New spirit is flying in S. Africa

May 15, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A sign has just appeared hanging from the windows of a department store downtown here.

"Hey, South Africa, you're OK," it reads. Below is a cartoon of a man pushing a grocery cart flying the new South African flag.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the name of the department store is OK. If there is one measure of the success of the recent transition to democratic rule, it is that capitalism is glomming onto it with abandon.

This week, major newspapers across the country included a larger-than-life poster of President Nelson Mandela, suitable for that empty spot on the clubroom wall.

It was sponsored by Volkswagen and came complete with the new South African flag on the back, its five colors formed by an aerial view of VW cars and trucks parked in the formation of the flag.

The fact that VW has been producing vehicles here throughout the apartheid years, ignoring calls by Mr. Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) for an economic boycott of the country seems overlooked.

Whatever the depth of the unavoidable skepticism, the country has experienced a remarkable elevation of mood in the last few weeks.

The upswing started a week before the elections when Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi decided that his Inkatha Freedom Party would participate in the vote.

Even the three major bombs that went off just before and on the first day of the election did little to slow down the rise in spirits. Nor did the hours of waiting in line to vote. Indeed, they added to it, giving the event a Woodstock-like quality -- everyone was part of something new and different and reveled in the community formed by enduring hours in the multiracial queues.

That was the day -- April 27 -- when the new flag flew over South Africa for the first time.

The design of the flag was not arrived at easily. There was no way the old one would do. Its designs and colors represented only the heritage of white South Africans -- Afrikaners and people of English ancestry.

But the old flag's horizontal bars of blue, white and orange -- and, in the middle, its three little images of the flags of England and the two independent Afrikaner states -- had an archetypal aura about it.

A beach towel

So when a negotiating committee took the designs of thousands of South Africans and came up with a multihued banner, complete with a vertical row of somewhat irregular opposing triangles, it was denounced as looking more like a beach towel than a flag.

The country's top design firms were then called in and given a hurry-up assignment of coming up with a new flag. Their version looked like what design firms would come up with -- something more suitable for selling a product than celebrating a nation.

With that, top officials of the ANC and ruling National Party took the whole thing behind closed doors. They came up with the sideways green Y, outlined in white, stripes of red and blue above and below, its triangle filled with green and gold.

It was presented to the nation as a fait accompli, and no one was very excited. That is, until Election Day, when the flag suddenly fluttered from atop flag poles.

Not only did its colors look better flapping in the breeze, but it also was more than an abstract design, it was doing what flags are supposed to do -- representing something. And what it represented was one of the most joyful, satisfying days in the nation's history.

Everybody loves flag

Suddenly everybody loves the flag. They can't get enough of it. ** They wave it at soccer matches, stick it on dashboards, wear it on T-shirts. And, of course, they include it in advertisements.

The other symbolic compromise -- over a new national anthem -- has also proved to be a boon. Negotiators decided that the country should have two anthems for the time being: the current Afrikaans one, "Die Stem" ("The Voice"), and the pan-Africanist "Nkosi Sikilel'iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa") that is usually sung with verses in the Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho languages.

Again it satisfied no one at the time. But in the post-election glow, it has worked out wonderfully. Stern-faced Afrikaners now earnestly mouth the unfamiliar words of "Nkosi Sikilel'iAfrika," previously the property of the liberation movements.

At a soccer game just after his inauguration, Mr. Mandela admonished the almost all-black crowd that stood mostly silent during "DieStem." It was now their duty, he said, to learn its

words because it is their national anthem.

One pleasant surprise about South Africa's post-election mood elevation, is that it has taken place at least as much among whites as blacks. Going into the election, the whites were basically a collective nervous wreck, even the majority of the politically correct ones.

The future was at best uncertain and, at worst, a realization of the vision pounded into their heads by a carefully controlled media. According to that vision, South African whites were responsible for keeping the ideals of Western civilization alive here on the tip of the dark continent.

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