Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Old flag debate is a symptom of a deeper malaise




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 Like all political symbols, this flag represents more than just an outdated political order, as some may want to believe: it represents history, aspirations, shared values and ideology.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 is it 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.

Gugu Resha has a BA honours degree in philosophy and works as a youth programmes and capacity building intern for the South African Institute of International Affairs. These are her own views.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Gugu Resha
Gugu Resha
Gugu Resha has a BA honours degree in philosophy from Stellenbosch University and works as a youth programmes and capacity building intern for the South African Institute of International Affairs

Related stories


Subscribers only

Despite promises, medical interns at 2 Military Hospital remain unpaid

The interns were told they would receive salaries at the end of April, but that did not happen

Khoikhoi versus US giant Amazon

The controversial River Club development gets the go-ahead, but opponents say they are heading for court

More top stories

Ipid report clears cops of misconduct for use of water...

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate found no misconduct was committed by police who used a water cannon on a crowd outside the Sassa office in Bellville, Cape Town

Cape winter storm causes two deaths, 57 families evacuated

The winter storm that made landfall on Wednesday morning and caused widespread damage is not yet over

Case of municipal manager who got luxury gifts for depositing...

Tsakane Ngobeni received holidays, expensive watches and beauty treatments from another VBS Mutual Bank accused

Ramaphosa tells party caucus he was ‘shocked’ by Magashule’s suspension...

Magashule’s letter, in which he refused to step aside, said he would be appealing his suspension and added that he was “suspending” Ramaphosa. The letter is said to have angered the president.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…