Sun. Oct 20th, 2019

Examining South Africa’s symbols that unite and divide

South African's old flag“What we lack, in South Africa, is empathy; on all sides.”

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I sat back and found myself thinking hard after someone responded in one of the most recent online discussions about the “Old SA flag” that, perhaps, a lasting solution would be for the two flags, the old and the new, to be banned or torched together because they both represent hatred.

He didn’t suggest what they should be replaced with.

A new one; a fresh start and a new beginning? His reasoning was that in the same way that the old flag might represent a reminder of harsh apartheid pain for the majority black population, the post-apartheid flag represents hatred against Whites or reverse racism for, at least, a portion of the white population.

It is unclear, though, how many Whites share this view. It is an interesting one, nevertheless.

Now, we can respond to this view in our flippant South African fashion, everyone comfortably anchored in his or her historic laager,  and dismiss it as one expressed by someone who suffers from apartheid nostalgia and who struggles with the loss of white preferential treatment and other privileges that come with it; someone who also refuses to accept political equality with Blacks.

That would make some people feel better about themselves and want to move on, convinced that the matter has been dealt with and placed into the historic pigeon hole it belongs in. But we could also stop to think about how feelings of resentment get developed in humans and what feeds them over time.

Black South Africans didn’t wake up one day and decide to hate the old South African flag.

The negative feelings they share in regard to it, at least for those who share such feelings – most possibly the majority of them – were developed over time. The old South African flag was the one that decorated the erstwhile South African Defense Force (SADF), the South African Police (SAP) and other official government bodies, as well as a whole of plethora of places and organisations, including sports organisations, from which Backs were excluded and in which they often received harsh, racist treatment.

Does South Africa’s old flag amount to hate speech?

Another participant in the online discussion wrote this: “Does the flag amount to hate speech?”

Well, one must consider what it stood for at the time. It stood for white supremacy.

It was a symbol of a state that entrenched apartheid in law, policy and society as well as industry. If one waves that stateless flag it says the person rejects our current flag and the current constitutional and political dispensation and wishes apartheid was intact.

Then another wrote this:

“I grew up with the old flag and fully understand the oppression it represents. However, what does the new flag represent and has represented under ANC rule? If the new flag is supposed to represent freedom for all it surely has missed the boat. As a coloured, I don’t feel free, or feel to be part of SA. I still feel like a second-class citizen, something that is all too familiar. Old flag… new flag. Neither is covered in glory” 

And yet another added:

“The way things are going, don’t be surprised if the new flag becomes an equally hated symbol of what has become a nightmare for most South Africans.”

Many Whites in South Africa either fail to understand this black antipathy towards the old flag because to them it meant the exact opposite and still represents an idyllic country in which they were in control and everything was made for the sole pleasure of their emotional and material comfort or because they genuinely lack the capacity to stop for a minute and try to understand, even 25 years after the end of apartheid, what it must have been like, for Blacks.

Some even still claim that apartheid mustn’t have been all that bad; there was quality education and healthcare, state institutions worked, our cities were clean, and everyone knew their place in society. For those who think this way, the word empathy is foreign in their vocabulary; and yet to be created.

Apart from remonstrating whenever the old flag makes a public appearance, Blacks are on the whole happy.

The new flag represents a whole new world to them; a world of opportunity, political equality, and freedom, even though economic equality remains a pipe dream twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, thanks to bad, largely unethical and kleptocratic leadership that lacks Vision.

The further away we move from 1994, the more ridiculous it seems, and cynically opportunistic, to keep blaming what the old flag represents for our lack of progress in economic emancipation for the majority of our people.  

The resentment we’re building

But the post-apartheid flag, the one that Blacks are happy to wear on their clothing and display each time they celebrate their post-apartheid freedoms might, gradually, be turning into one that silently breeds resentment in a growing generation of young white South Africans.

And this is not because they’re nostalgic of apartheid. They do not know it and, frankly, have nothing to do with the making and upkeep of it. Many have only read about it in books and hear about it whenever it comes up in discussions whose crescendo almost always ends-up in high pitch.

It is a topic they’re uncomfortable with and in front of which they feel totally disempowered, even genuinely ashamed in some cases, because they will be blamed for something anyway, no matter what they say.

Their white skin has become like the little red dot at the end of a political marksman’s laser beam. Because they’re white and, whether they like it or not and irrespective of the economic status of the families they come from, they are seen as already privileged and therefore not deserving to be counted.

BEE and Affirmative Action Policies, as they stand, remind them every day that they do not belong, well, not quite like their black friends do. Silence, even silent departures, have become their only response.

What we lack, in South Africa, is empathy; on all sides.

We also lack a Nelson Mandela. Yes, a Nelson Mandela. A leader who will always remember that once elected to high office in our land, he or she is tasked with holding our wounded nation together and of ensuring that the fissures that have kept us apart for many years begin to get healed during his or her time instead of growing deeper. Such a leader must grow beyond their political party and remind us, every day, of who we can still be as a nation.

There is a potential in South Africa that still waits to be unleashed. But in the absence of a shared vision, a shared sense of values and emotionally mature, balanced, patient leadership, it will all continue to seem unrealizable.

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