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 200 BC 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.
In those early days barter was the prevalent form of trading. 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.
However, before 1652 very little formal trading occurred and no national coinage system was required.
The United East India Company (VOC)
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 favorable 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.
At this stage, Spanish Silver Real or "Pieces of Eight" with various designs were minted. These coins were solely intended for trading in foreign countries.
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.
The First British Occupation (1795 – 1803) and the Batavian Republic (1803 – 1806)
The British 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.
The Second British Occupation (1806 – 1923)
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 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 GovernorJanssens had the inevitable task of reforming the currency in use. De Mist’s plans to establish a Mint at the Cape 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 1/10 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.
When The British occupied the Cape for the second time in 1806 the acting Governor, Major General Baird, immediately issued a proclamation to establish the relative values of all coins in circulation in the Cape. He also placed all coins minted for the Batavian Republic, and still in storage, into circulation.
On 6 June 1825, Sir Charles Somerset issued a proclamation that only British Sterling would be legal tender in the Cape. Despite this, the Rix Daller was still used for many years in the Cape. The troops continued to be paid in Spanish dollars, which held their place as a universally acceptable currency. At that time, the governors complained that the British Government’s stipulated rate of 4s 8d. for the dollar, was below its current value.
The new British coins, which were introduced in England in 1816, the pound, half-pound in gold, crown, half-crown, shilling and six pence of silver and the penny, half penny and quarter penny in copper, were introduced to the Cape. Later two shilling, four penny and three penny coins were added.
However, due to the shortage of coins, soldiers were still paid in any available coins. This practice ended by 1848 by which time only British coins were in use.
The size and denomination of the 1816 British coins, with the exception of the four-penny coins, were used in South Africa until 1960.
Burgers Pounds (1874)
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 First Mint in South Africa (1892 – 1900)
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
With the discovery of gold in the Gauteng area (Johannesburg) in 1886, President Paul Kruger soon realized that the ZAR needed its own coins. The Volksraad granted a concession to a consortium of Dutch, German and British investors in 1890 to establish the National Bank of the ZAR, which also obtained permission to operate a mint. The coins were based on the British sizes and denominations and the first pounds and ½ pounds, were struck by the Berlin Imperial Mint in 1892 to have them available for the forthcoming presidential election. The State Mint and Bank was built on the northwesterly corner of Church Square in Pretoria and was officially opened on 6 July 1892. The original corner stone can still be seen there today.
"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.