Our flag is sacred - so don't display it on rhino bottoms
'SHOOT, if you must, this old gray head, But spare your country's flag ..."
This moving line is from a patriotic poem, Barbara Frietchie, by John Greenleaf Whittier, penned in 1864, two years after the military governor of New Orleans, Benjamin Franklin Butler, sentenced William Mumford to death for ripping down the stars and stripes during the American Civil War.
Over years, the US has modified its laws relating to flag burning - you won't go to the gallows for this, although the authorities still frown on it - but they keep trying, unsuccessfully, to sneak in legislation that outlaws the burning of the flag.
However, many countries - ranging from Germany to Israel, from Portugal to New Zealand - impose fines or jail terms on those who desecrate their country's flags and other national symbols.
For example, in Finland it is illegal to desecrate the flag, treat it in a disrespectful manner or remove it from a public place without permission. And the French will slap you with a fine of up to à7500 (and six months' imprisonment) if you dishonour the French national anthem or the French flag during an event organised or regulated by public authorities.
I am citing these examples, of course, in the wake of the debate sparked by Kaya FM DJ Bob Mabena. He took umbrage at what he deemed to be a desecration of the South African flag by a private company, and duly staged a one-man placard protest.
He was upset by a billboard along one of Johannesburg's busy roads in which three South African flags were shown draped on the backsides of three rhino.
Mabena has attracted a deluge of messages in support of his demonstration - although some people have said Mabena's decision to walk out of the Kaya FM studios in the middle of his show was nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Because I am not a sangoma, I cannot divine whether this allegation is true. What I do know is that, ironically, Mabena was arrested for contravening section 323 A of the National Road Traffic Act, which prohibits pedestrians on freeways.
Like many, Mabena didn't know he was breaking the law by walking on the freeway, but as the Latin phrase tells us: Ignorantia juris non excusat ("ignorance of the law is no excuse"). This legal principle holds that anyone unaware of a law may not escape liability for violating that law.
Now that the dust has settled, we need to ask ourselves if Mabena's action was justifiable.
As I have illustrated above, in many countries the flag - like other symbols of nationhood - is sacred. In a nation still grappling with its new identity, it's important that we citizens nurture our national symbols.
As we have seen, even established democracies treasure their symbols of nationhood, primarily the flag.
According to the flag-loving Southern African Vexillological Association, the South African flag may never be:
- Used as a tablecloth or draped in front of a platform;
- Manufactured or used as underclothes, bath and floor mats or any similar demeaning application;
- Used in a commercial advertising manner that will distort or show disrespect to the flag; or
- Defaced by placing slogans or any writing or design directly on the field of the flag.
As Bongiwe Khumalo wrote in our sister paper, Sunday World: "The flag, (the) national anthem and all other national symbols are an integral part of our collective heritage. They represent our drive to build national identity."
Over the years, we have been having debates about our national anthem: do we need to sing it in the various languages in which is formulated, or do we need to stick to one language? People feel strongly about the anthem - which is why reggae singer Ras Dumisani was excoriated for desecrating it in France ahead of a rugby match a few years ago.
Singer Christina Aguilera was also punished in the court of public opinion for messing up The Star-Spangled Banner in the US a few weeks ago. And so it should be. If you are a public figure and you do an injustice to a national symbol, you should be punished. If you can't sing the anthem, leave it alone before you embarrass yourself and provoke the ire of many in the process.
The same should apply to the flag. True, there might be instances where people might want to burn the flag in celebration of free speech, but companies and individuals who want to use the flag for whatever purpose should try their best to do that within reason.
To many, the flag is a narrative of who we are as a nation: the compromises we had to consider as we put aside our weapons and decided upon a negotiated settlement between the warring sections of South African society.
The Document Warehouse, the company which put up the rhino billboard, has said it didn't know it was defacing the flag.
Again, we invoke the Latin saying: Ignorantia juris non excusat. Besides, as a company, it has the resources to research not only the meaning of the flag, but how it can be used appropriately.
Common sense should tell you that the backside of an animal or a human being is generally offensive to many - hence expressions such "kiss my ass", "whip his ass".
So wrapping a sacred symbol around the backside should, logically, be a no-no.
I am probably sounding uncharacteristically sanctimonious today, but when it comes to matters of nationhood I believe we should apply due sensitivity.