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Coin collecting is a fascinating hobby because it connects us with the past. A rare coin from a particular historical era has the power to conjure up ghosts of a bygone age. What’s more, if you trace the history of a country’s currency, you’ll learn about how that country developed a national identity. South Africa is a good example.

The use of coins in the region dates from the time the first European settlers landed on its shores in 1652. Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutch explorer, established a trading station on behalf of the Dutch East India Company at what would later become known as Cape Town.

A stream of sailors and traders passed through the Cape, bringing with them the currency of their homeland. Although the Dutch guilder was the most common coinage in use, additional currencies were also used to trade with including the Spanish real, Indian rupee, Japanese koban, English guinea, Portuguese joannes, and Russian rouble.

The power of the Dutch crumbled in 1795 when the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt. Great Britain took control over of the region, declaring Cape Town a British colony in 1806. The British introduced their own currency, although a shortfall in change meant that various foreign currencies were allowed to circulate. This changed in 1826 when sterling coinage became the sole legal tender. South Africa’s first indigenous currency was created about 50 years later.

In the 1830s roughly 12,000 boers, people of Dutch descent, departed from the Cape Colony to escape British control. They moved inland and founded the South African Republic (ZAR) and the Orange Free State.  In 1874, the South African government decided to produce its own coins for the first time. President Thomas Francois Burgers sent 300 ounces of gold to London and had 837 gold coins struck bearing his image. These coins came to be known as the “Burgers Pond.”

Buoyed by the discovery of gold in the region and a desire to legitimise its existence, the ZAR government built a mint in Pretoria and began to issue its own currency from 1892 until 1902. The Republic’s coinage was based on the British sterling and depicted the portrait of President Paul Kruger. Production at the mint came to a halt at the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Boer War. The British invaded Pretoria and the Boer government fled, taking their gold with them.

In 1910, following the British victory in the Anglo-Boer War, the Union of South Africa was created. It united the Cape and Natal colonies, as well as the two Boer republics, under British rule. In 1923 the Royal Mint in Pretoria started producing its own currency again, issuing coins identical in size and value to those used in Britain.

Although South Africa was granted independence from Britain in 1931, it continued to use coins based on the British system for some years thereafter. It was only in 1961, when the country became a republic, that a new currency was introduced. The Rand replaced the South African pound as legal tender on 14 February 1961. It was named after the Witwatersrand, a range of hills famous for being the source of 40% of the world’s gold.