It’s a potent symbol of unity and progress. It’s the only six-coloured national flag in the world. It’s also one of the youngest, yet whatever shape it takes – and it’s taken more than any other national symbol – it’s instantly recognisable to South Africans everywhere.
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The new South African national flag first flew on 10 May 1994 – the day Nelson Mandela became president, two weeks after the country’s first democratic elections of 27 April 1994 – “not as a symbol of a political party, nor of a government, but as a possession of the people – the one thing that is literally and figuratively above all else, our flag”.
The quote comes from the introduction to Flying with Pride: The Story of the South African Flag, a coffee table book derived from the incredible variety of ways in which this unique cloth has become woven into the fabric of South African society.
As in the case of the rocket logo used for IT billionaire Mark Shuttleworth’s First African in Space project, the South African flag has become integrated into butterflies, bow ties, company logos, trees, top hats, hot air balloons, umbrellas, underwear … the list goes on. The South African flag has no equal in this respect.
Yet the flag was originally commissioned as an interim flag only – and was a last-minute job, barely making it onto the country’s flagpoles in time to herald the new South Africa.
How the flag came to be
Choosing a new flag was part of the negotiation process set in motion when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. When a nationwide public competition was held in 1993, the National Symbols Commission received more than 7 000 designs. Six designs were drawn up and presented to the public and the Negotiating Council – but none elicited enthusiastic support.
A number of design studios were contracted to submit further proposals – again without success – and Parliament went into recess at the end of 1993 without a suitable candidate for the new national flag.
The SA flag flies on the highest point on earth for the first time in history: 25 May 1996, Ian Woodall (left) and Cathy O’Dowd. (Photo: Cathy O’Dowd)
In February 1994, Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer, chief negotiators of the African National Congress and the National Party government of the day respectively, were tasked with resolving the flag issue. A final design was adopted on 15 March 1994 – derived from a design developed by SA’s former State Herald, Fred Brownell.
The proclamation of the new national flag was only published on 20 April 1994 – seven days before the flag was to be inaugurated on the 27th, sparking a frantic last-minute flurry for flag manufacturers.
Writing in the foreword to Flying with Pride, Ramaphosa comments: “It was difficult to imagine, back then in the days of negotiations, that this assortment of shapes and colours we had before us would become such a central part of defining and identifying a new nation.
“As South Africans daily work to build a better society, they are surrounded in many forms and countless manifestations by a flag which recognises and celebrates the unity and diversity of the country’s people.
“Few would have imagined, almost a decade ago, that this collection of colourful shapes could become such a potent symbol of unity and progress. But then fewer still would have thought that a country torn apart by decades of racial oppression could transform itself into a beacon of democracy and hope.”
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