A little challenge for you
When was the last time you looked at your national flag?
Have you ever tried to draw it? From memory? And without looking it up on Google? Go on, give it a try. Grab some colourful crayons or pencils, a piece of paper, and draw what you can remember.
The shape will probably be quite easy (rectangular :-)), but what colours does it have? How are they arranged? Is it symmetrical? Are the ‘stripes’ horizontal or vertical? Does it have a border? Does it have a cross, or a chevron? Is there a badge or coat of arms or other recognisable emblem?
No cheating now, okay?
Flags, flags everywhere
In the last two months, both in the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup and during it, hundreds of thousands of South African flags of all sizes have been sold.
When I walk or drive around my neighbourhood and into town, I see our flag everywhere: printed on billboards, painted on the walls of buildings, draped over balconies, and hanging out of windows, wrapped around people like a colourful blanket, fluttering from mopeds, bicycles, cars and buses, stuck onto front and rear bumpers, spraypainted onto vehicles, decorating corner cafes, restaurants, supermarkets, and shopping malls, and of course painted onto the faces of spectators on their way to the Stadium or the Grand Parade Fan Fest or the Fan Walk that joins the two.
The creative salesmen who regularly descend on me and my fellow drivers whenever we stop at a red traffic light, must have sold the vast majority of these flags in the form of mirror socks and flags to affix to side windscreens and radio aerials, as well as all as on all the Bafana Bafana related paraphernalia like scarves, shirts, sleevies [giggle, yes, I think that’s what they’re called?] and beanies.
I have never seen my – our – national flag as often as I have during the 2010 World Cup. Not when our government changed in 1994, and the new South African flag appeared in public for the first time. Not even when we hosted and won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, which was a pretty momentous event, as I recall!
Face-painting the flag
I too found myself swept up in the fever of painting the flag on the cheeks on match days, and luckily found a set of non-toxic face-painting crayons that happened to comprise all the colours of our truly multi-coloured flag.
The first time, standing in front of the mirror with my crayons, I was suddenly stumped.
I’d been seeing our flag literally everywhere, but I realised that I hadn’t actually looked at it.
I knew that there were six colours, and that the main feature was a Y-shape, with the open side on the left, and the closed side on the right. I was pretty sure there was a lot of red and blue, but which colour was at the top and which was at the bottom? Which section was black, which was green? And the outlines – one was white, the other yellow, but which was which? How did it all fit together?
How on earth was I going to paint our national flag on my cheek, if I couldn’t even remember its arrangements of colours?
After some thought, I pulled out the handy Cape Times 2010 World Cup Guide my Mom had given us at the start of the tournament. Thank goodness, there was our national flag, in the top left corner. And all the other countries’ flags too. I took this back to the mirror with me.
And then, slowly, painstakingly, very conscious of the need to have both the proportions and the colours correct, I started to draw the South African flag on my face.
- First a fine outline of the outside border of the flag, so I wouldn’t run out of space :-).
- The black triangle or chevron on the left, with the tip pointing towards the right.
- The golden-yellow outline of the black triangle.
- The green ‘Y’ (officially called a pall) against golden-yellow outline on the left.
- The white outline that follows the green Y, both above, and below.
- The red patch at the top, all the way to the edge.
- The same with the blue at the bottom.
Voila! There it was!
The symbolism and colours of the SA flag
In case you are wondering about the symbolism of the South African flag, here’s what the official government website has to say about it:
“The national flag was designed by a former South African State Herald, Mr Fred Brownell, and was first used on 27 April 1994. The design and colours are a synopsis of principal elements of the country’s flag history. Individual colours, or colour combinations represent different meanings for different people and therefore 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 South African society, taking the road ahead in unity. The theme of convergence and unity ties in with the motto Unity is Strength of the previous South African Coat of Arms.” (Government of South Africa)
I found it particularly interesting to read that the colours do not carry a specific meaning.
As I was painting each of the colours on my face, I’d been wondering whether the blue was representative of South Africa’s unforgettably vast blue skies, for instance, or whether the red was supposed to be a reminder of all the blood that has been shed in this country – or, more positively, whether it represented the fertile earth of the land, which feeds our bodies and our spirit.
If that was the case, though, the blue should’ve been at the top and the red below, you know, sky above earth? So perhaps the blue stood for the oceans, which surround and embrace our country, giving us a shoreline of almost 3000 km?
And the green seemed so obviously to be symbolising growth, not just of vegetation and all that grows on Mother Earth, but also the growth of our people.
The Y-shape expressed a joining together or converging of people and cultures and ways of life that had been kept apart by apartheid, which could easily be depicted as the black triangular shape, acting as a wedge, splitting us apart.
In this way, I found myself trying to make up a story about our flag and its elements, and how they fitted together, as it made it easier for me to remember what it looked like.
How do you feel about your flag?
When you drew your own country’s flag, did you also make up a story like that? Do you have specific associations with its colours and their arrangement? How does your national flag make you feel? Proud? Patriotic? Angry? Resentful? Indifferent?
What if, as was the case in South Africa, your flag is actually quite young?
The previous SA flag
South Africa used to have a very different flag from 1928 to 1994. Although that is the flag I grew up with, I confess rather shamefacedly that I had never really looked at it closely either! I’ve certainly never attempted to draw it. Until I looked it up on the Wikipedia a few moments ago, I didn’t even know it had a specific name, the Prinsevlag (Afrikaans for Prince’s Flag):
The Wikipedia explains the design of this flag as follows:
“The design was based on the so-called Van Riebeeck flag or Prinsevlag (“Prince’s flag” in Afrikaans) which was originally the Dutch flag, and consisted of orange, white, and blue horizontal stripes. A version of this flag was used as the flag of the Dutch East India Company at the Cape (with the VOC logo in the centre) from 1652 until 1795. The South African addition to the design was three smaller flags centred in the white stripe. The smaller flags were the Union Jack (mirrored) towards the hoist, the flag of the Orange Free State (mirrored) hanging vertically in the middle and the Transvaal Vierkleur towards the fly.” (Wikipedia: Article on SA flag)
Of course, because of the unique history of our country, this flag was strongly associated with the repressive apartheid government and thus evoked very bad memories for the vast majority of South Africans. After Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison and the government changed so dramatically in 1994, there was no option but to replace it.
Initially, as I recall, the new flag was only intended as an interim measure, pending public acceptance. And after we initially got over the shock of suddenly having such a bold and colourful flag, we (well, most of us) adopted it with much passion and enthusiasm – as was evident during the last month, when we proudly displayed it absolutely everywhere!
What now? Now that the World Cup has ended?
Last night, on our way home after watching the Final between Spain and the Netherlands at Mom’s, I felt a profound sense of loss.
All the excitement of the last months and weeks was starting to fade.
The news on the radio kept going on about the threats of imminent xenophobic violence directed at foreigners, and it suddenly seemed as though allll the problems we had forgotten about in this wonderful, breathtaking, thrilling, exciting, exhilarating period where the eyes of the entire world were focused on us, were starting to push and shove their way back into our lives.
“Go away!” I wanted to shout at those problems. “Leave us alone, and don’t come back. We don’t want all the bad stuff anymore, we’ve had enough of crime, and drugs, and gangsterism, and xenophobia, and poverty, and homelessness, and lawlessness, and bickering and blatant corruption in government – all that heavy, dark, muddy, sludgy GUNK. We know the big party is over, but please, can we not give all this peace, and joy, and fun, and laughter, and sharing of ourselves and our hearts and our cities and our country with visitors from all over the world, and all that energy of Ubuntu, that incredible generosity of spirit, a chance to hang around?”
Remember how excited we felt that very first day, when our Boys ran onto the field against Mexico, and THEY SCORED?! Oh my god, don’t you remember how AWESOME that was? Our country ROCKED! It felt like the lid had been blown off, as though we suddenly recognised our potential for greatness!
And do you remember how heart-broken we all felt when our Boys didn’t make it through to the next round after all? It felt like a national day of mourning… but we shook off our sorrow before it really got hold of us, and rose up again…
Instead of getting all sour-faced and surly, we simply chose another team to support and to cheer for – remember that? And thus we continued, buying and flying flags, and wearing ridiculous wigs and riotously colourful clothing, and painting our faces and our bodies, and blowing our VUVUZELAS!
Do you remember how we were overflowing with happiness at the super-amazing, absolutely awe-inspiring fact that THE WORLD CUP WAS BEING HELD HERE???!!
Not only on the African continent for the very first time in the history of the World Cup, but actually HERE, in OUR COUNTRY?! On our doorstep, around the corner, down the road, in the stadiums we had built?!
Keep flying the Flag!
So the question I was asking myself was: How do we sustain this heightened energy? How do we use it to transform ourselves and our society and our country? How do we not descend into collective post World Cup depression, which is apparently quite common among host nations? And what are we going to do with all those flags we bought?
On Cape Talk radio this morning, John Maytham spoke briefly about this topic, mentioning an initiative called “Keep flying the flag” (you can read about it here).
The idea, quite simply, is to recognise that the sense of unity that our flag symbolises is the most important resource that we can and need to draw on to maintain some of that wonderful vibe that permeated the whole country. After all, it was precisely that spirit of unity, which enabled us to tap into our common humanity and our common history as South Africans, and as citizens of the world, instead of focusing on the things that separate us and that set us against each other.
The song “Keep flying the flag”, which expresses this idea (“Do it to show the world we believe / together there’s nothing we can’t achieve”), has such a catchy, easy tune, that I found myself humming along, listening to it repeatedly throughout the day. You can download the song here: Keep Flying (mp3), and you can find the lyrics here. You can also download some logos, to put onto your website and into your email signature, like this one:
So that is what I am planning to do. Will you join me? 🙂