coin series was introduced in 1965. These coins were not only smaller but also contained no silver. The silver coins were replaced with pure nickel. This series ranged from 1c to 50c and was considered "a very modern series that would satisfy the demand for a long time"! An increased demand for circulation coins forced the Government to upgrade the historical site at 103 Visagie Street in Pretoria. A new building was erected on the same site and was opened on 22nd November 1978.

South African Mint Company (Pty) Ltd (1988 to present):

During the eighties, the Government initiated the deregulation of State activities and the South African Mint was privatized, with the SA Reserve Bank as the holding company. The South African Mint Company (Pty) Ltd was established on 1 September 1988 as a full subsidiary of the SA Reserve Bank. It was clear that the Mint in Visagie Street would be inadequate to meet the future demand for coinage. As the premises did not lend themselves to further expansion, the decision was taken to relocate the Mint. The new Mint at Gateway, Centurion was completed in October 1990 and officially opened during October 1992. In 1986, a committee to investigate the desirability of issuing a new series of banknotes and a new coin series for South Africa was appointed. The question of a new coin series had originated from increases in the price of copper and nickel, some of which had to be imported to produce the range of coins in use at that time. This resulted in the actual value and cost of producing newly minted coins exceeding the face value. The Committee decided that owing to the costs of materials and manufacturing, the new series would be made completely from South African materials and that the entire manufacturing process would be undertaken locally. The coins then in use were found to be too large and too heavy, resulting in their being hoarded at home by people instead of being used. On account of its short lifespan, it was also decided to replace the R2 banknote with a coin. The existing R1 coin was already considered too large and heavy and it became evident that there was no place for an even larger and heavier coin in the series then in use. The government approved the design of a new series of coins that would be cheaper to manufacture and easier to handle.

The above texts were adapted from the SA Mint Website and the SARB Website.

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