If the current flag of the State of Minnesota is problematic due to its treatment of our Native people (and it is), one might assume the Apartheid-era flag of South Africa was worse. Actually, that would be an incorrect assumption. The architects of apartheid didn’t think to make their flag a tool of that particular form of repression, though it was full-on colonial, and needed to be replaced when the New South Africa emerged in April 1994.
After Apartheid was lifted, I began to work in South Africa, doing archaeology and helping with some development projects. It was then that I heard the story of the new flag, from the white liberal citizens with whom I worked in the Limpopo province.
One thing you need to know about South African culture (and this permeates all subcultures) is that if there are four South Africans having a conversation about something, there will be five opinions about that topic. Or at least, this bit of self-deprecating humor is about the third or fourth thing you’ll hear about South African culture from any host, and South African hosts are both warmly embracing and funny. So when the idea of a flag for the New South Africa came along, the only way to move forward was with an infusion of wisdom, and who among the citizens of South Africa was most wise and able to make this happen with minimal stress? Nelson Mandela, of course.
I was told that Mandela’s idea was this: Have a contest of sorts, or otherwise, get some flags in competition to use as the new symbol. Then, pick one but with the proviso that it would only be the new flag for a year or two, during which time, a diligent effort would be made to come up with the actual new flag.
Another expression describing South African culture may have been, according to my friends, “If you’ve already done something, why do it again.” That is not only sensible, but probably universal. In any event, once the temporary flag emerged, and yes, it was hated and complained about by many, it went into use, people became accustomed to it, and in a very short amount of time, fell in love with it. The idea of replacing it was forgotten, and at some point (1996 to be exact) the new flag was made official in the final draft of New South Africa’s rather amazing constitution. (Give that constitution a look when you have a chance you will be amazed.)
One important point about the design of the flag: there is no official description, and no two people agree on what it means. The flag is unique, I believe, in that it has more colors than any other nation’s flag, and that certainly means something. I think it means: we have a lot more colors available for use these days for flags than they did in the 17th or 18th century.