Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Have you got your SA flag sokkies yet?

The other day I bought a pair of South African flag wing-mirror socks for my car. For R100 nogal, but that’s because I am a true Sandtonite and therefore happy to get ripped off. (If I’d bought them in Randburg it would have been a different story.)

Yes, I succumbed to all the gooey patriotic spirit I see around me. It’s something I feel almost obliged to participate in: my field of study was advertising and national identity, so it’s a subject that has long interested me. Visible signs of allegiance to national symbols are a really good thing, especially in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. The more of us who do it, the better. Simply put, ethnic nationalism — a la AWB or he who shall not be named — bad, civic nationalism good. On this point I disagree with Professor Jonathan Jansen. Global citizenship is all very well, but South African patriotism, in the form of an acknowledgment of the flag and all that it stands for, is both rational and necessary. As William Bloom argues, “Power politics create a state, but its endurance is guaranteed only if the psychological nation is built”.

Using cars as a vehicle, quite literally, to display one’s identification with South Africa, is probably the best way to create a bit of national buzz prior to the World Cup — because cars are out there on the roads, and visibility is crucial for coordination and common knowledge. When it comes to visibility, then, the wing-mirror socks are a stroke of genius. They’re not too over-the-top obvious, but still permit one to display an identification with the nation without having to make much effort. They look cute on a lot of cars (the bright colours add a certain je ne sais quoi to my white Hyundai) and, unlike those flags you attach to your windows, they won’t increase petrol consumption at 120kph.

Originally conceived by Mini as part of its neat “Six Colours to Stand By” campaign, mirror socks have now become the entrepreneurial opportunity du jour at your nearest retail outlet, otherwise known as the next set of robots. It’s also one that appears to have escaped the dead hand of Fifa; mirror socks and other assorted motor vehicle-related patriotic paraphernalia are notable for the fact that they are almost exclusively distributed through informal channels.

If you’re reluctant to buy at the robots, you can also get your mirror socks from this website (named, as one would expect, “mirror-socks.co.za”). They’re much, much cheaper than the prices being asked at the side of the road. I’ve also heard that they are available from Cardies, though I haven’t witnessed this myself. Still, you can always take yourself along to a Mini dealership and ask for a pair (last I checked they had run out, and would only have new stock in mid-May).

The pricing strategy is interesting, given that there appear to be several suppliers of socks and no way to compare prices at the point of purchase. I’d love to know how many buyers actually pay R120, which seems to be the going rate in Sandton. My bet is that the sellers know that most motorists will not pay that kind of money for two pieces of plastic attached to a little bit of elastic — but they will pay R100. That’s because they’ve at least made an attempt at bargaining the guy down, and it’s easier to fork out a R100 note than to find several that add up to, say R80. Yes, half the lights in Joburg appear to be non-functional, but even so, it’s a risk to wait for change when it might be your turn to go and there’s a BMW up your backside.

Social proof is clearly driving a lot of this behaviour; the more motor vehicles that display flags, the more likely that others will follow, and so on. I was one of those motorists who put an SA flag sticker on the back of my car in 1994, but I’d be way too skaam to be the only one doing this now.

Evidently, pride in South Africa — of a sort — is back in fashion. I’ve been tracking the dominant themes in national discourse for more than a decade now, and the past few years have been notable for their absence of a defining and unifying national myth. (Note: I use myth in the sense of an organising narrative, rather than in the sense of untruth.)

Since 1994 we’ve been through the Rainbow Nation, the African Renaissance (which never really took hold) and Brand South Africa. After that … nothing really. South African patriotism has been out of favour since Jacob Zuma’s rape trial and Eskom’s rolling blackouts, and optimism about the World Cup has been tempered by everything from politics to potholes. Nonetheless, many South Africans have decided to hell with it, they’re going to show some spirit. Our national team might be a source of frustration and despair, but there’s no reason we can’t celebrate.

There are those who have pointed out that a meaningful national identity is impossible in such an unequal society, that patriotism is a wilfully naive act of papering over the cracks, but if it’s all a waste of time we might as well all give up and catch the nearest plane to a well-run English-speaking country, ash cloud and/or visa permitting. The World Cup, for all its shortcomings — and if South Africans were anything like the Na’vi in Avatar, we’d have drummed Fifa out of the country long ago — is an opportunity to put aside our differences and acknowledge that deep down, we really do have things in common. We love to braai. We hate taxis and taxi drivers (even the people who have to use them hate them). We are familiar with the dangers of touching somebody on their studio.

The national flag is our most powerful symbol, not just of unity, but the acknowledgment of our fellow citizens regardless of colour or creed. Even people who drive double cabs. Go on, get your mirror socks, and join in.

  • BillyC

    Americans are the most patriotic people in the world when it comes to flying the flag. One frequently sees flags on poles on verandas and stoeps all over suburban America as well as stickers on cars and clothes. Maybe we’re going the same way.

    Its paradoxical that Americans also seem quite relaxed about those who show a litle attitude by flying confederate flags. Everyone hyperventilates if the old union flag is flown here

  • http://CharlieOConnell Charlie O’Connell

    This is exactly the type of optimism that this country so badly needs. I know that being optimistic wont solve all our problems but it does bring hope. With hope we will all feel more confident in dealing with the challenges we face as country.

    As I said before; the World Cup can be a great PR tool for brand SA in terms of bringing in foreign investment and tourism. A successful World Cup could lead to a successful South Africa and hence better off South Africans.

    This is not guaranteed of course but we owe it to ourselves to try. Especially given how much we’ve all struggled as a nation. In Obama’s words; YES WE CAN become a success story.

    As always; thanks for a great piece Ms. Britten. Who says that Marketing can’t be used for greater good?

  • JvM

    The going rate in Melville is R80, if you’re blond. I predict a wave of sock-thefts and an increasing number of second hand socks for sale in Sandton.

  • Atlas Reader

    Jeez! How CHEEZ, puh-leez!

    Yuggh!

  • Michael K

    The patriotism of SA’ns is a shallow one indeed.
    Behind the feelgood pretense lurk all our hatreds and how we despise each other.
    It is indeed papering over ever widening cracks and the hangover after the WC will be monumental.

    But wait!
    I hear Julie baby will get training from the army!
    Isn’t that just what the doctor ordered.
    A disciplined Malema (surely an oxymoron) is a frightful concept and if you add weapon training and the cadres become the ‘Black guard’ we are truly on the way to utopia where farmers and other assorted white scoundrels get their just dessert!

    So I should feel proud of our nation?
    Zimbabweans are reaped and robbed at the illegal border crossing.
    Babies are raped and dismembered.
    75% of Sowetans don’t pay for water and electricity.

    This is something to be proud of?
    This warms our deep love for one another?

    In the name of the rainbow and holy Bafana we need to ignore reality for a month and become a loving bunch of brothers and sisters – whilst the vuvuzelas are blaring and making us deaf?

    No!
    No flag for me, I do not lie to myself or others, reality is ever present and I refuse to join the St Vitus dance of insanity that is being enacted presently.

    So I realise with pride and joy that I am a member of the:
    ………Disloyal opposition………

    and I like it that way!

  • Bluntt L

    @ Sarah

    Cangratulations for managing to steer away from negativity and pessimism about the SWC and the South African. In fact credit to you for this proudly South Aafrican article.

    I am currently flying an SA flag on may car window and proud doing so. I am also spotting a scarf behind my rear seat head rests. I recently purchased muggs at Sandton city.

  • Marianne

    as always Sarah, a nice piece. Well done, keep it up, I enjoy your dry wit. As for flag flying, my son bough a flag and sokkies, both got stolen in the parking lot on the 2nd day of proudly flying it. Such is life in our country. Pity !

  • MLH

    I draw the line at buying anything that makes me or mine a bigger target for crime, but it would be really great if car-hire firms put them on all the cars their foreign tourists hired, using the tourists’ national flags.
    Not only would we understand the reason for more dithering and traffic jams on the roads (than usual), but the crims would know exactly which boots are likely to harbour expensive cameras. Those fellows who stalk incoming OT Int visitors would also find it easier to keep track of the car in front of them.
    And, like you, soccer yobs are definitely the type of person they’d appeal to.

  • Graham Johnson

    The South African flag is a symbol of continuous failure and incompetence. It is a symbol of bunkum and non-delivery. It is, quite literally, a sign of desperation. How can anyone fly it with pride? Until we reach unity in thought and practice, the flag will always represent the domination of whites by blacks.

    Sad really.

  • Bonginkosi

    I want those sokkies! I have been envious of people who already have them. Just wondering where to buy them in this foreign country called Cape Town!!

  • Phillipa Lipinsky

    Well done Sarah! Nice piece, as always.
    Michael K. If this country is so insufferable, why get a one-way ticket to Norway?
    No one is denying that South Africa is a deeply troubled and generally chaotic country but there is a lot to be grateful for and to be celebrated. As the saying goes “there is more that unites us than that which divides us.

  • Banana

    My flags and socks were stolen, maybe you have them Sarah? Sucks to be patriotic, look where it gets you!

  • Ararat

    Sarah, people like you make living in SA fun. Your wits and sense of humour is really needed in this part of the world called South Africa. Unfortunately your fellow South Africans are not as positive as a few of you are. As a foriegner in SA; despite all the name calling and violent attacks in recent times, one still finds love, excitement and true friendship in this society, sometimes from unexpected quarters. The common saying that you never miss your water until the well runs dry cannot be more true. I don’t pray that SA ends up like most Africa countries like the one I come from. You guys think ESKOM is bad??? try Power Holding Corporation of ….. Yep! they hold on to power for as long as three months.

    What South Africans need is to turn to God for deliverance. Deliverance from the spirit of hate, jealousy, intolerance, greed, violence. If these negative energies can be chanelled into serving God; this could be the most beautiful country in the world. The world cup may not make everybody millioniers over night as it didn’t where it had been hosted before, neither will it make Taxi Drivers behalf sensibly, but it will leave a lasting memory in the hearts of those who partake in the celebrations of “goals” scored or achieved though the hosting of such an event first time in Africa. Graham, Michael and the all the kill joys out there,….na una sabi!

  • Atlas Reader

    What’s that long pale object obscuring part of your face on your new, coy-looking picture? It looks like a duck or some similar poultry looking the other way.

  • http://www.noidsystems.co.za scigga

    I’ve been saying for years … I once had an idea for our slow gov comms department that they should print 45million constitution booklets in all 11 languages AND … distribute as many flags as possible to every household … get the musicians to show the flag in their music videos, cd covers etc … AND it must be compulsory for each pre-school, primary, secondary and high school through to college that they must have the country’s flag flying … BUT none the less i love this spirit … Hope it does not end here … (PS: Its all in my Nation Branding honors paper)

  • Les

    Im flying our FLAG proudly…. and I am enjoying seeing so many flags fluttering in the wind each day in JHB.

    Of course positive and patriotic articles like this will always dredge up the eternal pessimists amongst us….. but then who cares. We know that many whites HAVE NEVER ever embraced the ‘NEW SOUTH AFRICA’ and so they will never feel allegiance towards our beautiful flag.

    Fortunately many of those sit comfortably in lilly white Australia and so have a new identity to embrace…. those that cant get out I SUPPOSE we will just have to put up with!!!

    Of course SA has many issues and troubles, but get over it and lets ALSO celebrate all of the good there is in SA (and yes there is that too!!)

    Anyway, from one proudly South African whitey….. VIVA SA and BAFANA BAFANA!!!!

    To a sucessful WORLD CUP!!!

  • momVV

    Wow! Thanks Sara. I have been flying my SA flag from July
    2006 when I got back from the WC in Germany. If Germans could show unity
    Then, South Africans can do it tenfold. Aluta Continua MzansiB