When symbols fall short

2010-09-10 08:31

It’s always interesting to get alternative views as they expand our previously held notions of being and existence. Percy Mabandu explores the flip-side of the presumed South African dream.
During one of his moments of heightened cynicism, poet-novelist Lesego ­Rampolokeng called ours “the land of the fallen Rand”.

But then again, he also rhymes about “beasts and preachers, priests and other creatures”.

However, Rampolokeng only joins a long list of deconstructive voices that tear into South Africa’s heritage; or at least all that’s become holy about our symbols of collective public memory.

These ­include ­everything from the meaning of our national flag and anthem, to other shared national monuments and symbols – even Archbishop ­Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation tag.

While some speakers have called the very validity of our national symbols into question, some artists have sought to posit these symbols’ fragmentary nature as what makes us unique and perhaps strong as a nation.

In fact, jazz saxophonist Zim Ngqawana in his 2001 album ­Zimphonic Suites included a composition titled Sad Afrika (A Country Without A Name).

The track laments the namelessness of the landmass we call South Africa.
Artist William Kentridge – who in 2008 was awarded the National ­Order of Ikhamanga: Silver (OIS), which is granted in honour of great achievements in arts, journalism and sports – recently created two public sculptures in Johannesburg.

The first one was erected in the inner-city and the second at the Apartheid Museum.

He says he was not interested in “statements of certainty” but wanted to create something that spoke to the fragmentary nature of life in Johannesburg.

Kentridge envisions a public ­memory steeped in the impermanence of our experience, or the ­fragility of our very existence.

Perhaps the most popular gripe of most cynics is our national anthem, which is not helped by the likes of Ras Dumisani – who pillaged it while trying to sing it in full view of the nation and the world.

Visual artist and poet Lefifi Tladi enjoys reminding his audience how the ­anthem should have only been a transitional compromise between 1990 and 1994 as the country ­prepared to move into democracy.

The anthem, as it is, was patched from apartheid’s Die Stem and the Pan-African hymn written by Enoch Sontonga.

It comprises a convergence of four languages that represent all major source dialects of our country – Sesotho, isiZulu, English and Afrikaans.

Though very representative, it is sometimes seen as a cheap symbol of compromise politics instead of a bold unified statement of national pride.

Others have even taken the same cynical view of our flag.

While it doesn’t readily fit into Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s view that “flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead”, cynics see it as a lame projection of our bold national spirit.

Some view the flag as a combination of the ­apartheid tricoloured national kite, with the ANC’s colours intervening from the left or flag post.

However, according to the government website, the flag’s designer, Fred Brownell, sought to weave a synopsis of principal elements.

The individual colours represent ­different meanings for different ­people and hence no universal ­symbolism should be attached to any of the colours.

The central design of the flag, ­beginning at the flagpost in a ‘V’ form and flowing into a single horizontal band to the outer edge of the fly, can be interpreted as the convergence of diverse elements within SA society – perhaps playing into the image of Tutu’s rainbow which cynics dream of unweaving.

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