Fred Brownell and the creation of the South African flag

Brand South Africa’s new Play Your Part TV series, to be aired on SABC2 from Sunday 15 June at 9pm, features an interview with Fred Brownell, heraldry expert and designer of South Africa’s beloved six-coloured flag. We bring you the remarkable story of Brownell’s development of the flag back in early 1994, when the country was teetering between civil war and – the ultimate outcome – a nation united under one flag.

Kabelo with Fred Brownell on the Brand South Africa TV series
Fred Brownell, the man who designed South Africa’s national flag, with Kabelo Mabalane, kwaito star and the host of Brand South Africa’s Play Your Part TV series, in a still from the show. (Image: Brand South Africa)

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This is an excerpt from Flying With Pride: The Story of the South African Flag, published by WildNet Africa with text by Denis Beckett

In February 1990 Fred Brownell, the state herald of the Republic of South Africa, was busy lending a neighbourly hand to the about-to-be new nation of Namibia with the design of its national symbols.

This was soon after Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison and the African National Congress was unbanned.

Fred detected that a new identity would soon be coming up for this own country too. He started turning options round in his mind.

For three years he sought a theme for a new South African flag. He selected and de-selected half the colours in the kaleidoscope. He wrestled with one design after another. But he never quite got to the point of crying Eureka!

Watch the preview of the first episode of Brand South Africa’s TV series, Play Your Part, airing on SABC2 on 15 June at 9pm:

Fred was in a different position to the average amateur flag-designer, who would typically think of designing a flag in the same way as you might design a dress or a poster or a packet. He knew the ground rules.

For instance:

  • You must have light colours in between dark ones. Otherwise, when your flag is printed in black-and-white, or viewed from afar, it looks like a blur.
  • You must have a design that people can more-or-less draw. They needn’t get it exact (or the Union Jack would have been a terrible flop) but if they can’t get the essence there’s a problem. The more twirls and curves you give them the more trouble you’re asking for.
  • Getting ambitious, with birds or animals or artworks, is a no-go. Aside from the drawing problem you’re inviting cynics (well supplied in any country at any time) to turn your eagle to a cow or your lion to a tortoise. Whatever “political” colours the nation may have, you’d better be sure to show either none of them or all of them.
  • You can’t rely on the wind blowing. The fatal temptation of flag design is to focus on the full-out flag. Much of the time it will in fact hang limp from its post. You want it to be recognisable then too.
  • Light blue backgrounds get lost against the sky, white backgrounds get scruffy fast, and any hint of subtlety turns to mystery at the top of a flagpole.

Flying the national flag of South Africa
Flying the flag at Mangaung Stadium in Bloemfontein, Free State, during South Africa’s 2010 Fifa World Cup. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Fred also had a solid comparative background, which came in doubly useful in an arena where veering off the straight and narrow meets booby-traps on both sides. For instance, you want the world, including the majority who will only know your flag exists if you win an Olympic medal, to perceive your flag as a flag. You don’t want them to mistake it for a supermarket bag or an escapee from a gallery of modern art.

But you don’t want them, either, to confuse it with anyone else’s flag. This is an aim that is often not met. Colombians and Ecuadorians need great eyesight and much practice to tell their flags apart. Were the occasion to arise that Poland, Monaco and Indonesia occupied three adjoining flagposts you’d rub your eyes and wonder if someone slipped something in your coffee.

So it’s handy to know that more than half the world’s 193 national flags are horizontal stripes; that a fifth have vertical stripes, a 10th have crosses, another 10th have a central device like the classic Japanese red disc on a white background, and so on.

Fred also set out to combine the conservative European flag tradition with the bolder and more colourful African approach, and, of course, to convey the right theme. But the theme wouldn’t come.

After three years of thinking it over with no answer in sight, Fred was becoming “somewhat despondent”. Then he went to Zurich for the 1993 International Congress of Vexillology.

Fred Brownell original sketch South Africa flag
One percent inspiration, 99% perspiration. Fred Brownell’s earliest thoughts for South Africa’s new national flag were sketched on the back of a programme during a slow evening at the 1993 International Congress of Vexillogy in Zurich, Switzerland. (Image: Flying the Flag)

Vexillogy is used to being taken, by the few laypersons who meet its name at all, as the study of why people get vexed. It is, in truth, the study of flags (from, yes, Latin – vexillum = flag) and as with any academic studies its congresses have their duller moments. On the night of 25 August 25 1993 Fred was hungry, tired, and distracted, and fell to doodling. But what he doodled was not just the normal circles or bricks or spiders hanging from the corner of the page. He doodled an idea, on the back of the congress programme.

Evolution of the South African flag
Evolution in progress: Fred Brownell’s initial Zurich design, based on the idea of the convergence of South Africa’s peoples into one nation, was tweaked and changed until everyone was either satisfied or too tired to argue any more. (Image: Flying the Flag)

The idea was convergence and unification. “You can say now that it is obvious. But for three years it hadn’t been obvious.” Fair enough. The wheel, too, doubtless became obvious the moment that somebody had invented it. The more Fred looked at his representation of convergence and unification, the more he thought, “That’s it.” He started experimenting with colours, adjusting dimensions, exploring variations, and generally refining the convergence theme.

On 7 September that same year the Negotiating Council at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park appointed a National Symbols Commission to invite public flag submissions, choose a short-list, and present a report. The commission’s short life was not a happy one. The “old” and “new” members experienced little of the inter-personal thawing which was wreaking miracles in other areas of the negotiating process. The time-frame was outlandish – public entries closed on 13 October and the commission was to report on the 19th.

For Fred Brownell there was an extra problem. He was appointed to the commission. Being a part of the jury he could not also be a contestant. He did not submit his idea, but in his private time he did keep refining it.

On 14 October the commission met. It had received some 7 000 flag designs, which if pasted on the walls at 50-centimetre intervals would mean 3.5 kilometres of walking. The commission had from 11am to 4 pm to decide on six designs for submission to the negotiating council. Precisely how such disdain came to be visited on the 7 000 contributors is a matter of dispute. What is beyond dispute is that a thorough assessment was out of the question: the commission selected its shortlist and within days presented these to the negotiating council and, almost simultaneously, to the media.

Response was immediate and unhesitating, from both the council and the public. A mass “no thanks” reverberated throughout the World Trade Centre, where the negotiations were being held. The same sentiment, with a high quotient of caustic epithets, echoed from Beit Bridge to Cape Point.

The commission, having fulfilled its mandate, retired hurt.

The negotiating council swapped to the opposite tack.

The public hadn’t delivered, what about professionals?

A selection of graphic design studios were asked to try their hands at flag design, in a hurry. History repeated itself. The negotiators said “no”, politely. The public said “no”, less politely.

“Hope you voted” by Flickr user Darryn van der Walt

Time was pushing. The negotiating council had other concerns. At the end of 1993 the constitution of democratic South African appeared. What appeared where the design of the flag was supposed to be described was, instead, a naked cop-out: “The national flag of the Republic shall be the flag the design of which is determined by the President by proclamation in the Gazette.”

Meanwhile, Fred Brownell was still tinkering with his idea, which had moved steadily onward from the original Zurich doodle. Colours changed, for instance. At one stage there was green at the top and blue below, with red in the middle. Fred imagined critics placing sarcastic constructions on the red paths converging. He upgraded the green to central status.

And the red…? This was a thorny one. Red, a strong and striking primary colour, was here in a shape hitherto unknown. There was something very right about that. But red was also full of problematic meanings. Red meant blood, for one thing. To interpret it as blood that has been spilt – the price of the convergence – could be poignant and moving. But one didn’t want to open the way to the cynicism about blood-letting to come. Moreover, red was communism’s colour. Whatever ultimate judgement posterity might pass on communism, it was a philosophy associated with unusually strong feelings for and against. Fred had his brightest vexillological inspiration so far: turn the red to chilli red, the half-orange red, and score two in one.

Let those who choose see Marx’s red. Let those who choose see 342 years of symbolic orange continuity. Fred also brought yellow. Yellow was commonly perceived as representing gold, or the nation’s mineral wealth, and green and gold were (obligingly) both South Africa’s sporting colours and two of the main colours of the liberation movements.

Nelson Mandela coffin draped in South Africa flag
The casket of Nelson Mandela draped in the South African flag during the legendary statesman’s funeral in Qunu, Eastern Cape, in December 2013. (Image: GCIS)

Along the way he did that sensible thing we all do when we have a bright idea. He checked it out with his family, and made further changes – when, for example, his youngest daughter pointed out that one vision of the design, turned on its side, looked like the “ban the bomb” sign. Fred adjusted it to a Y.

In February 1994 the negotiators, now statutorily the Transitional Executive Council (TEC) returned to the flag. By now they knew when the flag was going to fly – 27 April. But they didn’t know what flag would fly. There wasn’t as much as a hint or a clue or an agreed avenue to further pursue. A technical committee was appointed with Fred Brownell as convenor. It had a simple brief: find a flag, within a week. The committee met in Cape Town on February 28 1994. The feeling was what was that unity, interlinking or convergence should be the theme. Input came from several quarters and within two days four designs had been prepared – two of these based on the Zurich theme.

At this very delicate stage in the whole transitional process the designs were presented to the negotiating parties for behind-the scenes consideration. To have any chance at all, at least one of them needed to enjoy tacit support before formal submission to the TEC for its verdict. Fred had two white lines. They were there as a design feature, to separate dark from dark, but some people would see white as representing white people. If so, there had to be black too. Thus did what had so far been a yellow triangle become a yellow collar on a black triangle, and this is the flag that, after consultation, was to be laid before a TEC meeting on 15 March.

Watch Wavin’ Flag by K’Naan, the official song of South Africa’s 2010 Fifa World Cup:

By March of 1994 the TEC’s members were heartily sick of all-day political horse-trading. They were weary, and agreeing on issues that a few months earlier would have caused major rows. But they were also flag-wary, after two false starts. It was almost as if they were waiting for a Vision from Above, something that was at first sight so blindingly perfect that they would be relieved of all doubt.

Was Fred’s design that thing? We will never know. People are not computers, impervious to chance. We are susceptible to happenstance. That is our strength. All we can know is what did happen. The TEC meeting was to be held in Pretoria; supposedly at 2pm. Fred arrived early and gave the flag, a full-size version, to Roelf Meyer, the government’s chief negotiator. Roelf said he would take it to his ANC counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, and asked Fred to wait around in case there were any questions.

This was a closed meeting: no press. It was also a delayed meeting, finally by four hours. When the discussion on the flag was finally due to start, there was an unused chair in front of one delegation. Fred took the chair, overheard the members of the delegation talking, and realided that these were hereditary chiefs from the QwaQwa homeland – one of the less vociferous of the many components of the TEC, and one of the more neutral, especially since they only had observer status.

Fred, a Free State farmer’s son from way back, greeted in seSotho. The chiefs were as surprised as is customary to find a pale person speaking seSotho. Hands were shaken and discussion occurred. The chiefs were intrigued to hear about the flag, and wanted a sneak preview. Fred had a small paper version still with him, and surreptitiously displayed it. The chiefs asked about colours, meanings, patterns, and as talk went on they warned – perhaps to what they were seeing, perhaps to a friendly white homeboy who spoke seSotho. Then order was called and the session began.

Roelf and Cyril took the floor and showed the flag. There was an agonising silence as the TEC peered at the multi-coloured cloth, cautiously, uncertainly. Fred had a sinking feeling: were they going to veto this one too.

Just in the nick of time, enthusiastic clapping broke out. It broke out in one particular corner, the one occupied by the QwaQwa chiefs. It spread, and soon the clapping grew to a crescendo. The flag was in business: the TEC, whether displaying great efficiency or great exhaustion, had accepted it there and then. Then it was off to the assembled pressroom. As Cyril and Roelf positioned themselves to present the flag to the world, Roelf remarked that he and Cyril were holding the wrong sides. Cyril looked. Indeed, he was holding the stripes; Roelf had the black triangle. They changed places, and the cameras whirred. Thereby was expressed a slim but penetrating slice of symbolism.

Six colours that helped unite a nation.

Was this new society to mean all South Africans as equal citizens regardless of race? Or was it really a merging of nationalisms, and perhaps, like so many mergers, a takeover in disguise? For the first but not last time it appeared that there were fundamentally different ways of seeing the flag. For some, it was joyous, lively, exuberant, a riot of colour on which everyone had an identical claim. For others it was the green, yellow and black of the ANC overlying the chilli-red, white and blue associated with the past.

Having instantly adopted the flag, the TEC inexplicably took four of the six remaining weeks before the election to ask the state president to officially legalise it, causing cardiac arrest among the nation’s flag-makers. Meantime, the Bureau of Heraldry was flooded with queries about design, colour codes and symbolism.

To those who asked Fred stood firm, explaining that the only international symbolism was convergence and unification, represented by the V starting at the left, coming together in the centre, and proceeding as a horizontal band to the end. For the rest, the colours were just colours, recognising both the flags which had flown in the past and the realities of the present. Still, as he concedes, there is no copyright on the way people perceive their flag. The public was entitled to attach, as it did, whatever meaning it liked to the colours, and to maintain, as it still often does, that the blue ought to be on top “for the sky”.

“What mattered,” he says, “was that the flag would find its way into the hearts and minds of the population at large, and became a unifying symbol.”

Which is what the distracted sketch made on the back of a programme at a congress in Zurich has indeed done.

Compiled by Mary Alexander