Rethink and keep it simple

2008-02-16 00:00

Symbols are crucial to a sense of national unity and belonging. Until there is a name, a flag, a coat of arms, an anthem and an array of emblems identified as uniquely theirs by the people living in any specific geographical space, there arguably isn’t a nation.

South Africa’s post-1994 flag, initially scoffed at as reminiscent of a pair of particularly lurid Y-fronts, was embraced by the overwhelming majority of people of all races. Only a few die-hard whites still brandish the old flag, mainly overseas at rugby internationals.

Perhaps they imagine that they are thumbing their noses at a black, African National Congress government. That the stadia overflow with South Africans proudly waving and wearing the new flag or painted in its design, should disabuse them of their illusions.

The fact that the new flag’s creation was politically neutral may have helped in its acceptance. A pleasant irony is that the Y-front flag was initially a stopgap. It was hastily designed by the State Herald when none of the publicly submitted designs met with the favour of the selection committee and a flag was needed for the 1994 elections and Nelson Mandela’s inauguration.

The new coat of arms has been less successful. Created with input from President Thabo Mbeki himself, who reputedly rejected the Herald’s submissions as retaining too much of the old order and not being “African” enough, it is de rigueur for government institutions but rarely displayed elsewhere.

Now along comes Education Minister Naledi Pandor. Barely had Mbeki uttered the words that government is contemplating a Pledge of Allegiance to be recited each morning at school assembly, than three days later she produces the text. There is to be a nod at “consultation”, but she has made clear that wants the final version ready for inauguration on Human Rights Day on March 21.

She says disingenuously, although the text is open for public comment “to see if we can live with it”, it is based on the preamble to the Constitution and she hasn’t “heard of a single South African who wants to opt out of the Constitution”.

The pledge has Mbeki’s paw prints all over it. It sports the intellectual contortions, tortured syntax and verbosity that are his trademarks.

The Pledge of Allegiance that school children in the United States mumble every morning, hands on hearts, is 32 words long, contained in one sentence. Introduced to help heal the divisive wounds of the Civil War, it was originally, before the bureaucrats started tinkering, 23 words long and meant to take no more than 15 seconds to recite.

The local pledge opens with a historical rumination: “We the youth of South Africa, recognising the injustices of our past, honour those who suffered and sacrificed for justice and freedom.” It then meanders along in sonorously pious but forgettable tones about dignity, respect, justice, rights, values, duties and responsibilities.

It is meant, says Pandor, to be memorised. All 67 words and three sentences, embracing at least a dozen complex concepts.

Oh, and lest we forget, by all children from age seven upwards. This in a school system where, sadly, the majority complete their schooling barely able to write their own names.

The Lord’s Prayer is only three words longer — including the opening declamation and the Amen — and has both poetic imagery and a pleasing metre. It takes most young Christians years to memorise (and a lifetime to grapple with its fewer concepts).

Predictably, the pledge has enraged many white parents who view the first sentence as less a call to unity than an ANC party political message. They obviously haven’t read the preamble to the Constitution, whence it is extracted, but they may have a point that a pledge should unite and look ahead, not backwards.

But theirs is no more than a quibble. More importantly, the pledge is wordy and lacks passion, vision or hope. It is the Mbeki administration at its “Daddy knows best” worst and typically draws on zero public input.

There is nothing wrong with a pledge, especially one that drums on the Constitution as the cornerstone of citizenship, but let’s rethink and keep it simple.

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