The South African "Olifant" became a further evolution of the original British Cold War-era Centurion Main Battle Tank (MBT). South Africa was one of the many original purchasers of the excellent British design and took on Centurion Mk.3 models beginning in 1953. These were eventually brought up to the Mk.5 standard and joined by purchases of the vehicle from other nations (including India and Jordan) looking to reduce their own stocks. However, a 1970s arms embargo on the country eventually forced various internal programs to be enacted to make the nation more self-sufficient in its own arms industry capacity. By this time, the Centurion battle force was showing its age and a modernization was in order.
Early work on an evolved Centurion produced the "Skokiaan" project of the early 1970s which introduced an all-new V12 gasoline-fueled engine of 810 horsepower to the design. The "Semel" version of 1974 then followed as Centurion Mk 5A models with the 810hp engine and a three-speed semi-automatic transmission system. It was not until 1976 that the newer "Olifant" models came online and this beginning with the Mk 1 and these were completed with a 750 horsepower engine, vision equipment support, upgraded turret controlling, and the original Centurion 20-pounder main gun. The Olifant Mk 1A then appeared in 1985 and included an image-intensifier system (for the gunner) as well as a laser range-finder (hand-held) among her qualities. In 1991, the Olifant Mk 1B arrived with a switch from the original bogie wheel units to a torsion bar suspension system under a lengthened hull with improved armor protection, a digital Fire Control System (FCS) (for firing on-the-move), laser range-finder, enhanced night-fighting capability, and Continental 950 horsepower diesel engine. Denel then released its pilot Olifant Mk 2 which included a new turret, FCS, and choice of fully-stabilized 105mm rifled or 120mm smoothbore main gun (the latter choice since dropped). As with other MBTs of this type, the chassis of the Olifant has been used in the creation of a mine-clearing vehicle, an Armored Recovery Vehicle (ARV), and Vehicle-Launched Bridge (VLB) tracked carrier.
In 2003, BAe Systems was awarded a contract to upgrade a stock of 26 Olifant Mk 1B production models to the Mk 2 standard. These are powered by a Continental diesel engine unit outputting at 1,040 horsepower. They feature an all-modern appearance complete with overhanging turret bustle at rear and thermal sleeve on the main gun. The side skirts are of a saw-tooth design. The smoke grenade dischargers are mounted in two banks of four launchers at the extreme rear of the turret side panels.
The vehicle has featured a crew of four - driver (in the hull), commander, gunner, and loader - consistent with other Western designs. The system also fields a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun as well as an optional 7.62mm on the turret roof for local air defense. The vehicle carried 68 x 105mm projectiles along with 5,000 x rounds of 7.62mm ammunition and 8 x smoke grenade dischargers.
In its refined, definitive form, the 60-ton Olifant has been considered the most advanced Main Battle Tank on the African continent. It has been stated that the vehicle has seen combat service in actions in Angola though its true battlefield potential remains unrealized. It has not been exported.