Old flag debate is a symptom of a deeper malaise

Image: Getty, jacoblund_iStock

It has taken South Africa 25 years to put its foot down on the display of the apartheid flag.

Like all political symbols, this flag represents more than just an outdated political order, as some may want to believe: it represents history, aspirations, shared values and ideology. It just so happens that in the case of this flag, racial segregation and white superiority were at the core of the symbolic meanings it represents.

This week, the equality court passed a judgment stating that the “gratuitous display” of the former South African flag, aka the apartheid flag, constitutes hate speech, harassment and discrimination.  This decision did not come without pushback.

Afrikaner groups organised outside the court to defend their freedom of expression by flying the apartheid flag. The fact that there are groups and communities that are willing to defend a symbol of oppression, especially when those who were oppressed under it find it intimidating and discriminatory, says a lot about the lack of remorse for the psychological affects of the apartheid regime.

In order to assert that Afrikaner nationalists regret and appreciate the gravity of the impact of apartheid, they need to believe that the history was problematic. Sadly, when the line between political history and cultural history is so thin, it is hard to separate the tainted sociocultural overlaps from the political project.

The very cultural project of apartheid was that the Afrikaner volk deserved to be positioned in their believed rightful, glorious position above other cultural groups in South Africa. This means that the the cultural mission was also the political mission. Political and economic tools were in service of this ideology and vice versa. To work through the messy history of our exclusionary and racist past entails working through the complicity of Afrikaners and Afrikaans as tools for this project.

There is no easy way around it and our Afrikaner counterparts, who are invested in honest and authentic nation-building, will have to work through the political baggage that the protection of their culture has come with. People across the country are making efforts to work through the complexities of our past through discourses on decoloniality, multiculturalism, migration and gender identities among others, because we are becoming increasingly aware of our respective historical baggage.

We need to set a higher bar for discussions on our cultures and histories. To simply assert that problematic and harmful symbols must be protected because they are a part of our culture or history is lazy and it is violent, because it is always at the expense of others. So when AfriForum has this single card up their sleeve, we are given the impression that they are not ready to put in the work and join the nation-building project. It says, “we are not ready to integrate”.

AfriForum does, of course, have the right to self-determination as one of the core principles that they lobby for, alongside Freedom Front Plus, to which it is closely affiliated. It comes as no surprise that demonstrators who were against the judgment were carrying posters reading, “Pietersburg vir Pietersburg [the former name for Polokwane]” and “My tax is only for Pietersburg”. This is important in this conversation because where communities can self-determine, there is often an open rejection of the values and beliefs of the greater nation.

Lest we forget, self-determination was also the “official” premise for our country’s segregationist laws, resulting in violent establishments such as the Bantustans and the townships. It justified the systematic oppression caused by the selective concentration of national resources into the hands of a few.

So, although this judgment is an important step in the right direction, the passionate pleas to protect the flag reveal a deeper and bigger malaise in our nation and cohesion. There is a lack of willingness to confront the reality of the legacy of apartheid.

There is a carelessness to the impulsive defence of all things “historical” and cultural. There is great denial of the cultural complicity of the Afrikaner volk in the making of a political system that discriminated against and dehumanised the majority of a population. Last, but not least, there is a great deal of introspection that is needed by those who refuse to acknowledge the significance of symbols and representation as tools for political harm, whether metaphorical or literal.

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