JOHANNESBURG - South Africa’s Equality Court this week ruled it illegal to “gratuitously” display the apartheid-era flag, in a move that supporters say may soothe South Africa’s continuing racial divides 25 years after the end of apartheid.
For 66 years, through the entirety of the hated, hateful apartheid system, this orange, white and blue banner symbolized South Africa. It was replaced by a multicolored flag at the beginning of democracy in 1994. These days, the old flag is closely tied to white nationalist groups and can be seen, occasionally, displayed in venues patronized by white nationalists.
And so, critics argue, it is much more than just a flag. That was the basis of the argument made by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which argued that the display of the flag symbolizes “a pining for the killing, the torture, the abductions, a melancholia for the discrimination, the death squads, the curfews and the horrific atrocities committed under the flag.”
In a firm judgment this week, Equality Court Judge Phineas Mojapelo agreed, ruling against what he called “gratuitous” display of the flag and saying it amounted to hate speech, which is illegal in South Africa.
In his ruling, he noted the old flag could be displayed in cases that serve the public interest, like artistic or academic settings.
The ruling African National Congress hailed the ruling as “a victory, not just for us but for all South Africans,” and compared it to another controversial symbol: the Nazi swastika, which is illegal to display in Germany.
And South African comedian Daniel Friedman, on Twitter, invoked arguments that the flag is obscene by comparing it to the penis. The male organ is often depicted in artistic and academic settings. But, he said, “it's illegal to whip it out and wave it around, and if you have a problem with that, there's something wrong with you.”
But, says Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang, the old flag conjures painful memories for many South Africans. Hatang, who was born in 1975, and like about 80 percent of South Africans, is black, told VOA about his earliest associations with the old flag.
“The flag tends to bring out feelings about how, in the past, one used to be ignored, like, you’d almost feel that you didn’t belong,” he told VOA. “And I have one very clear memory, of when I was about 10 years old, this was in the 80s, when my brother and I were walking in town, and the town at the time was lily-white. And we had two white boys who came around the corner and asked us what we were doing there, and he used the 'k' word. The 'k' word would be the equivalent of what in the U.S. would be the 'n' word.”
Every time he sees the old flag, he says, he feels like that. On social media, thousands of South Africans echoed those sentiments, and top political parties were largely supportive of the ruling.
The case was countered by AfriForum, a group that campaigns for the rights of minorities in South Africa and believes there is an atmosphere of hostility toward Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, who are largely white.
Ernst Roets, the group’s head of policy and action, stressed that AfriForum actually discourages its members from displaying the old flag, but says that South Africans should have a legal right to do it.
“It's not just a debate about the flag,” he told VOA. “It's much more than that. There is an underlying, unfortunately, a cultural war to use that term, because the flag is being used to try to associate it because it is incorrectly a flag that is associated with Afrikaners as a cultural community. And there is a very strong anti-Afrikaner sentiment among the supporters of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and of the ruling party, and they regard this as a way of getting to white people or getting to Afrikaaners as some form of a cultural or nationalistic victory and using the court to do so.”
Roets challenged the ruling immediately afterwards, by displaying the flag before his 49,000 Twitter followers, and asking, “Did I just commit hate speech?”
That provoked hundreds of angry responses, from both supporters and detractors — which, he says, underscores the point.
And this discussion is sure to continue, on the streets and in the courts. In a phone call on Thursday, Hatang told VOA the Mandela Foundation would, indeed, file hate-speech charges against Roets for his tweet.