ANYONE who grew up and lived in apartheid South Africa will recall the old, evocative apartheid flag flying above government buildings everywhere, with its ugly associations for black South Africans and some whites, and its elements of the flags of European colonists and Boer republics emblazoned on it. South Africa has a new flag now, but the old one keeps hanging around causing controversy. At this writing, a legal spat is going on between the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the South African Human Rights Commission, and AfriForum’s Ernst Roets over his display of the apartheid flag.
The NMF and SAHRC took the case to court, asking that the gratuitous display of the apartheid flag be stopped since it amounted to hate speech, and was grossly offensive to the dignity of black South Africans, which the judge agreed with. News24 reported that AfriForum asked for leave to appeal. The application was heard in the Equality Court, sitting in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg. But the judge said he thought another court would not come to a different conclusion and dismissed AfriForum’s application.
What is it about a piece of fabric with patterns and colours that can make people rush with a sense of mission into battle and get killed? Millions have died in wars, heroically emblazoned with their national colours: proudly dying for the flag! Even if they didn’t die in war, on the way to the graveside an important person’s coffin gets draped ceremonially in their national flag.
With the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Europe, fascist-like thugs brandishing flags with swastika look-alikes, reminiscent of the 1930s, are appearing expressing anti-Semitic obscenities. Jews fear displaying their own flags or Israeli flags outside synagogues, particularly in countries with intense anti-Semitism such as France.
Historically, flags have represented not just prejudice, but slavery. In the American Civil War in 1862, in which more than 620,000 died, the Confederacy’s national flag, called the Stars and Bars, flew during the war in pro-slavery Montgomery, Alabama. The war’s major cause was about slavery in the southern states; the Confederacy had seceded to form a new country to protect slavery. Incredibly, thousands of soldiers died willingly for this in the shadow of the Stars and Bars.
Such passions die slowly. Today, the Confederate flag is among the most recognisable, popular items in American memorabilia, appearing everywhere alongside the American flag, the Stars and Stripes. Americans argue about what the Confederate flag stands for now: is it heritage or hatred? Supporters of its continued use claim it is a proud symbol of the culture of the American south. In a national survey in 2015, 57% of Americans said the flag represented Southern pride, not racism.
Should some flags be banned? It’s unlikely you can repress something like that without reverting to a police state. Some countries have tried: in Germany, you cannot by law publicly display the Nazi flag except for historical and film purposes. But in the United States, free speech laws allow the display of such symbols. It’s a favourite of eccentrics like motorcycle gangs.
Jews are still fairly safe in South Africa from anti-Semitism, and it’s unlikely a Nazi flag with a swastika would be allowed to be publicly displayed. It would probably be called hate speech according to the constitution; the right to dignity of Jewish citizens would disallow it, and public sentiment would reject it. The Nazi flag is a close cousin of the hated apartheid flag, and would evoke similar distaste.
Freedom of speech is never straightforward. Countries which guarantee free speech will be sorely tested to define exactly what that means in practice. Similar to the dilemmas faced by words, a flag is much more than a simple piece of fabric with patterns and colours.