“I’d like to die as someone else, among unfamiliar flags”
– Fernando Pessoa
“It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6 or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”
-Charles Sumner, (January 6, 1811 – March 11, 1874), leader of the antislavery forces in Massachusetts.
“Egoism, self-seeking, self-conceit, pride, the will to power, hatred of others, violence, all become virtues when transferred from personality to the nation as a whole…National self-conceit and pride is a lie, just as much as it is by the way ludicrous and stupid…[nationalism precipitates] men into a fictitious and illusory life.”
Flags come and go. Their meanings change; they turn from objects of veneration to derision with the change of the wind. I have in my garage a large ceremonial flag of the pre-1994 South Africa. Today it is taboo to fly it as it is too closely associated with a period of fascist rule in which the majority was oppressed and marginalised in their own land. So why do I keep it? I don’t really know. Perhaps its a grim reminder of the cruel ambiguities of nationalism, the flag a sort of repository of falsehoods and contradictions. The abject.
There was a time when this same flag represented different things, when it was waved not by beer-swilling right wing hooligans but by sincere, committed patriots. Men women and children were stirred by the oranje blanje blou; people fought – and died – under the flag that is now anathema.
But whatever its pretensions to unity, it was always flown above a deeply divided society. My disquiet at (note: not dislike of) the new South African flag is somehow related to it’s having been designed with haste as an interim measure by the esteemed vexillological expert and South African state herald Frederick Brownell (who, incidentally, also designed the flag of Namibia). Is it crass and caustic to ask why a black vexillological expert was not commissioned? Or is this simply white deference on my part?
I confess I don’t much care for the design of the coat of arms of South Africa. It was designed by Iaan Bekker, a director of a local advertising agency. I can’t dismiss the accusation of being a bad sport in this matter: at the time the design was commissioned I was with a design studio that “had a go” at the brief. Our designs were no better than the one that won the day (and I think mine was worse by far). But my issue is not with the merit or demerit of the design (it has been criticised for insufficient heraldic gravitas). It seems to me that if heraldry is about symbolism then there was a missed opportunity here: a symbolic black voice in the creation of symbols to reflect a post-apartheid nation. The coat of arms – overly didactic with it’s contrived symbols dislocated from our history – seems to me to express an Africa viewed through a white man’s lens. (elephant tusks, an arc of beer label-like ears of wheat, a protea formed by touristy African craft pattern, a spear and knobkierie of the kind one might pick up at an airport souvenir shop, some rock paintings (are those figures – discreetly hiding their genitalia – perhaps arm-wrestling or fist-greeting?) and a /Xam motto as a perfunctory nod to the decimated original inhabitants of this land – create in my view the impression of a constructed, forced coat of arms trying too hard to be taken seriously.
But emblems need not be inherently good or bad design in order to resonate: it is the significance with which we imbue them that lends them gravitas. Long after my comments are lost in the blog-fog, the coat of arms will endure whether loved or despised.
And after all: heraldry is littered with strangeness: mythical creatures, strange mottos, arcane symbols designed by heralds and ‘hacks’. Thus I must offer a reposte to my own criticism: an emblem needs no justification and can command respect in spite of itself.
I think that in both cases the designers meant well. It was designed during the time of the rainbow: all colours were now equal, so why not white designers?
I may stand accused of curmudgeonly fault-finding and nit-picking; but it seems throughout Africa the white man has monopolised – and continues to monopolise (or cannibalise) – african symbols and nomenclature (the misuse and abuse of the word ubuntu is a case in point) – inevitably imposing his own weltenschaung. It’s in his blood to do so, to impose his idea even while he proceeds convinced of his own altruism. A friend of mine referred to this as an illegitimate appropriation.
(see: Jean Paul Sartre: Black Orpheus https://disquietsite.wordpress.com/page/9/)
Flags within flags
The old South African flag contained within it the flags of the two Boer republics – die vierkleur of the Transvaal and the flag of the Orange Free State – and the Union Jack representing the two British colonies of the Cape and Natal. There is a conspicuous absence of symbolism pertaining to the indigenous peoples of South Africa – what for most of the country’s history comprised the disenfranchised, dispossessed and excluded majority.
As a teenager, I was forced to stand to attention with my schoolmates, dressed in our ridiculous army-brown cadet uniforms, and salute the “old” South African flag as it was hoisted above the school quadrangle. Once a week we would sing Die Stem. These mildly coercive nationalistic rituals always left me cold and somehow unsettled. This was 1976: Soweto was burning while in my whites-only school in the culturally sterile whites-only suburb, our insidious little schoolmaster enthusiastically employed a cane to enforce his brand of conformist, supremacist “patriotism”.
The flag (like the myth of the Great Trek promulgated ad nauseum in now thankfully revised school curricula) was as alien to me as the harsh sun, knife-sharp shadows and dry, burnt landscapes of our highveld winters. Who’s flag was it anyway? What did it represent? Could I ever come to identify with its insistent narratives?
The Nationalist government of the time had already embarked upon an elaborate heraldic folly: the creation of a veritable forest of flags and emblems for their bureaucratic, illegitimate, faux-ethnolgical fantasy lands- the bantustans. Whatever the intended (or pretended) symbolism of the oranje blanje blou, it fluttered in the thin cold air of racial exclusion and the expulsion of millions of black south Africans to these dusty rural backwaters. But for a child it simply exacerbated my nostalgia for a rural England which represented a kind of lost Eden for me. I was a young outsider, a reluctant interloper in the strange conflicted land to which my parents had brought me. A 13 year old boy newly arrived from Britain, I found myself at odds with circumstance, cast in roles I’d never imagined, accused of historical crimes committed by colonial adventurers I’d never heard of. At the time of the Boer War it was my people who had incarcerated Afrikaner women and children in concentration camps, burnt their farms, killed their cattle – and whatever the horrific facts of that bloody conflict I was somehow guilty by association. So early – I had discovered a theme which was to become a lietmotif for a white, English speaking South African of British descent: Guilt. Mea culpa. That there is no absolution, no penance possible for those born or living under the wrong flag. Where God might forgive a man, man himself is not so magnanimous.
Why does flag rhyme with rag?
The online etymology dictionary states, “flag – 1540s, “flap about loosely,” probably a later variant of Middle English flakken, flacken “to flap, flutter” (late 14c.), which probably is from Old Norse flaka.” As for the similarity to “rag” – there appears to be no etymological connection other than an incidental phonetic one: “rag scrap of cloth, early 14c., probably from Old Norse rögg “shaggy tuft,” earlier raggw-, or possibly from Old Danish rag, or a back-formation from ragged, It also may represent an unrecorded Old English cognate of Old Norse rögg. In any case, from Proto-Germanic *rawwa-, from PIE root *reue- “to smash, knock down, tear up, uproot”
But I would like to deliberately conflate these meanings: flags flap about loosely though history, these scraps of cloth, to which we attach such importance. Perhaps in the “proto-germanic” sense these scraps of cloth “smash, knock down, tear up, uproot” meanings as they are raised and lowered, folded away, eaten by moths or burnt. Flags demand – then betray – our allegiance as our noble intentions deteriorate into wind-blown rags.
“It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6 or 7
to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance,
along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”
– Charles Sumner
“A moth-eaten rag on a worm-eaten pole,
It does not look likely to stir a man’s Soul,
‘Tis the deeds that were done ‘neath the moth-eaten rag,
When the pole was a staff, and the rag was a flag.”
– Sir Edward Hamley
“Rally round the flag, boys—
Give it to the breeze!
That’s the banner that we bore
On the land and seas.
Brave hearts are under it,
Let the traitors brag,
Gallant lads, fire away!
And fight for the flag.
Their flag is but a rag—
Ours is the true one;
Up with the Stars and Stripes!
with the new one!
Let our colors fly, boys—
Guard them day and night;
For victory is liberty,
And God will bless the right.”
– James Thomas Fields
I have seen not a few flags come and go, their significance shifting like unpredictable winds. There are the more notable ones, like the flag of the former Soviet Union, but I wonder what disillusionment (If any) attended the demise of the flags of the bantustans: Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Gazankulu, Venda, Lebowa, KwaNdebele, KwaZulu.
I sometimes try to imagine whether anyone – perhaps the once-proud officials and their families who benefitted from the Pretoria regime – felt some kind of patriotic sentiment observing one of these obscure flags fluttering atop a flagpole, drum rolling, bugle blaring. Some 20 million people lived under these sham, corrupt administrations with their 157 government departments and in excess of a thousand salaried members of parliament. No one speaks well now of this embarrassing episode of our heraldic history.
I find these anachronistic attempts at heraldic gravitas at once pathetic and fascinating. The plethora of now-defunct flags, stamps, coins, coats of arms are a phantasmagorical tale of heraldic futility.
So much for vexillological symbolism. My true joy however is in the aesthetic of flags and heraldic motifs. If one dares to penetrate beneath and beyond the semiotic to the design itself – now there’s a visual adventure! It’s difficult: in some confounding way the abstraction of meaning blocks our access to the intrinsic aesthetic. Think, for example, of the flag of the United States of America: it is so laden with connotations – simultaneously loved and hated by millions. Or consider a ceremonial flag bearing the Nazi swastika: one dare not set aside the symbolic evil to appreciate the design itself, the graphic design of the symbol. It would be impossible without seeming obscene to admit to an appreciation of the way the coloured threads have faded, the appliqué hakenkreuz has frayed. The symbol has made aesthetics problematic.
The word Texas, for me, conjures up images of macho men in stetsons, George Bush and an asian-run cafe of the same name here in suburban Johannesburg where the domestic workers hop on and off minibus taxis. “I’ll pick you up at Texas“, I tell Irene. Yet none of this has anything to do with the exquisite flag at the top of this blog post which could be a flag from a dreamland, or made by children in a fantasy game a hundred years ago. I derive a real pleasure from the little irregular star – it’s angles not the customary 108 degrees of the classic pentagram but friendlier, obtuse angles. What poetry in the colour and texture! I love the dirty cerulean blue reminiscent of old denim; the faded venetian red, the parchment-coloured band.
A joy to behold.
“It became clear even before the 1994 elections that a new national coat of arms was needed for South Africa, since the old arms were based on those of its constituent colonies (provinces). This writer, in a proposal to the Commission on National Symbols (part of the Congress for a Democratic South Africa which drafted the interim Constitution) proposed that time first be given to the new provinces to adopt their own arms, and that new national arms be considered afterwards. Other correspondents appear to have made similar representations. This time frame was in fact followed, but the arms, when adopted, were unrelated to the arms of any provinces, either the current nine or the previous four.
Proposals for a new coat of arms were put forward by the Heraldry Council, but were rejected for reasons the Government declined to specify. During 1999 the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology requested ideas for a new coat of arms from the public. A brief was written based on ideas received and input from the Cabinet. Design South Africa, a body representing design agencies across the country, was approached to brief 10 of the top designers. Three designers were chosen to present their concepts to the Cabinet. The work of Iaan Bekker, who has previously designed numerous corporate identities for public and private sector organisations, was eventually chosen.