S. Africa unfurls new flag but not everyone salutes Controversy surrounds replacement of nation's flag, anthem, coat of arms

October 22, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa's proposed new flag hadn't even gotten up a flag pole before someone was trying to shoot it down.

The commission responsible for coming up with a flag, an anthem and a coat of arms for the new, multiracial South Africa made its report this week.

No sooner had it proposed a flag with a big green swath down the right side, a smaller gold band on the left, separated by a row of interlocking green, gold and red triangles, than the right-wing Conservative Party said it wasn't about to salute.

"We will not stand to attention for a flag and anthem that are forced on us by aliens and 'hensoppers,' " said Andrew Gerber, the education spokesman for the Conservative Party which is boycotting the talks.

"Hensopper" is an Afrikaner word for traitors. It literally means "hands-upper" and was used to refer to those who went over to the British side during the Boer wars a century ago.

While most of the transition negotiations center on arcane legal points, the national symbols provided a chance for everyone to get involved. The commission ran radio and newspaper ads soliciting suggestions.

Some 7,000 flag proposals came in, along with 119 anthems. They ranged from the ridiculous -- skull and crossbones, coffin and 30 pieces of silver on a field of black -- to the subliminal -- a clear piece of plastic allowing anyone to see anything he or she desires.

Charged with finding symbols that promoted "unity within diversity," the commission went with the most popular colors -- green and gold. They span the major chasm in South African society as they are the colors of the national sports teams, including the Boers' beloved rugby squad, and, along with black, of the African National Congress.

The top flag choice -- the commission submitted six finalists -- was a combination of two entries. Its gold symbolizes wealth and the sun, the green is for the land and environment, while the strip of triangles resembles an indigenous decorative form that, according to the commission report, "signifies interlinked people, unity, harmony and balance."

The current flag, which dates back 66 years, represented only the country's Afrikaner and British white population. In the center, surrounded by three vertical stripes, are small replicas of the Union Jack and the flags of two independent Afrikaner states.

Displaying that flag comes with a certain amount of political baggage, but it is a light load compared with that which accompanies the national anthem, "Die Stem," or "The Source."

Adopted in the 1950s during the apartheid era, it is seen as an Afrikaner anthem. Since apartheid began to be dismantled three years ago, "Die Stem" has been banned from all official functions and is usually heard only at right-wing gatherings, though occasionally a rugby crowd will break out.

Black political gatherings are usually accompanied by a rendition of "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika," usually translated as "God Bless Africa," a hymn-like call-and-response anthem originally written in the Xhosa language popular throughout southern Africa.

The commission couldn't find common ground on the anthem question, instead suggesting that both "Die Stem" and "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" be sung for the next five years until a permanent new government is in place and can make the call.

Alternatively, it recommended "Vunwe," ("Unity"), a new song written in Tsonga and English by Salati Joseph Khosa, that focuses on a united South Africa with verses like: "In one accord we shall sow the seed, the good seed of unity."

The commission also made four recommendations for a national motto, one in native African languages -- Ubuntu, loosely translated as "humanism" -- and three in Latin -- Ex Unitate Vires (Unity Is Strength), Concordia Res Crescent (Growth Through Agreement), Conjunctus Viribus (With United Powers).

And it suggested that a coat of arms be chosen by a new government, though providing several proposals, including one in which black and white leopards rise above the national flower, the protea.

The commission did not tackle the touchy matter of a national sports emblem. For years it has been the springbok, a small, sprightly antelope that thrives now mainly in several of South Africa's game parks.

Despite its seeming neutrality, the springbok was for so long identified with all-white international teams that the ANC has called for its elimination.

But none of these emblems are going to satisfy those, like the Conservative Party, who are holding out for a separate Afrikaner homeland that can then choose its own separate symbols.

"The only solution for multiparty negotiators is to accept a flag with white and black spots which reflects the variety of colors in the country," said Boerstaat Party leader Robert Van Tonder, "with a Coca-Cola bottle in the middle to symbolize South Africa's new status as an American vassal state."

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