Fred Brownell gave us our identity as a nation – Nathi Mthethwa

Minister mourns the passing of South African flag designer

Minister Nathi Mthethwa on passing on of South African post-democracy flag designer, Mr Fred Brownell

12 May 2019

Minister Nathi Mthethwa is distraught to learn of the passing of a true South African hero whose name is etched in the history of post-democratic South Africa- Mr Fred Brownell. Mr Brownell passed away at age 79 at his home in Pretoria in Gauteng on Friday night. The name of “Fred Brownell” is one that is synonymous with the journey taken by this fledgling democracy in the role he played in designing and producing the flag of post-democratic South Africa.

In February 1990, Fred Brownell, then the “State Herald” of the Republic of South Africa (now known as the “Bureau of Heraldry” of the Department of Arts and Culture), was lending his expert input to the about-to-be new nation of Namibia with the design of its national symbols. The Rivonia Trialists and South African political prisoners had been freed from Robben Island over the preceding months, and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela freed that month. South Africa’s liberation movements were also unbanned that month, and Mr Brownell detected that freedom was imminent for his own country too. It was then, that history recalls, Mr Brownell started mulling what the new flag of South Africa - once it attained its own liberation and democracy status- would look like. It is said that for three years thereafter, Mr Brownell sought a theme for a new South African flag. He selected and de-selected half the colours in the kaleidoscope and wrestled with one design after another.

Historians recall how in February 1994 the negotiators of what was then the “Transitional Executive Council” (TEC) finally mulled his flag design. At the time, the members of the TEC knew when the flag was going to fly: 27 April. However, they did not know what flag would fly. A technical committee was appointed with Mr Fred Brownell as Convenor. It had a simple brief, to “find a flag, within a week”. The committee met in Cape Town on the 28th of February 1994. The feeling then was that with the new flag… “…unity, interlinking or convergence should be the theme”. Input came from several quarters.

The TEC meeting was held Pretoria. Mr Brownell arrived to the meeting early and gave the flag, a full-size version, to Mr Roelf Meyer, the then government’s chief negotiator. Mr Meyer gave the design to his then African National Congress (ANC) counterpart (and now President of the Republic of South Africa), Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, and asked Mr Brownell to wait around in case there were any questions.

Reports of the meeting that followed were that when the discussion on the flag was due to start, there was an unoccupied chair in front of one delegation. Mr Brownell took the chair, overheard the members of the delegation talking, and realised that it was the Traditional Chiefs from the QwaQwa Homeland. A Free State farmer’s son, Mr Brownell greeted the Traditional Leaders in SeSotho. The chiefs were reportedly intrigued to hear about the flag, and wanted a sneak preview. Mr Brownell had a small paper version with him, and showed it to them. The chiefs asked about colours, meanings, patterns...

Shortly thereafter the meeting commenced.

Mr Brownell’s own recollections of that meeting describe how Mr Meyer and (President) Ramaphosa took the floor and showed the flag. He would recall how at that moment he had a sinking feeling, and wondered whether his flag design would be vetoed. Over the subsequent years, he narrated how just in the nick of time, enthusiastic clapping broke out from one particular corner of the room- the corner occupied by the Traditional Chiefs from QwaQwa. The applause spread, and soon the clapping grew to a crescendo. The flag had been accepted.

When asked what had inspired his design, Mr Brownwell maintained, “What mattered was that the flag would find its way into the hearts and minds of the population at large, and became a unifying symbol.”

The rest is history. Twenty five years into post-democratic South Africa, Mr Brownell’s vision remains: ours is a flag that has found its way into the hearts and minds of the population at large, and is truly a unifying symbol. The flag has a three-armed converging cross of the sort called a ‘pall’ in heraldry, to symbolise the convergence of different cultures into one for South Africa. Mr Bronwell also designed the coat-of-arms for the new provincial governments in South Africa.

In August last year, the Department of Arts and Culture launched the ‘I Am The Flag’ campaign to promote national consciousness, nation-building and patriotism for all citizens of South Africa.

It is impossible to ignore the historical coincidence of Mr Brownell’s death upon South Africa’s completion of its successful 6th National and Provincial Elections, and mere days after South Africa celebrated its 25 years of Independence.

Perhaps this (historical) coincidence is meant to accord Mr Brownell the final honour of his important role in the history of post-democratic South Africa, a country whose identity he partook in determining, by designing its national symbol in the form of our flag. We are also proud that the government of South Africa accorded him the honour he deserved while he lived, with him being bestowed the “Order for Meritorious Service” by the late President Nelson Mandela for his role in the design of the South African flag in 1999.

Mr Fred Brownell, you gave us our identity as the nation. We honour you.”

The Minister of Arts and Culture, on behalf of the Department of Arts and Culture, extends his deepest condolences to the family of the patriot that is Mr Fred Brownell, his wife Christine, his daughters, his grandchildren, his family at large and all those who knew and loved him.

Issued by Department of Arts and Culture, 12 May 2019