Unfurling the story of the SA flag

The history of our country's multicoloured flag is as touched with last-minute luck as the people it represents

21 April 2019 - 00:13
Fans at the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
Fans at the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
Image: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Twenty-five years and a few hours ago at one minute past midnight, a young white soldier struck the old South African flag for the last time. A few metres to his left, his black counterpart raised the nation's new standard. Dawn was still a few hours away but democracy had risen early and dressed itself in red, green, yellow, blue, black and white.

According to Stats SA's 2018 estimate, about 30% of the 57-million people in this country are under the age of 15. When you factor in those up to the age of 35, you find that the majority have either never lived beneath another flag or were very young when we consigned the oranje blanje blou to the historical trash heap.

So where did the new flag come from? What mad scientist threw six colours at a Y shape and called it a flag? Who was it that, after much deliberation, looked at it and said "Now that's what I call South African"? Most importantly, though, after a quarter-century of experimenting with democracy, which SA does our flag represent, and how far has that version of our country come?

The story starts during the Kempton Park negotiations. Apartheid may have been on its last legs, but democracy was still going through a complicated birthing process. Cyril Ramaphosa, Roelf Meyer and Co were thrashing out what they were going to do with the nukes, solving the practicalities of how a more just society would actually operate and trying to ensure white people didn't die of hysteria.

"Around August 1993 people realised we were going to need a new flag, a new coat of arms and a new anthem. So they quickly got together a commission on national symbols," says Adrienne Harris. She is CEO of Harvest Group Management and the impetus behind Flying with Pride, the reincarnation of a coffee-table book about the history of our flag.

Back in 2002, a book of the same name and with a similar general theme was conceptualised and printed by Andrew McKenzie, but that version was never shipped to book stores. Harris was involved in that attempt and wanted to make sure that, this time around, the history of our flag - right down to the dubious civilian attempts at a new flag for SA - makes it to shelves.

In 1993, "because of the whole feeling of inclusivity they wanted to create, a call was put out for public submissions that went to a whole lot of schools and newspapers with a few design guidelines. They got about 7,000 submissions," says Harris.

Fred Brownell's doodles were the genesis of our flag.
Fred Brownell's doodles were the genesis of our flag.
Image: Franz Rabe

It turned out that garden variety South Africans were not particularly brilliant vexillologists (flag experts). Nothing good came in. By October 1993, panic was beginning to set in. The elections were half a year away and we were no closer to having a flag. The flag brains trust called in the creative big guns.

Says Harris: "They rushed out and got some ad agencies to do it. The agencies presented the flags and the guys [on the symbols commission] looked at them and went, 'Um, they're no good'."

One of the people on the commission was the state herald at the time, Fred Brownell. Having previously helped to design the Namibian flag, and being obsessed with flags in general, Brownell figured he would take a stab at ours. While he was at a flag conference in Zurich he began to doodle on the programme notes. Those doodles were the genesis of our flag.

But his idea still needed a lot of approval. One of the people who needed to OK it was Nelson Mandela, the ANC president at the time. The only problem was that he was in Rustenburg in what is now North West. Legend has it that the flag was faxed to him. People of a certain age will be aware that colour fax machines were not a thing and so when the black and white version of the flag arrived in Rustenburg, colouring utensils had to be found and blanks filled in before it could be shown to Mandela.

Once greenlighted, it was time to see what people thought of the country's pretty new dress.

"The response was ... varied," says Harris. "Some people said that they had been snobs by adhering to flag design while others were saying it wasn't artistic enough. There were jokes about it being Y-fronts and a whole bunch of cartoons."

The response [to the design of the new South African flag]  was varied ... There were jokes about it being Y-fronts
Adrienne Harris

Elections were around the corner. Political violence was flaring up in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal and Lucas Mangope was partnering with Afrikaner terrorists in a bid to hold on to power. Few people were devoting energy to flags. The busyness of the period meant that the flag spent a fair amount of time near the bottom of then president FW de Klerk's to-do list. The design was only promulgated on April 20 1994, seven days before the flag was due to be inaugurated.

"Now there was mass chaos. It was calculated that they would need 100,000 flags and that was just for key points. To make it worse there were only two flagmakers in SA," says Harris.

Further complicating the process was that the South African flag is made out of a loose-weave fabric called bunting, a rare thing among national flags. So bunting had to be sourced from all corners of the globe to help supply this fledgling democracy at the bottom of Africa. The world ran out of bunting. They had to get permission to use polyester for the flags," says Harris.

The new flag being made.
The new flag being made.
Image: Chris Ingidge

Despite their best efforts there were still not enough flags to fly above every polling station. That wasn't a train smash because at one minute past midnight the new flag flew and with it the hopes and expectations of a new nation. The Zeitgeist was upbeat, tentatively hopeful and a marketer's dream. A colourful flag for a colourful nation. Smiling black faces with smiling white ones. We were all participants in a unique experiment. No-one had seen a transition of power like this and that filled us with pride. Sure, in the privacy of our own spaces we quietly gnawed on old bones of discontent, but in public it was a new day and Utopia was at hand.

The mood has darkened considerably since then. Broken promises, unresolved resentments and a lack of sufficient progress have led many South Africans to lament the dream our new flag sold us. We are arguably further away from unity now than we were back then and, in many cases, with good reason. Optimism about the future of our country is more likely to see one labelled a fantasist, whereas 25 years ago it was dogma.

That said, where else would you rather be? The US has Trump, gun-crazed teenagers and homicidal police. The UK is bumbling through Brexit and has people being decapitated in the streets and crappy food. Australia is full of flying snakes and the racists who left SA in search of whiter climes. Brazil has Bolsonaro and Europe has too much fascism.

Sure, SA has its problems, but this lump of land we live on is as diverse as it is pretty and most of all it is unique and was born that way. The story of our flag is not a romanticised walk down memory lane. There is some of that but in the main a book about it has the potential to be a matric dance photo - a snapshot you look at and go "Oh my God look how young we were".

The story of our flag shows a nation with its whole life ahead of it. One brimming with pride and convinced of its own invincibility. Adulthood chips away at some of that confidence, which is why we keep photographs.

In a way, then, Flying with Pride will be a memento. A reminder of just how young (and naive) we were, what a momentous thing the country had just achieved and what goes into making one of the world's most recognisable flags to represent some of the world's most remarkable people.

SEND IN YOUR PHOTOS

Following in "the spirit of inclusivity that the Multi-Party Negotiating Council wanted when it called for public submissions of the flag design", Flying With Pride would like members of the public to submit their own photos featuring our flag, whether it's painted on your face or flying in your garden.

Every person who submits a photo that makes it into the book will receive a free first-edition copy of Flying with Pride. For more information, visit flyingwithpride.co.za.

WHAT THE FLAG MEANS

Our flag has meaning. School teachers tell us that the blue is supposed to represent the sky and so on and so forth. The point is that each colour means something. Or does it?

Speaking to Adrienne Harris, who helped research and fund the book Flying with Pride, we discovered something rather interesting about the six colours making up our flag.

"What is not patently obvious is that the flag is actually the ANC colours and the oranje-blanje-blou [orange, white and blue] of the old flag," says Harris.

SA House in London's Trafalgar Square lit up with the flag to celebrate 10 years of democracy.
SA House in London's Trafalgar Square lit up with the flag to celebrate 10 years of democracy.
Image: Fiona Hanson

The "red" on our flag is also not actually true red. It is chilli red, a kind of red-leaning middle ground between orange and actual red.

"They chose this so it wasn't associated with communism. The other reason is that when Jan van Riebeeck landed nobody knows whether the flag he had was from the Prince of Orange (which would have been orange) or the Dutch flag (which had a red stripe) and so this was kind of a middle ground," says Harris.

And as far as deep-seated meaning goes, there isn't one. The flag's designer, former state herald Fred Brownell, never ascribed any meaning to it. Fred's only thought was divergence and unity, says Harris.

So we have a "Y" on our flag to show how we started out as divergent and ended up unified. Outside of that, the meaning of the flag is yours to create as you see fit.