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.