As the Anti-Racism Network of South Africa (ARNSA) gears up to focus on #RootingOutRacism during anti-racism week, the debate around the old apartheid flag is gaining traction in the national conversation. This follows the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s application to the Equality Court in Johannesburg for an order declaring the displays of the old flag of Apartheid South Africa to constitute as hate speech, discrimination and harassment based on race.
If we were to be in any doubt as to the sensibility of doing away with symbols of oppressive regimes – which Apartheid was, let that fact not be watered down -, we need only look at what happens when oppressive regimes fall. From the Nazi flag being banned to the renewed amplification for calls to take down the Confederate Flag in the USA, we see not only the importance of symbols but also how its mere presence causes pain, leading to brave acts of protest to take these artefacts of hate down.
In South Africa, engagement with this subject comes in a manner that couldn’t be any more ‘reasoned’, calmer, disciplined or law-abiding – using the courts to hear a case and relying on our rule of law. Indeed, the applicant being the custodian of a man who shepherded this nation from hate to democracy, from a ‘crime against humanity’ to freedom, is notable in itself.
However, even such attempts by those of us who do all possible to sway racist backwardness through honourable legacies may not be enough to quell what is proving to be an ever-pervasive thirst for raw racism. In our Post-Apartheid and Post-Colonial era together with the rise of the alt-right and the resurgence of racist fascism as an ideology that wants to become normalised again, it is important that we be watchful.
There has been a misconceived notion in South Africa that racism will root itself out if the law, democratic institutions and the intellectual elites deem it so. In reality, racism and its enduring symbols require more direct action. The memorabilia of white supremacy is perverse and violent because white supremacy is perverse and violent. It tells the story of who belongs and who does not. It tells us, those who Apartheid oppressed, and anyone whose ideology is inclusive rather than based in hate, that we don’t matter, our pain doesn’t matter, and our wounds aren’t allowed to heal.
But beyond the apartheid flag itself South Africa as a nation, and especially the Western Cape, is plagued with the imagery and shibboleths of the colonisers. A multitude of Victoria streets, highways and tourist destinations named for princes and other English royalty, entire towns named, still, for only it’s Dutch, French & English settlers, centres European, white history over our own black, coloured, Khoi, Xhosa, Zulu and Venda ones. It tells the story of how obvious and normalised colonial whiteness is and how blackness functions as a mere consolation prize in public spaces – in a black country!
Those white South Africans who have consistently shown that their understanding of the past is not just problematic but violent continue to display a general unwillingness to engage on systemic issues that we face as a people. We see this manifested in calls to retain the Apartheid flag as part of ‘cultural heritage’. Such disassociation has detrimental consequences for the fight against racism. Claiming a symbol of hate as cultural heritage acts to communicate that your heritage trumps my oppression, that your nostalgia for a time of hate and exclusion for millions should outweigh the deep pain and offense we experience today. White people in SA, in general, have yet to collectively acknowledge the dangerous ways in which they uphold the status quo through privilege. Even having a debate on the flying of the apartheid flag in SA, in a black majority country, where that black majority was violently and brutally harmed in the name of what that flag represents, in a context were apartheid was declared to be a crime against humanity is the very definition of that privilege of whiteness.
It would seem that in our public spaces, blackness has no space, it does not belong. It is not the norm, it is the exception. What does this have to do with the Apartheid Flag? Simple. How can we transform and reimagine the public space that does not memorialise oppressors? Instead, how can we ensure that the public space commemorates the stories of brave individuals, families and generations of Black and Brown activists who have fought and continue to fight for justice? Those who sought to overthrow the grotesque Apartheid system as well as those who, till this day, are fighting for truth and justice. Surely we can do this without commemorating a symbol of othering and subjugation like that of the Apartheid flag?
A symbol that glorifies and memorialises White nationalism and hatred has no place in present day South Africa and conversations emerging out of these recent events highlight just how deeply entrenched hatred is in our society. These imageries should not be given the respect of consumption especially when these hateful nostalgic sentiments function as a call to arms.
For those that think there is no harm in flying these flags publically forget how recent the injustices of Apartheid was. How seeing these images now, today, opens many old wounds for those who bore the brunt of Apartheid. How many that fought for oppression are still within our communities, our police forces and our schooling systems. Memorabilia like the Apartheid flag (and the Confederate flag in America) is a symbol of allegiance and a call to action to gather and perpetuate vile systems of injustices.
The South Africa that we reimagine in this new democratic dispensation is one that is celebrates our African identity, one that is not rooted in oppression but one that is rooted in a celebration of mobilisation, justice and equality. One where the cost of a free society doesn’t come at the expense of hurting so many.
This piece was written by the Anti-Racism project team at The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation