NEWS & ANALYSIS

On the banning of the flag

Jeremy Gordin writes on the deeper meaning of the NMF's triumph in the High Court

Let me start by saying that I don’t give a damn about flags – not about any flag, Seffrican (old or new), Israeli, the Union Jack, the French Tricolour, the Stars and Stripes, etc. Nor do I care much about national anthems, though I enjoy listening to some at the start of international rugby matches. In short, I don’t care a jot about any of the trappings of any country’s nationalism. Tedious stuff.

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What this means is that when I watched (on TV) Phineas Mojapelo, Deputy Judge President of the South Gauteng High Court, ruling that “the display of the old national flag ... introduced from 31 May 1928, and used throughout apartheid [sic] until it was abolished on 27 April 1994 (‘the Old Flag’)”constituted “hate speech, unfair discrimination and harassment,” and when, following the judgment, I saw Ernst Roets of AfriForum taking part in a press conference outside the court with Sello Hatang, chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), I thought to myself: “Ach nee, Roetsie, why’d you bother getting involved in this sort of stuff? The finding was a done deal before it was made ...”

But I was misinformed. For one thing, AfriForum’s legal team wrote on 4 September 2018 to the NMF asking for a discussion so that “an amicable outcome as opposed to ... a divisive one” could be reached regarding the displaying of the Old Flag (see here).

More importantly, it seems that AfriForum, and therefore presumably all those who sail in her, “acknowledge that the old ... flag has the capacity to cause offence and emotional distress. As an organisation we have no particular love for the flag or what it represents. In the exceptionally rare instance that anyone participating in one of our events brings an old flag with them, we ask them to put it away”.

Why then was AfriForum the “First Respondent” in the court case?

Well, at the end of October 2017 a group of people, using the title “Black Monday,” got together to protest against farm murders after the Western Cape farmer, Joubert Conradie, was killed in Klapmuts. AfriForum apparently played a leading role in this protest and, according to Judge Mojapelo, “[i]t was widely reported that the Old Flag was displayed at some of the ‘Black Monday’ demonstrations.”

But was the Old Flag widely displayed? Judge Mojapelo says: “Attached, marked ‘SH3’, are examples of such reportage. Many social media users also published eyewitness accounts and photographs of displays of the Old Flag by ‘Black Monday’ demonstrators”.

The problem is that the Nelson Mandela Foundation was unable to find anyone anyone who actually flew the flag on that day and name them as a respondent. But much more important is that it’s common cause that influencers on social media, including Tumi Sole and eNCA journalist Nickolaus Bauer, drove the initial outcry by gratuitously tweeting out inflammatory images allegedly related to the march – of the old flag being flown set against the new one being burnt – which turned out to be provably fake, given they were either taken years before, or overseas, or both.

When this was pointed out the news sites then had to scramble to scrub their online reports of all these bogus images. After this all that is left – as documented in “SH3” - are one woman wearing a small flag patch on her jacket, and another, taken from a great distance, of a flag hanging from a bridge somewhere.

In short, the claim that there were widespread displays of the Old Flag at the Black Monday demonstration was a social media driven hoax. And hoax pictures of bogus flag-raising – published to discredit and smear the protest – became, did they not, the casus belli for the court case?

The NMF was clearly looking for a scrap on this issue and, once it approached the court to have “displays” of the Old Flag declared as “hate speech,” it effectively inveigled or enjoined AfriForum into going to court – even though AfriForum, as we have read above, tried to avoid a court showdown.

In other words, it seems clear that the NMF pursued this whole business in bad faith. It was looking for a fight – one it could win. More significantly, the whole business is an “inverted fuss”. The main culprits when it came to the gratuitous display of the old flag – on black Monday – were the social influencers using it to try to discredit ordinary people’s concerns about farm murders.

Let’s be plain. There are allegedly many people in South Africa who find the Old Flag offensive – for obvious reasons: it reminds them of the previous regime and what was done to them by that regime. But I write “allegedly” because I suspect that most of them simply have more pressing concerns. Has anyone been deeply traumatised, perhaps hospitalised, because of seeing the Old Flag being displayed? Seriously? Paradoxically those who claim to be the most offended by the sight of it are, almost invariably, the ones who seem to take the most pleasure out of circulating images of it to their tens-of-thousands of followers online.

Now let’s go back to my opening paragraph. I couldn’t care less about any flags. But some people do, especially those with family members who fought, and risked or sacrificed their lives, in World War Two, to inter alia check the Nazi advance in North Africa.

Without getting excessively dramatic about it, my wife’s grandfather, Lt.-Col. EJR Blake, was awarded a DSO in North Africa, for “displaying outstanding qualities of leadership and gallantry ... coolness, courage and distinguished service of the highest order,” and spent almost four years in German POW camps. Raeburn Blake was of Irish descent and born in SA; he didn’t care too much about “the English”. What mattered most to him – and others, many with Afrikaans surnames – were the “South African Forces” and defeating the Axis powers.

For many white South Africans, who themselves would never dream of displaying the old flag, there is something that sticks in the craw about the flag under which their fathers and grandfathers served in that war being so casually dismissed as an expression of nothing but evil.

Have you heard of the loaded question tabloid journalists used to giggle about? “Mr Gordin, have you stopped beating your wife?” If you answer yes, you’re shtupped; and if you answer no, you’re also shtupped. In both cases, you’ve admitted to having a wife and to having whacked her at some time.

Banning the Old Flag is not a dissimilar issue. “Mr Gordin, do you think the judge was correct to ban the old SA flag?” If you answer yes, you’re agreeing to the black nationalist view of our history (all the country’s past and present troubles can be put down to the arrival and presence of the white man.) If you answer no, you’ve proven yourself to be a fascist and pro-apartheid knuckle-dragger. It’s a no-win situation. It’s the old Kafka syndrome. Whichever way you choose to answer, you’ve either accepted or proven your guilt. Either way you have revealed yourself as a kind of moral Untermensch.

So well-played Sello Hatang: NMF 1, AfriForum 0? But it’s a bit more serious than a shrug and a grin.

At the moment, let’s face it, it doesn’t feel comfortable to be a white person in SA. I don’t have to rehearse the utterances of the EFF or BLF or point out how the ANC has stopped smashing down such utterances but has chosen rather to let them linger in the air like stale smells. I could give many examples; bottom line is that on a macro-level the singing of kumbaya in this country has halted. (“Macro-level” because ordinary people of all colours are, thank heavens, mostly unaffected by the toxicity of their so-called leaders).

The basic message is: whites have done nothing but harm in this country. They must go. And the “process” that led to this Old Flag banning is part of the texture of that message.

This comes just when the ANC and business leaders are saying that what the country needs above all is foreign direct investment, as well as local investment; and this sort of symbolic warfare, along with other (more serious) nonsense such as expropriation without compensation and the proposed national health insurance, is deadly. It kills confidence.

Not that western investors or diplomats will say anything; they’re hypocrites, they’ll say “Yes, you must get rid of these vestiges of apartheid, take back your land, have a health service for everyone” etc. etc., but they will never invest anything of value in such a society.

And here’s the thing. Confidence doesn’t cost anything. It’s about sentiment and attitude and it’s for free. So why spend time, energy and money destroying the confidence of a sector of the people who live here?

As I said twice, I don’t much care about flags and such-like. But one person who understood the importance and sensitivity around national symbols was Nelson Mandela. His support for the presence of Die Stem in a combined national anthem, as well as the retention of the Springbok logo for rugby, were important symbolic messages of national inclusion. What a pity that a Foundation set up to honour and uphold his legacy has taken up a cause that aims to unravel it.

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