Light Reading | Flagged a hate crime

Overt and deliberate display of the old, pre-democratic South African flag has been declared illegal. A photojournalist looks back to an iconic flag moment in 1996.

There was excitement in the air, the All Blacks were on their first tour of South Africa since 1976. A year after the Springboks’ historic Rugby World Cup win over the same opponents, two years after the first democratic elections. Madiba magic still lined the clouds. But some would simply not let go, they had to wave flags, particularly the old apartheid-era flag.

Event organisers were sensitive to these happenings, unsuccessfully appealing in the earlier years to the public to refrain. Before the kickoff, a few young men paraded a large old South African flag around the perimeter of the field. As I followed them into the good light of the eastern stand, I spotted the police officers and knew it would make a good contrast. As the flag bearers squeezed past the police, a gust of wind caused the flag to billow, knocking the cops’ caps off to much amusement.

The flag was there when I was born but my feelings towards it were somewhat ambivalent. We sang the anthem to it at school (probably while thinking about break), saluted it in our national service years as conscripts (probably while thinking about weekend pass). It was all a forced patriotism and I never really felt attached to it. 

I think for many of us growing up in the white suburbs at that time, the 1970s and 1980s, where things were still very much Afrikaans versus English, the flag was more them than us (being English speaking), more divisive than inclusive. I longed for the day when we’d have a flag we’d be proud enough of to print on to our T-shirts and beach towels, much like the Australians and Americans.

Ironically, those who vociferously defend the old flag now were probably supporters of the leaders of the previous government which, on more than one occasion, wanted to replace it. It was, after all, a flag of compromise. There’s a Union Jack in there! It was a combination of five different flags, but still not inclusive of everyone in the land.

The ill wind that knocked off those police caps that day blew a little further. We lost the match.

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