/OPINION | Apartheid flag ruling: now is the time for a united SA

OPINION | Apartheid flag ruling: now is the time for a united SA

2019-09-01 10:00

As we recognise the diverse experiences of the fractious history of our nation, the court judgment against the old flag must be accompanied by a concerted effort at nation building, writes Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana.

Recently, the Equality Court pronounced on the inappropriate use of the old South African flag at the behest of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the South African Human Rights Commission. Deputy Judge President Phineas Mojapelo declared that the gratuitous display of the old apartheid South Africa flag was hate speech.

South Africa is one sovereign, democratic state founded on the values of, among others, human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms; non-racialism and non-sexism.

It is very sad indeed that 25 years into the desired statutory ideal we need a court to adjudicate on the social offensiveness of the political symbols of apartheid.

Surely the time has come for all South Africans to stand up in large numbers and repudiate it without equivocation. Can we please have a loud clamour of “NOT IN MY NAME”?

We proudly celebrated our flag in 2010, the time has come for us to do so again, not to celebrate football hosting, but to celebrate the significance of our common nationhood. Let us actively isolate those who wish to take the country backwards to the painful days of “Die ou Republiek van Suid Afrika”. To be clear, this flag symbolises a horrible crime against humanity.

Many of us have hidden wounds, now uncovered by the debate over this flag.

One of the men who tortured me in detention at Howick police station, who also took me to Howick Falls and threatened to throw me over and would say I was running, used to drape himself with this republican flag, seemingly drawing from it his murderous instinct. We lived through banning orders, detentions, excruciating torture, humiliation and deprivation.

We forgave and sought to build a nation for all. My close friends and comrades in the struggle, Mapetla Mohapi and Steve Biko, who were like blood brothers to me, were murdered in defence of this flag.

Every community can name people martyred under this flag. We did a TRC ritual, and covered the wounds with the promise of the post-apartheid South Africa — a just, reconciled, peaceful, equitable and sustainable South Africa, free of racism, tribalism, xenophobia and gender prejudices, free of corruption and deprivation, with food and shelter for all, and every child born to grow to its God-given potential.

Now we must deliver on that promise and it calls for a different republican spirit and national identity. We cannot hanker after the old republic of death in the name of free speech. This apartheid South African flag does not pass constitutional muster, nor does it bestow rights one does not enjoy in terms of the Constitution. It undermines the right to equality and to human dignity.

It also falls foul of the exception in the clause on the right to freedom of expression in that it is an advocacy of hatred on the basis of race and could constitute incitement to cause violence or harm to people of another race, namely black South Africans (Section 16 of the Bill of Rights). It is hate speech.

South Africans must use this moment to take a stand in favour of today’s republic and its symbols. The flag has everything to do with what republic a person identifies with.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa I have no illusions about the meaning of the old flag and the republic it represented. Maybe some need to be helped to understand.

Here is my little republican story of the past: On May 31, 1961, we woke up to major celebrations by the mainly white population of South Africa, rejoicing at the declaration of the Republic of South Africa. My family was then living in Durban, and black leaders opposed the declaration of the republic. Schools were required to bring children to the celebrations flattering these republican flags. Opposing pamphlets were spread across the townships, calling for a stayaway for the three days leading to and including May 31.

The flag hoisted on the day assumed a new meaning and a sense of the permanence of its significance, the entrenchment of white domination and black subjugation. This was in the aftermath of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, and the political air was thick with discontent. We had moved from East London where, in the 1960 State of Emergency, we were herded, young and old, like cattle under the fearsome drive of the squatting Saracen armoured vehicles, with this flag ever the inspiration of the menacing armed men.

Now my father had just assumed a position with the Bible Society of South Africa, headquartered on Smith Street in Durban, and the mainly Afrikaner leaders of the organisation were quite pleased with these national developments. We did not go to school from the beginning of that week, the proclaimed protest week.

I recall sitting at the Bible Society office and my father’s immediate supervisor, Rev Kluge, a very nice man, asking me if I was glad we now had a republic. He seemed unaware why my sister and I were not at school, nor did he ask. I did not know what to tell him about the republic. Its declaration was the reason we were not at school. To tell the truth might reflect badly on my father, who, instead of insisting we went to school, rather had us come to his work place. But to say that I was happy with the republic would not be the truth, given how I had understood this development from the community where I lived.

Complicating this question for me was the general belief held at the time that this republic story was against the colonial authority of the British and their queen.

The English people of South Africa were supposed to not like the republic and at the time, I thought Rev Kluge was English. A worker at the Bible Society, Mr Ephraim Nhlangulela, with another man, Ezrom, (Bhut’ Ezrom) whose surname I cannot recall, took me to the kitchen of the Bible Society and educated me. They told me that Kluge was German Afrikaner and in any case, all white South Africans stood to benefit from the declaration of the republic. 

They went much further, opening my eyes to the reality of the moment:

  • The Republic of South Africa was the revival of the old Afrikaner republics, especially Paul Kruger’s South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek).
  • The one cent of the new money currency (indibilishi in Zulu), had the image of the Voortrekker wagon; symbolising the same throwback to the colonial republics.
  • The new republic affirmed the flag that was already in hoist, (having been in place for decades before then. Its colours spoke to the unity of white domination with the greater power of the Dutch descendants. Ezrom pointed out that the orange, white and blue colours of the flag were actually royal colours of the Dutch Prince William of Orange, the Orange referenced in the Orange Free State. At the centre of the Dutch Prince flag adopted in South Africa were the miniature flags of the British Union Jack; South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek), later the Transvaal Colony; with the Orange Free State Republic. Presumably this symbolised the unity of the British and the Afrikaner that formed the Union of South Africa in 1910. In reality it was the unity of white people and the disenfranchisement of the black population of South Africa.

The new 1994 South African flag was presented as a unifying flag for a new society. As it is, the red, white and blue colours are the colours of the European nations that settled in South Africa, mainly Dutch, French. Today, those colours can be seen in the Russian Federation. The yellow, black and green are drawn from the flag of the African National Congress, with black symbolising the people, green the fertility of the land, and gold the mineral wealth.  In other words, the flag of the new constitutional and democratic dispensation symbolises unity.

Against all that background, it must be clear that the old flag was always a hostile symbol for the black majority in South Africa; much as the British Union Jack was regarded unfavourably by the Afrikaner population of South Africa. It stood as a symbol of our insecurity at the feared police stations of our country. And it was the source of pride for the apartheid cadet system of military training for white school kids, “For the youth to develop a sense of responsibility and love for their country and national flag.” (Paratus July 1979).

The time has come for a resounding NO to its resurgence, and the shaming of those who wish to glorify it. To hold it up is to turn your back to a future of peace, justice and reconciliation. To hold it up is to reject the notion of a united South Africa characterised by Mandela’s and Tutu’s dream or fantasy of a rainbow nation.

We applaud the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the South African Human Rights Commission for their court challenge of the political hankering after the symbolism of the old flag. And as we recognise the diverse experiences of the fractious history of our nation, the court judgment against the old flag must be accompanied by a concerted effort at nation building.

Much more needs to be done to educate for a common national identity. We are one national entity, in the Same Ship: SS-RSA, black and white together, poor and rich together.

To this end, South Africans should support the measures mooted in the Civil Society Manifesto of the National Convention of South Africa, convened by the South African Council of Churches (SACC), that include building towards “a reconciled future in light of the past”, a reconciled economic dispensation that relooks wealth, human worth and the fundamentals of human dignity; focusing on the younger generation.

The Civil Society Manifesto suggests the use of the image and example of Chief Albert Luthuli as symbolising the ideal South African for national identity. Chief Luthuli received the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1961, the year the divisive republic was declared, and on Human Rights Day of that year. And he saw it as “a recognition of the sacrifices made by the people of all races in South Africa”.

The ideal South African will, like Luthuli, rather than sow dissension, seek to build bridges across sectors of South African society; and in Luthuli’s own words, make this country “a true democracy and a true union in form and spirit of all the communities in the land”.

And so it shall be if we all appreciate the value of our diversity in the tapestry of what makes South Africa, and together incline towards a common sense of nationhood. We cannot achieve this without a strong wave of all South Africans visibly moving for a common national identity.

It is necessary that we identify, name and shame that which takes away from South Africa’s good name, that which should be labelled un-South African, and the old South African flag is un-South African in its spirit and the political agenda it drives.

The time is now, ke nako, to cultivate a common understanding; and to embrace the desirable “character” of the ideal South African.

South Africa, the ball is in our collective court. Let us not let this moment pass us by. This old flag is throwing the national gauntlet; stand up and be counted. Let us together make the current constitutional flag our common identifier, for starters – and there’s a long way to go – to reverse racial and cultural privilege, poverty and inequality.

The unity flag is one baby national step forward. Put it at your gate, on your car, your office, your church, your school, everywhere. Speak it up. Get out there, learn another South African language – preferably an alternative African language, give children alternative African names; if a white person, identify with and assume an African identity as Sobukwe would’ve had you do.

The flag, the languages, the common South African-ness is for all to embrace. None can opt out, and none can afford to be spectators We have to heal together to live together; or we shall perish together, yet stubbornly divided. As Jesus said looking over Jerusalem, we say it today to South Africa: “If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes…; because you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42, 44b NRSV)

Shall we hold on to a past that shouldn’t have been, or commit to a future that should be? This is the moment. Ke nako. Ixesha lifikile. I’m out shopping my flag paraphernalia. Let us embrace our common national symbols, recognising that this is the way to believe in “ons vir jou Suid Afrika”, for the sake of the future of all our children, and let this beautiful country give a resounding Amen!

–    Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana is General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC).

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