Melanie Verwoerd

Melanie Verwoerd: Why white South Africans can't be silent about the old flag

2019-08-28 08:43
The old South African flag.

The old South African flag. (Archive)

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No matter how hard anyone tries to give an alternative interpretation to the old flag, nothing can wash away the indelible stain of institutionalised racism upon which the "Union of South Africa" was built, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Last week two things moved me very deeply. First, Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron retired. Cameron was and remains a legal giant who fought throughout his life for justice and human rights. What struck me among the many tributes paid to him was the emphasis on his gentle kindness, humanity and humility.

By coincidence on the same night I watched a film about the life of Bram Fischer. Fischer was of course one of the advocates who represented the accused in the Rivonia trial. After he, George Bizos and Joel Joffe succeeded in preventing the death penalty for Madiba and the other accused, Fischer was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In jail he did not get the necessary cancer treatment, was denied the opportunity to attend his 23-year-old son Paul's funeral, and when he succumbed to cancer in 1975, the apartheid regime insisted that he be cremated and his ashes returned to the state. No one knows what happened to his remains.

Pieter du Toit: The old flag and the unbearable whiteness of being AfriForum

Everything I had ever read about Edwin Cameron suggests that in him South Africa has found another legal giant, whose humanity, gentleness, kindness and humility made him of similar stature to Fischer.

Second, last week was also the week that the Equality Court ruled that flying the old South African flag constitutes hate speech. While the majority of South Africans of all races agreed with the ruling, a handful of Afrikaners reacted negatively and a number of them posted images of the old flag either on Facebook or Twitter.

A lot has been written and said about this issue. The main argument is that flags, like statues, are symbols signalling certain societal values and messages. There can be no question that the old flag represented a South Africa of race-based oppression and ultimately, of the noxious ideology of apartheid. For the vast majority of South Africans, it was always a reminder of great pain, humiliation and insult.

The small group of people who oppose the judgment argue that banning the flag is against the principle of freedom of speech. What an extraordinary irony it is that this argument is now put forward in defence of the key symbol of a system under which there was no freedom of speech – but that is an aside.

Let's ignore for a moment the obvious answer, i.e. that all rights have limitations. The question that those who want to continue flying the old flag under the guise of freedom of expression must answer is, what exactly are they trying to say when hoisting it on their flagpoles?

For the sake of this article, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they will not answer that they want apartheid back. (Ja, I know that is naïve, but I'm doing the Madiba and Tutu let's-assume-the-best-of-people-thing).

However, any other possible answer – whether simply wanting to celebrate Afrikaner heritage, Verwoerdian republicanism, or perhaps wanting to remember the thousands of South Africans (white and black) who died under that Union flag in the fight against Hitler – pays homage to a time in history prior to 1994. Herein lies the problem – even for those who claim that it is not meant to offend.

Firstly, no matter how hard anyone tries to give an alternative interpretation to the old flag, nothing can wash away the indelible stain of institutionalised racism and black servitude upon which the "Union of South Africa" was built. Thus, for the vast majority of South Africans the eighty-odd years spent under the old flag are remembered most for its cruel caste system based on skin colour.

Secondly, exhibiting the flag sends the message that there remains a longing by some to go back to a time when whites ruled and oppressed the majority of people in this country and that they are not fully engaged in healing and re-building South Africa.

In our increasingly divided society and as the racial narratives are getting more and more destructive, flying the flag simply adds fuel to an already dangerously hot fire. It plays into the already widely held belief by Africans that white South Africans are not really interested in a future of true inclusivity and economic justice. It confirms the view that they want to preserve the privileges of the past, a past which was deeply painful and humiliating to the majority of people in this country.

What I fail to understand is why those who support the flying of the old flag don't get this. Is it perhaps that their lives remain so isolated from their fellow South Africans that they have no clue how dangerous their actions and attitudes are?

They and organisations such as AfriForum claim that they want to protect the rights of Afrikaners and other minorities. Yet, by their deeds and words they are threatening the peaceful co-existence of those minorities.

White South Africans must not remain silent when things like these happen. We have to speak out and make it clear to our fellow citizens that we understand the hurt and pain inflicted in the past which still continues to be present today. We have to make it clear that we do not agree with the actions of a very small number of people.

The vast majority of us will never be brave enough to walk in the footsteps of Edwin Cameron or Bram Fischer. However, we should all strive to have some of the gentle kindness, humanity and humility of these two exceptional men. Perhaps, out of respect for them and the post-1994 ideals of real unity, the first step can simply be to keep the old apartheid flag where it now belongs – out of public view where it can no longer cause offence.

 - Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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