Federick Brownell: An obituary

Mark D Young writes on the life of the man who designed the SA national flag

Dr. Frederick Gordon Brownell. 1940-2019

13 May 2019

Few humans leave a permanent mark on the world when they pass on.

Where they do manage this, it is usually in the form of a foundation, perhaps a building named for them or various academic reference works. For others it may be a pop song or a best-seller.

Frederick Gordon Brownell, however, left not only books and several academic papers, but he has a monument unique in our country. We see it and respect it every day.

For he is the man who designed our new national flag.

It is, perhaps, the sole unifying aspect in our multi-cultural nation which constantly rises – both literally and figuratively - above the tumult of our cawing, bickering, slighting and grabbing at one another.

Certainly it will be, for those of us honoured to have known him, something – whenever it is seen – that will bring to mind the glint in his eye, his great sense of humour, his love for our country and the life lessons he taught not only his family, but those fortunate to have been enveloped into his extended human family around the world.

Fred was born in Bethlehem in the Free State on 8 March 1940. He was an alumnus of Rhodes University where he read for a BA degree in History and Social Anthropology, which he obtained in 1961.

He then served with the department of immigration and rose to become Consul to our embassy at the Court of St James from 1968 to 1969. He served as deputy State Herald in the Department of National Education from 1977 before being promoted to the position of State Herald in which he served for 20 years between 1982 and 2002. His career saw him design many institutional crests, badges and national orders as well as various flags.

His work is not only currently seen atop flagpoles locally, but in the nine provincial crests of the country, in the Namibian flag and elsewhere.

He was a stickler for Heraldic history, authenticity and continuity in design, These attributes came to the fore during the years when proposals for our new national symbol were being submitted thick and fast by graphic artists, advertising giants and ordinary South Africans. The story of the eventual design is told in the book Flying With Pride (ISBN 978-0-620-28903-0) and I shall not repeat it all here.

Suffice to say that the new national flag which he eventually designed and managed to get adopted not only represents us all, but it pays homage to heraldic tradition and the history of not only our country, but our home continent.

While having a monument to one's memory fluttering from every staff in the land, and it being perhaps the sole unifying aspect of our daily national life might seem an impressive achievement, Fred, as those of us honoured to know him were permitted to call him, was, however, most proud of his family. He and his wife Christine had three daughters and several grandchildren.

There can be no doubt that they, in turn, were equally proud of Dad.

Fred would often joke that he was just a Vrystaatse Engelsman and that he had not done all that much. He was fond of quipping that he had simply been lucky enough to have been paid to indulge himself in his passion for heraldry and vexillology.

Fred was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year and passed away on Friday 10 May in Pretoria.

While he himself might not approve of my next thought, being as it is a little off-centre in regards to the historical use of flags, perhaps, just perhaps, it might be fitting, on this one occasion, for our State President to make use of the powers of his office to request that our famous colours be flown at half mast as Fred is laid to rest on Saturday.

That will, indeed, be a fitting tribute to a loyal servant of our country who was responsible for its most famous and visible manifestation around the world.