Thursday, August 29, 2019

Another flag controversy

Stanley - Thursday

For the last couple of weeks, I've felt that I must have spent the last 25 years, ostrich-like, with my head in the sand.

Twenty-five years ago, South Africa finally pulled its head from the sand and became a democracy. The country was blessed in that its first president, Nelson Mandela, was a remarkable man - a man who believed that co-operation and forgiveness were essential if the country were to progress towards his goal of having a country where everyone had a good education and the opportunity to realise their potential.

I have watched the country's fitful progress - and progress there has been. There is now a free press and an independent judiciary. Millions of people have moved from living in shanties to living in small, but well-built houses. Schools have been built for the millions of Black kids who were previously all but denied an education.

There have also been huge problems. The third president, Jacob Zuma, enabled a culture of political graft in which billions of rands ended up in personal pockets rather than being used for public improvement. There is rampant unemployment (about 30% officially, but probably closer to 40%) - to my mind the greatest of the problems. And the overall quality of education is pretty depressing - not unexpectedly to my mind - largely because educated Blacks, who may have considered teaching as a profession are snapped up at far higher salaries by the private sector.

And, as you would expect in a country with a massive divide between haves and have-nots, there is a lot of crime. And this has led to yet another problem, not just for the victims, but to a steady flow of emigrants to countries around the world, most seeking better lives for their children. There has been a massive brain-drain, which can only dampen the country's prospects.

I lurk on several Facebook groups whose members are ex-pat South Africans. I'm interested in seeing what is going on with these people who have taken the huge step of leaving the country of their birth to seek greener pastures.

In the past few weeks I have been shocked by the vitriol that I've seen on these groups - vicious, nasty, and racist. Disgusting. Shocking. What has caused this? The answer is a flag issue not unlike the Confederate-flag issue in the USA.

Recently, the Equality Court in South Africa came to the conclusion that, except in very limited circumstances, displaying the old South African flag constituted a hate crime. Just as in the States, there are people in South Africa who use the old flag as a symbol of their desire to return the country to what it had been. In making his judgement, Judge Phineas Mojapelo declared  'Displaying [the apartheid flag] is destructive of our nascent non-racial democracy… it is an affront to the spirit and values of botho / ubuntu, which has become a mark of civilized interaction in post-apartheid South Africa"

This decision seems to have released pent-up anger like which I haven't seen in such volume since South Africa became democratic. Obviously, the most visible reactions are outside South Africa, where people can still display the old flag, often with  the vilest of words. It even seems that the flag is becoming something more than a flashpoint for racist South Africans. Dylan Roof, the man who murdered nine people in a Charleston church in 2015, was seen wearing a jacket with the old South African flag on it. It has become a symbol of White supremacy in general. Well done Judge Mojapelo!

I am an optimist by nature, so I wonder whether this nastiness has been there the whole time, and I've just missed it. Have I had my head in the sand?


Post script

I always regarded the old South African flag to be one of the ugliest on the planet - the ultimate testament to committee decision-making. It was intended to show compromise and be a symbol of unity.

The South African flag in the apartheid era
In 1910, in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer war, the Cape colony, the Natal colony, and the two Boer republics came together to form the Union of South Africa. Initially, there was no official South African flag. The Union Jack was usually used, much to the disgust of the Afrikaners who had fought against Great Britain. An unofficial flag called the Red Ensign (which I don't remember ever seeing) was also used. 

Union Jack
Red Ensign
Eventually in 1928, a new South African flag was designed and accepted. However, the British insisted that the Union Jack also be flown, so for all intents and purposes, the country had two flags.

The new flag comprised the flags of the three nations that had fought in the Anglo-Boer war (the UK, the Orange Free State, and the South African Republic) on a background of the Prince's flag from the Netherlands.

The centrepiece of the old South African flag

In 1957, the compromise flag became the only national flag.

In 1994, a few weeks before the first free general elections, a (beautiful) new South African flag was flown.

The flag of the democratic South Africa


  1. The times are frightening. Nastiness seems to have found a home in the bastions of democracy. EVERYWHERE. If only it were just the flag.

  2. I so agree with your post. The new flag is beautiful, the old one a symbol of racism and oppression. And I agree with the judge's ruling.
    Yes, white supremacy and white nationalism is rearing its ugly head in the U.S. It was on full display in Charlottesville, Va., two years ago, when Heather Heyer was killed and 40 people injured by people carrying torches and bats and wearing rifles and Confederate symbols. And it's being used against Latino migrants, Jewish people, Muslims and other peoples, too.
    The guy in the White House is not helping by spewing racism and anti-immigrant bigotry all of the time. People have to stand up to this all over the country. Many are doing that. Need more.