From Jan van Riebeeck to Nelson Mandela, South Africa has had a hundred years of banknotes

Business Insider SA
Four South African banknotes with Nelson Mandela on them. (Image: Getty Images)
Four South African banknotes with Nelson Mandela on them. (Image: Getty Images)
  • The South African Reserve Bank has been issuing banknotes for 100 years.
  • When it started issuing notes, the currency was still in UK pounds, which were later replaced by the rand at the start of the 1960s.
  • Since then, it has had seven issues of the banknotes.
  • For more stories go to 

This year, the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) marks its hundredth anniversary since it first started issuing banknotes.

Its first notes came into circulation in 1922, almost a year after the SARB was established in June 1921. Before the SARB's formation, South Africa had no monetary authority, and it was the responsibility of commercial banks to bring notes into circulation.

Over the century, they have gone through redesigns and facelifts, and their security features have been enhanced to protect against counterfeit crimes.

The history of banknotes in South Africa

Although the SARB started issuing banknotes 100 years ago, South Africa's history with paper money began in Cape Town, when Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck set up a trading station for the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch guilder became the first currency used, brought by different traders and mariners who would pass through Cape Town.

In 1782, the first paper money was brought to Cape Town when the rix dollar and the stiver were the paper currency in that province. The very first notes were handwritten and had a government fiscal handstamp that printed the date of issue and the note's value.

Then Great Britain took over the colony and introduced a new currency after the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt, and the region was declared a British Colony in 1806.

In 1961, the rand was introduced, replacing the pound, just months before South Africa left the Commonwealth to become a republic.

Between 1961 to 1991, the banknotes' front face had the face of Jan van Riebeeck, with the first issues carrying just his face. The 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.

Old bank note series. (Image: South African Reserve Bank)

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 four values: the R1 note, R2, R10, and R20. The second issue added a R5 note, while the third issue added an R50 note.

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, the notes were written in African languages for the first time. They were previously limited to English and Afrikaans. 

Big Five note series. (Image: South African Reserve Bank)

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.

Mandela note series. (Image: South African Reserve Bank)

The SARB later released commemorative notes in 2018, celebrating the 100th year since the birth of Mandela. They are also an ode to his life and his role during the apartheid struggle. They feature his face on the front and depict places of significance in his life, such as his capture at Howick, his place of birth, and Robben Island.  

Commemorative note series. (Image: South African Reserve Bank)

Get the best of our site emailed to you every weekday.

Go to the Business Insider front page for more stories.