March 2021

The “official” stamps of South Africa


Stamps with the bilingual English / Afrikaans overprint “OFFICIAL / OFFISIEEL” were introduced for use by Government Departments in 1926, and remained in production and issue until 1955. 

They fascinated collectors from the very beginning, not least because originally they were not available for sale to the public, but in the early days few could have predicted the philatelic complexities that would develop. 

A glance at the concise listing (less than two pages) in SG “Part I” will indicate that this is not a series to be approached lightly, as it requires understanding of printing methods, variations in spacing, watermarks and colour shades, and there are many varieties and occasional errors which attract attention. Individual prices, meanwhile, range up to £6000 (for a used pair of an apparently humble 1950 2d value, SG O35), reflecting a keen and enduring market. 

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It must be admitted that the rather schematic SG listing, although fully serviceable, tells only a tiny fraction of the whole story, and tends to obscure the true chronological development of the series as a whole. For instance, the 1946 2s6d blue and brown (SG O19) appears before ½d values issued between 1937 and 1944 (SG O31/2), while the first two 5s and 10s values from 1940 (SG O28/9) are listed after their 1948 successors (SG O26/7). It all looks rather puzzling at first sight. 

In practice, generations of specialists in the South African Officials have always followed a very different system, focusing first on the dates of issue. The listing in general use is accordingly that presented in the 1986 Union Handbook pp. 202-235, which catalogues a succession of thirty sets, numbered from 1 to 30, that reflects the true order of production. This has recently, in 2017, been revised (and greatly expanded) by Hisey and Matheson, in a work running to over 200 pages and available as a CD, which follows the same structure and numbering. It can be heartily recommended as a model of its type, and will be the basis of all future research. 

They fascinated collectors from the very beginning, not least because originally they were not available for sale to the public

Proper understanding of the Officials is only possible through such a chronological approach. Only nine different face values were ever overprinted, beginning with an original four values (½d, 1d, 2d, 6d) and gradually expanding with the addition of the 1s and 2s6d in 1931, 1½d in 1937, and 5s and 10s in 1940, and these same nine values constitute the final 1950-54 set (SG O39/51), using a completely different style of overprint – the so-called “Stereo” issue. 3d and 4d values were never issued at any stage. 

What happened was that fresh supplies were ordered on a roughly annual basis, according to need, so the successive sets (1 to 30) rarely feature all values, but most include four, five or six different stamps. 

The printers did as they were told, and simply overprinted the current postage values on hand. The fascination for generations of philatelists has been to identify exactly which stamps were overprinted on each occasion, as the underlying postage stamps kept changing, according to printing method (originally letterpress or recess, later rotogravure), design (with the 2d King’s head giving way to the Union Buildings pictorial, and the 1½d and 2d being reduced in size from 1949), inscription (first “SUIDAFRIKA” one word, then “SUID-AFRIKA” hyphenated), watermark direction (upright or inverted) and shade, and these changes happened at different times. And the overprint plates were also constantly renewed, with the seven SG recognised types (O1-O7) just a small part of the story.  

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Only the division into sets 1 to 30 allows complete clarity, whereas the schematic SG listing results in the wide separation of stamps that were actually printed and issued at the same time. Similarly, a single SG number like SG O21 (the 1935-49 1d value) can include up to nine different stamps that would be distinguished by specialists according to the “Sets”. It is all a tremendous challenge, and great fun for the true philatelist. 

A crucial aspect of the appreciation of these stamps is the method of plate production for the overprinting of the 1926-50 issues (SG O1/38 = Sets 1 to 23). The overprints were applied by letterpress (typography), but the plates were never set up from loose type. Instead, they were manufactured using the “Linotype” process (a trademark meaning “Line of type”), where an operator sat at a keyboard and the machine produced whole words by hot metal casting, and the resulting “slugs” were then assembled manually into a printing plate (with the likelihood of variations in spacing between the words). This was originally designed for newspaper printing, and is a process seldom otherwise encountered by philatelists, bringing its own peculiarities, and in particular explaining the “Diaeresis” varieties which provide many of the most important and sought after 1940s rarities, like SG O19a/c and O25a/c. The Linotype keyboard included an “E” modified with two dots (a diaeresis) often used in Afrikaans, and where this key was pressed, whether by accident or design, the result became of great interest to philatelists, if not to the printer. 

Identification of stamps according to the SG listing, described above as “rather schematic”, should be straightforward for any reasonably experienced collector, although care is needed. But accurate attribution to the 30 chronological “Sets” requires familiarity with the literature, and preferably the new work by Hisey and Matheson, which features systematic identification tables on a value–by- value basis. Only then will the finer points emerge, and the importance of such aspects as positional blocks, marginal markings (including Arrows and the sheet numbers applied by a “Cyclometer” on the rotogravure printing press), overprint flaws and shades – all beyond the scope of the SG listing - be fully understood.  

Stanley Gibbons Ltd was recently fortunate to acquire the wonderful Matheson collection of the Officials, and all enthusiasts are invited to peruse our current offers. Such an opportunity is unlikely to recur in the foreseeable future, with many items the fruit of years and decades of patient searching. Thanks to all the research that has been undertaken, this really is a field like no other. 


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