The new flag accompanied the birth of democracy after apartheid in SA. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CAMERON SPENCER
The new flag accompanied the birth of democracy after apartheid in SA. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CAMERON SPENCER

When he handed a limited ban on the display of the old apartheid flag last week, judge Phineas Mojapelo laid out with cogent legal clarity and a touch of Nelson Mandela’s idealism the inherent racial hatred in the gratuitous display of the flag.

Mojapelo ruled that the gratuitous display of the flag — symbolic of apartheid and the Afrikaner nationalist project — demeans and dehumanises black people. It is hate speech.

Thankfully, apartheid emblems are rare. But AfriForum and the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge, the two Afrikaner lobby groups that opposed the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s legal application to have the display of the flag restricted, say the flag can be justifiably hoisted.

LISTEN | SA torn over banning of Apartheid-era flag

To display it is their constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of speech and, they argue, an important symbol of Afrikaner heritage.

It is a story they tell themselves. But it is not the story we hear. By insisting on flying the flag, AfriForum and the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge are out of tune, not only with SA’s democratic principles, but with trends across the world since the end of World War 2.

Though racial prejudice in Western countries was still pervasive in the 1940s, more and more people frowned upon explicit displays of racism. SA went the opposite way, making racism a codified national political philosophy, enforced by the law and the power of the state.  

Under this flag, black South Africans were impoverished and stripped of their self-esteem, dignity and humanity.

While few recognised it, white South Africans were also robbed of their humanity, as the enforcers or complicit partners of an inhumane system.   

Business Day is in full support of the Mojapelo ruling that this apartheid symbol, which has been hoisted during AfriForum-led protests, should be confined to public interest displays in museums, classrooms and art studios. Nothing more.

But barely hours after the seminal judgment, AfriForum’s Ernst Roets posted an image of the flag to his 50,000-plus followers on Twitter, asking: “Did I just commit hate speech?” and prompting a flurry of responses.

The responses were angry, but significantly Roets said he had predicted such responses. He knew the image would rekindle painful memories of SA’s racist past and would not be seen as a neutral display of Afrikaner historical heritage.

He also knew it would take effort and money to take him on in court on this and his later claim that the image had been posted for academic reasons as he is a constitutional law scholar.

This assertion will now be tested in court as the Nelson Mandela Foundation said last week it had launched an urgent application to have him declared in contempt of court.

Roets is not the first to feel nostalgic about apartheid SA. He won’t be the last. But as history has shown, the pursuit of ideals — in this case Nelson Mandela’s vision of a free nonracial nation — are difficult to attain through rules, regulations and enforcement.  

The Nazi swastika, for example, despite being well understood as a symbol of anti-Semitism and racial hatred, is still displayed and waved at rallies by those who believe in racial superiority.

Just as with Nazi symbols, South Africans, and the world, should reach a consensus that apartheid historical emblems such as its flag are a morally objectionable declaration of racism.   

AfriForum and the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge are either deluding themselves or they want to believe that Dylann Roof, a convicted white supremacist who shot and killed nine black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina while wearing a fleece decorated with this flag, is one of them.