The discussion here in New Zealand about Kiwis getting a new flag has made me wonder, as an expat South African, what South Africans see and feel when they look up at that rainbow bit of history rippling against an African horizon. Does the impulse rise to put hands on hearts while throats lump with patriotism? As the flag unfurls against a backdrop of, say, sagging Eskom power lines, or a huge, filthy squatter camp, or the glittering citadel of Nkandla, do gathered people want to reach out arms to link with others’ arms as they all gaze up in awe at that great, hoisted emblem of liberty for all? As my answer, and I think many others’ answers would hardly be a thundering yes, I daresay it is not unfeasible to at least debate that a new flag be considered for South Africa. The current one is an insult to all those who fought for such a flag to be wrought, and the gleaming future it once promised.
Bear with me before you reach for a verbal spray can of vitriol. Shortly I am about to disagree — more or less — with what I just wrote.
What memories do our rainbow flag evoke for you? Do these memories feed and sustain a sense of collective identity? When I see the flag I often remember two moments. The first was watching the old one being taken down and then, with reverence, seeing that sparkling symbol of hope and dignity for all being lifted. We were like mothers receiving into our hands our new child. The other moment was when we won the Rugby World Cup in 1995. This was a glorious event that seemed to unite the entire nation, in which past bitterness, endless cruelty done to oppressed people and all the “fuck-ups” seemed to dissolve as we united and roared under one new flag. Words like ubuntu and ndaba could pass through our lips with an authentic resonance, without a hint of political doublespeak.
I used the expletive, “fuck-up”. I take my cue from the following which a South African newspaper editor recently wrote: “I sometimes joke that all the headlines in the news pages of the Mail & Guardian could say ‘It’s a fuck-up’, and all the headlines in the Comment & Analysis section could be ‘It’s going to be a fuck-up’.” So writes Shaun de Waal, editor of the Comment and Analysis section of M&G. He is a respected writer and literary critic who has written for the paper for more than 25 years. It’s also juicy use of language from a man who can write elegantly if he chooses to. Yet this is how he commences his review of two nostradamic books that deal with the pending (“when” not “if”) SA crisis. His language (and hey, I am not a prude) in context is no longer a shocker. Disillusionment with the country and her leaders is perfunctory. Cynicism in columns is now almost obligatory. The fuck-ups are fertile material for satire (long a tool and catalyst for the downtrodden), as Zapiro himself has admitted.
Referring to the books on South Africa in Shaun de Waal’s review, their analysis includes wonderful stuff such as the forecast that South Africa, like Greece, will beg for a bail-out from the IMF in about two years time. Then there are horrifying statistics: “The public service, which soaks up more than a third of the state’s annual budget, forms only 2.5% of the population.” Yet so much of the opinion I read about South Africa, including what bleats in and out of the social media, seems to be about blame-shifting, accusations of racism and white supremacy. The South African voices too often heard are an accusatory language that gets us nowhere. The voices sound more and more like frightened children whistling in the dark. If the zeitgeist among the people is blame shifting and denial of responsibility, then there cannot be any coherence. Therefore, surely we should discuss getting rid of the “new” flag, which is, first and foremost, a symbol of coherence?
The current flag’s design celebrates integration. To feminise the flag, she represents several of the “old order” colonial flags and the new order represented by the largely peaceful revolution (with a little too much emphasis on only the ANC’s colours). The flag heralds harmony, working together toward a brave new world of peace for all, basic rights for all, with the implication that people will not have to live below the breadline; that is to say, they can live with dignity.
Yet all that is so far from today’s truth.
Why not bugle the truth in the bald, heraldic art of a flag? I suggest having a public competition, open also to schools, for a new flag design. Then, from the material sent in, a representative committee chooses a flag that accurately reflects what has become of South Africa, where she is going, and where she has come from in the last twenty years. A flag that reflects the failure of service providers, such as Eskom, the crime and corruption that are now normative, the devaluing of the rand, the decline of educational standards and so forth. What would those flags look like?
I strongly recommend primary and high schools are given the green light to submit flag designs. Children are far more honest, unnervingly so. I know. I taught them for many years and respect their candour enormously. Child psychologists often get kids to draw pictures of their homes and their families. This is very revealing of what is going on in the child’s life, and what psychological damage may have been done to the child. What would our children be saying about South Africa if they were asked to make a colourful, simple reflection of what their South African experience is, in the form of a flag? What would a child in a luxurious suburb depict, as opposed to a child who lives in a squatter camp?
This brings us to the following questions. Should a flag depict the nation’s zeitgeist? Or should it represent a collective identity that is arguably and often demonstrably false? Is there a third way?
However, my gut feel is that people would vehemently object to my proposals for a new flag. And I hope I am not wrong there. For all the misery, for all the broken promises, when pushed to the wall, I believe most of us South Africans — including myself — would not want our flag changed. Though many of us have such childish issues with blame shifting and denial, we still look up to our rainbow banner. Assuming I am right, we need to ask ourselves why we do not want our flag to be replaced. What is it in us that still holds us together, still wants to make this nation work (including us expats)? Is there something in the biblical assertion that faith is the substance of things hoped for?
Further, the South African flag is such a beautiful one. Look at the winning prize for the proposed New Zealand flag. Regardless of symbolism, it is so bland and boring. These are characteristics South Africans all over the world typically do not have. Our flag represents this. South Africa’s flag, in this day and age, is surely still the cheeky newcomer, the upstart, with her sassy yet dignified colours.
We just need to be more aware that she all too often drifts in the sky like an abandoned child.
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