Reflections on the South African Flag

The following comments were shared with the UWC-USA community as part of the 2021 Welcome Dinner. Lwandile reflected on what the South African flag means.

The South African flag is bright, bold, and certainly stands out. One of the most colorful flags in the world, the South African flag uses large shapes and vivid hues to share the story of the country: a story of freedom, unity and ubuntu(or rather compassion and humanity). The end of the Apartheid era marked a new beginning for South Africa.

Choosing a new national flag was part of the negotiation process set in motion when freedom fighter Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. The proclamation of the new flag would reflect the dawn of a new democratic era in South Africa. The significance of a flag resides in the value that humans give to it. When talking about the South African flag, the emotional meaning is very important. In order to understand how important the south African flag is for south Africa, we first need to know in which context it was approved. The flag was raised for the first time on the 26th of April 1994, the day in which the democratic elections were celebrated without racial discrimination. But let’s go back a few years.

South Africa proclaimed its independence from the United Kingdom in May 1961, but that did not mean the end of Apartheid. Apartheid is the name given to the segregation policy established in South africa in 1948 by the National Party (NP) and which the National African Congress (ANC) and the PAC (Pan-African Congress) demonstrated against. When the South African Republic was proclaimed, the country left the Commonwealth, but this did not mean the end of white domination nor the abolishment of the Apartheid regime. ANC and PAC leaders started their fight in favour of black people’s rights and in 1963, two years after the proclamation of independence, 17 members of the ANC (including Nelson Mandela), were arrested and judged for treason. A year later, Mandela and other seven colleagues were sentenced to life imprisonment.

From then onwards, the years of the greatest repression of the black population began. However, in the 80s internal changes occurred in the country (ranging from social movements and passive resistance to guerrilla warfare) and this, coupled with international pressure, changed the mood in the country. In 1986, president Botha of the NP announced that the South African parliament would “leave Apartheid behind them.” Three years later, in 1989, Botha was succeeded by F.W de Klerk, who in his inaugural speech announced that he would revoke all discriminatory laws, and he would legalize the ANC, PAC and the Communist Party. In the same year, on the 11th of February 1990, after having been in prison for 27 years, Nelson Mandela was released. A contest was held to choose the South African flag on the occasion of Mandela’s release. Nevertheless, none of the 7,000 models presented convinced the national Commission of symbols; and this is why a design from a proposal by Frederick G. Brownwell was finally chosen. His version of the flag was so well received that the interim version was made the final, national flag in the South African Constitution. Given the troubled historical context, it is remarkable that a consensual replacement for the former national flags was found. The new flag was seen as an enduring symbol of the modern South African state.

While officially there is no symbolism to the colors, some thoughts are that the red, white, and blue come from the British and Dutch colonial flags, and the black, gold, and green are from the colors found in the flags of liberation groups, including Nelson Mandela’s ANC (African National Congress) party.

But what does the flag mean to me and to my people? What does it represent?

The black isosceles triangle represents for me, the determination of Black people to thrive and triumph in troubling times, blue, representing truth and loyalty, red, the bloodshed during wars; bravery and strength, green, representing fertility of the land; love, hope, and joy for the land, yellow, appreciating the mineral wealth that is below the soil in which we reside and finally white, representing peace and honesty. The only concrete symbolism in the flag is the V or Y shape, which can be interpreted as “the convergence of diverse elements within South African society, taking the road ahead in unity”.

But are we really in unity? Although the flag represents important and powerful parts of my heritage and country, and although it represents a new era, post-apartheid, and is seen as a symbol of democracy and equity,  it does not acknowledge the tremendous amount of work needing to be done. Because of the country’s further decline in economic, political, and social change, the flag sometimes reminds me of and represents the apartheid ideologies.

With the end of apartheid in 1994 the people of South Africa anticipated profound social and economic change. Yet twenty-six years later, much of the population lacks access to proper medical care and education. Despite improved access to clean water, housing, and roads, many South Africans feel that too little has changed since the apartheid era. The “rainbow nation,” in most cases, represented by this very flag, is still racially divided in its electoral behavior, and the income gap between black people and white people is greater than it was in 1994. Leading political figures in the current ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), are often accused of corruption. New political groups are calling for the nationalization and expropriation of land and resources from the white minority. Nevertheless, the constitution enshrines the rule of law, and has popular support across all racial divides. 

And so my question is, are the laws and institutions in place since 1994 strong enough to preserve democracy and the rule of law when the pace of social and economic change remains slow? Am I to be proud of the flag that I carry today?

UWC is a great place to start asking these questions. The Welcome Ceremony is an opportunity for us not only to praise, celebrate, and acknowledge our cultures and nationalities together, but to also start or initiate these conversations that help us bring ourselves closer to our identities and who we truly are. These are the moments that are available for us to recognize the truth of where we come from, positive or not, and create a foundation for reconciliation amongst our different countries, within our own countries, and amongst ourselves.

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