South Africa

Hello, Fanatics! Welcome back to another post of The Flag Review. Apologies for the late arrival of this post. Better late than never, I suppose.

Today’s post covers a younger flag in the history of the world (and one of my personal favorite national flags), the flag of South Africa.

Typically, there is always an underlying meaning to a flag’s design and color scheme. That is only partially true for South Africa, however. I will get back to that later. First, let us briefly look at the history of the African nation.

Similar to the history of Barbados, which I wrote about in my last post, South Africa has a long history of colonialism. And just like Barbados, South Africa was discovered by Portuguese explorers who did not establish any settlement in the area.The English were the next to come along, but they would also not stay long in the area. That distinction goes to the Dutch, who established a permanent settlement near the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. The Dutch East Indian Company created the settlement as a stop for traders sailing to Asia. The colony, however, would attract many Dutch settlers looking to start a new life in Africa. 

The Dutch East Indian Company would retain control of the area for around 150 years. After a series of wars with Great Britain at the turn of the 19th century, the Dutch eventually ceded control of the colony to the British. With Britain under control, many of the Dutch residents resettled north in the African continent in what is referred to as the “Great Trek”. These colonists, commonly known as the Boers, established their own nations in the northern part of modern South Africa. The two largest were the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (also known as “Transvaal”). These republics did not last long, however, and after another series of wars between the Boers and the British, the once-independent nations became colonies of the British Empire.

The flag of the Orange Free State

The flag of the South African Republic (another short-lived Boer Republic). The flag is also known as the “Vierkleur”. I created this sketch myself based on the design of the old flag of South Africa. Accuracy of the proportions is not guaranteed.

In 1910, Great Britain consolidated their colonies in the area, creating the Union of South Africa. As a colony, South Africa flew a flag similar to many colonies in the British Empire: a blue background, a seal representing the colony and the Union Jack in the canton. But in 1928, South Africa adopted their own flag, which was used for the remainder of South Africa’s time as a colony and continued to represent it when South Africa achieved independence from Great Britain in 1961. The design of this flag is composed of three horizontal stripes of, starting from the top, orange, white and blue, representing South Africa’s history as a Dutch colony. The center stripe contains three small flags, from left to right, the Union Jack, the former Orange Free State and South African Republic. The positioning of the three flags in the center was designed as a compromise between the Afrikaners and English of South Africa. The Union Jack is closest to the hoist of the main flag, but is flipped, meaning it spreads (from hoist to fly) in the opposite direction as the main flag. The center flag of the former Orange Free State sits higher than its counterparts. It compromises with being in the center by hanging vertically and being reversed, in order to keep its canton closest to the main flag’s hoist. The flag of the former South African Republic is farthest from the main flag’s hoist, but is spread in the same direction as the main flag. This horrendous flag-ception has a very complicated history. The country was plagued by apartheid, a legal system of segregation that discriminated against South African blacks. To many, the flag represented those unjust institutions.

The flag of South Africa from 1928-1994. The center charge features three flags. From left to right: the Union Jack, the flag of the Orange Free State and the flag of the South African Republic.

With the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela, a new flag was designed to represent the nation. Discussions about a new flag started before Mandela’s election in 1994. In August of 1993, the government established a commission to determine the flag of South Africa. At the start of the process, the commission was unable to settle on a new flag, but after much debate, the commission approved the design created by Frederick Brownell, the State Herald and Chairman of the South African Vexillological Society at the time. His design would see its first use on April 27, 1994. While it was considered an interim flag at the time, as it was adopted under the country’s interim constitution, it would go on to be officially approved by the South African Constitutional Assembly in 1996.

So what is the underlying meaning behind Mr. Brownell’s flag? Let’s dive into the details. 

The most noticeable pattern is the green “y” rotated 90 degrees. This is known as a pall. The pall is outlined by two white stripes. On the hoist side between the pall’s split (or the top of the “y”) is a black triangle, outlined in gold. On the fly, above and below the green stripe (the bottom of the “y”) is a red and blue stripe, respectively. Mr. Brownell’s use of the pall represents what he called the “convergence and unification” of South African society, marked by the end of apartheid. The flag makes clever use of heraldic symbols to convey an optimistic message for the new South Africa.

The flag of South Africa in all its glory

As I mentioned at the start of this post, the flag of South Africa does not follow a typical flag rule of having meaning in every design choice, specifically, the meaning of the colors. Officially, the colors do not represent anything in particular; the idea is each color holds different meanings to different people. Even with this in mind, it is too much of a coincidence that the colors of the flag of the Netherlands and the UK as well as the official colors of the African National Congress are used on the flag. The beauty in the design, however, is how Mr. Brownell incorporated the colors; each distinct color group blends, from hoist to fly, to resemble something new and distinct.

While paying homage to its nation’s history, the flag of South Africa tells of a promise for a brighter future, where South Africans are not divided by the color of their skin, but united under one national identity. I believe Mr. Brownell captured that message beautifully with his creation. The flag of South Africa deserves recognition as a gold standard for flag design.

Thank you for reading!


Sources

Brownell, F. G. (2015). Convergence and Unification : the national flag of South Africa (1994) in historical perspective. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pretoria)

Central Intelligence Agency. (2021). South Africa. The World Factbook 2021. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/south-africa/flag

National Flag. (n.d.). South African Government. Retrieved 2021, from https://www.gov.za/about-sa/national-flag-0#

RSA Flag Facts. (n.d.). Southern African Vexillological Association. Retrieved 2021, from http://www.savaflags.org.za/rsa-flag-facts-sava-flags.php