The black rod is the symbol of the authority of the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces. It is carried by the Usher of the Black Rod in ceremonial processions, such as during a Sitting of the House. It is placed upright next to the presiding officer’s chair as an indication that the House is formally in session. The name black rod comes from the ebony wood from which the rod is traditionally made.

The Origin of the Black Rod

The office of the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod originated in the House of Lords in the British Parliament almost 650 years ago. He is the personal attendant of the King or Queen in the Upper House of the British Parliament, and also functions as the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House.

In South Africa, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod served in the Legislative Council of the two-chamber Cape Parliament from 1854 to 1910, then in the Senate of the Union Parliament from 1910 to 1961, and thereafter in the Senate of the Parliament of the Republic until this House was abolished in 1980.

The post of Usher of the Black Rod was re-established in South Africa’s first democratically elected Parliament in 1994. The word “gentleman” was removed from the title to make it gender neutral. The first woman Usher of the Black Rod was appointed in the South African Senate in 1996.

The South African Parliament has had three black rods since 1910. The third black rod was installed in February 2005 after a comprehensive consultation process and now incorporates images and materials appropriate for a democratic and inclusive South Africa.

The black rod used in the Parliament of the Union of South Africa from 1910 to 1961 is a copy of the one used in the British Parliament since 1883. At the top of the ebony rod is a gold lion holding a shield and wearing the royal crown. The central piece is a gold orb embossed with oak leaves. At the base, is a gold knob inlaid with a gold sovereign coin.

When South Africa became a Republic in 1961, the Senate retained the concept of the black rod, but designed a new one with symbols of the Republic to mark the change. This rod was used until 2004. It is made of ebony with three sections of 18-carat gold. At the top is a lion with his paw on a sheath, the old motto of the Republic Ex Unitate Vires and a circle of proteas. The other two gold sections show the symbols of the former four provinces.

A description of the new Black Rod

The black rod reflects the important role of the provinces in the functioning of the National Council of Provinces. It resembles a knobkerrie, an African symbol of defence, authority and leadership. It is 1.10 m long, and weighs eight kilograms.

The protea at the head of the black rod is South Africa’s national flower. It has two rows of nine hand-made, 18-carat gold leaves, each representing one of the nine provinces. The inner core of the protea is made of pure silver and is finished in oxidised silver. The supporting disk below the protea is made of ebony and is connected to the shaft of the rod by 18-carat gold struts. Below the protea is a section of beadwork, which represents South Africa’s diverse people and its rich cultural heritage.

The shaft of the black rod is made of ebony. The South African coat of arms made of pure silver and finished in colour vitreous enamelling, appears twice on the shaft. The shaft is also inlaid with 18-carat gold strips. Two sets of clasping hands engraved by hand in 18-carat gold also appear on the shaft and symbolise freedom, peace and cooperation. The national flag appears three times on the shaft. The flags are pure silver and are finished in vitreous enamelling. Six gold rings on the shaft of the black rod are made of 18-carat gold.

When the National Council of Provinces is in session, the black rod stands in a drum. The drum is a symbol of the African tradition of using drums to call people together for a meeting. It is also symbolic of South Africa’s achievement of democracy through dialogue.

The drum is made of yellowwood and the top is covered in springbok skin. Encircling the drum is a pure silver band engraved with images of rock paintings. Placed over these images are further images depicting elements of South Africa’s nine provincial coats of arms in coloured vitreous enamelling.

The Symbols on the band of the drum

North West: A calabash gourd, which is used as a bowl or container for water and which is a prized and essential possession in arid areas and times of drought.

Free State: A cluster of Orange River lily flowers, the provincial flower of the Free State, hints at the natural beauty of the Province.

Northern Cape: The thorn tree, which provides much-needed shade and protection from the dry and hot conditions of the region.

KwaZulu-Natal: The strelitzia flower is the floral emblem of the province and represents its natural beauty.

Mpumalanga: The red Barberton daisy symbolises the natural heritage of the province and the sun, rising in the east.

Eastern Cape: The red aloe, indigenous to the Eastern Cape, has many uses for both humans and animals. Its sap has medicinal qualities and it is able to withstand both heat and drought, and thus is a symbol of strength and perseverance

Limpopo: The baobab tree is indigenous to the province. Baobabs have adapted to long, dry seasons, during which they are leafless, thus reducing water loss. The baobab is extremely slow-growing and can reach enormous hights, up to 18 metres. Giant specimens may be several thousand years old. Many animals and birds use the baobab for food and shelter, and people have found shelter in the hollowed-out trunks of these massive trees.

Gauteng: The chemical symbol for iron indicates the industrial development and activity of the province, which is the powerhouse of the country’s industrial sector.

Western: Cape A bunch of grapes refers to the importance of agriculture in the province and also to the importance of wine production in the area.