Nelson Mandela Foundation

Old Flag Hearing Nmf © Nelson Mandela Foundation

I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as sure as I am not free when my humanity is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity” - FROM LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, 1994

Last week’s High Court ruling declaring that any gratuitous display of the 1928 Flag of South Africa (the Old Flag) constitutes hate speech, unfair discrimination and harassment is a tremendous moment in history. The support from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), Johannesburg Pride NPC, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services and the Department of Justice and Correctional Services marked the recognition of the intersectional oppression that is represented by the Old Flag.

Symbols matter. They matter because they have power that comes from the history that they carry with them. A history that is marred by a context of white supremacy, black oppression and many other intersectional oppressions that need to be taken seriously and not dismissed because it is presumed to be in the past. Nor can this be a history that is framed as a problem that only effects one side of the society. It is not merely about the Black people and other multiple oppressed communities needing to move on, get over their pain so that we can all live together in harmony. The burden that comes with our history means that we have to be proactive in creating the conditions of the possibility of a liberatory society for all. Part of the work that becomes necessary is to address issues that continue to harm and dehumanize all of us.

Flags are powerful because they are used to represent meaning, an expression of beliefs or principles that offer grounding. The Old Flag stood for a state that was responsible for the renunciation of Black people’s humanity. To continue to allow for the gratuitous display of the Old Flag is an assault on our young democracy and a perpetuation of injustice. It is unacceptable that it has taken us so long to reach the point where we recognise that we cannot continue to live and ignore acts of impunity that do not take seriously the pain inflicted majority of South Africans.

 For AfriForum’s Ernst Roets to acknowledge the harm that is caused by the gratuitous displays of the old flag during a debate with NMF’s Prof Verne Harris and then have AfriForum come to the flag’s defence by insincerely invoking the right to freedom of speech, is indicative of these acts of impunity. The far right preaches non-divisiveness and then fails come to the table and play a part in working towards social cohesion. It is this failure to participate in ways that support social cohesion that are holding us back from dismantling systemic racism and protects the privilege of white supremacists. Dismantling systemic racism is one of the key areas of the work of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the significance of this victory as the Foundation marks its 20th anniversary of working towards establishing peace, democracy and the furthering of human rights.

The backlash from the far right, as well as well-meaning South Africans, signifies a crisis of identity of their own masquerading as a protest against censorship. This community is reeling from the experience of rejection from South African identity. The far right is unable to produce and fashion new ways of being and knowing themselves outside of their experience of superiority after a nightmare of their own in British concentration camps and surviving extermination. Their melancholia has precipitated in an attack of our court system and the exploitation of the Bill of Rights. When failing to succeed the far right turned to the weaponisation of the public agenda, attempting to derail our fight for liberatory future for all.   

The aim here is not to erase our painful history but rather to take a stand in support of a struggle that saw so many people lose their lives and call it by its name, a crime against humanity. Our country is grappling with is a society which has not managed to undo systemic racism and reconciliation cannot be made possible without justice - Part of that justice needs to be experienced in that, twenty-five years into our democracy, South Africa needs to change from being a society that comfortably perpetuates violence and discrimination through the existence of inequality that makes the oppression of various groups possible, while protecting the long established comforts of white supremacists.  What is needed is for us to do the work of changing the mind sets and power relations that are imbedded in the fabric of our society. What we all need to understand is that hate speech is unacceptable and there should be consequences for people who ignore the weight of their actions. If we are to achieve an inclusive society, it cannot be one where the values and spirit Ubuntu are demonstrated by only the formerly oppressed. If the far right is serious about being a part of our inclusive society they too need to come to the table. 

Originally published in the Pretoria News