Return of symbols of oppression

2010-01-12 09:29

“NGO 12’ O’ CLOCK sikhulul’ uMandela . . .”

Like many struggle songs I am not sure how this was composed and

popularised across the breadth of the country, but chanting and marching in the

streets of Thohoyandou on that day in 1990 when Mandela was released is a memory

that remains etched in my mind.

I was 10 years old at the time. I knew then what the taste of

freedom was like. You could sense it in the living room at home, in fact you

could touch it.

Rarely were we at that age allowed to stray far away from home

but on that day we were free to meet older and wiser comrades as we were taken

through our paces, taught the slogans and herded around Thohoyandou to celebrate

Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

The context then was of jubilation at the recent and imminent

return of political exiles and release of political prisoners and of anxiety

about the political transition and future of South Africa.

There is no doubt that while I was not immune to the euphoria the

art of contextualising and “joining the dots” so to speak, was far from our

sheltered though inquisitive young minds. And so it was that on my return from a

holiday in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1992 with a close friend’s family that a rude

awakening awaited. My parents’ delight as they scoured through the various

artifacts and paraphernalia that I had bought for them turned to frowns. I was

to later learn that the old South African flag that I had bought was the


Marxist theory elaborates on the power of the arts and national

symbols as powerful means of indoctrination as well as oppression. Our own

history is full of examples of how the arts and so-called national symbols were

used as tools of oppression. It is therefore no accident that the ushering in of

democracy necessitated the revision and introduction of new symbols, including

the national flag. The homelands, including their symbols, which were an

intrinsic part of the oppressive architecture, were dismantled and incorporated

into mainland South Africa.

What is the point? We are currently witnessing a peculiar, though

not necessarily surprising tendency developing among our youth [sub]culture that

is vexed and amorphous in nature. I will speak here only with respect to Venda,

my area of origin. What is to be made of the sudden resurgence of the Venda

republic’s symbols, especially among the Venda youth? I will refer to this as

the “proudly Venda campaign”. This campaign manifests itself in many ways, be it

key rings, T-shirts or bumper stickers proudly displaying the old Venda flag and

coat of arms, a sudden urge to commemorate Venda’s so-called independence on 13


Would one therefore be mistaken to equate this phenomenon with that

of our fellow white compatriots who boastfully and proudly fly the old South

African flag at rugby and cricket matches? It is suggested that they do this

because they yearn for the era of privilege and black oppression.

Is the proudly Venda campaign our yearning for an era gone past, a

search for identity perhaps or a chauvinistic attempt at asserting our place in

our young democracy? Or is it the naivete of youth, just a phase to be outgrown

in time?

Whatever the answers, it is about time we South Africans

consciously decide whether these old symbols are to be embraced as part of our

heritage or shunned and banished as symbols of oppression only to be viewed in


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