A brief look: Keep the home flag burning

By Rebecca Davis 1 September 2011

One of the acts by Julius Malema’s supporters which has most outraged older cadres of the ruling party was the burning of the ANC flag on Tuesday. But why are flags taken to be so sacred in the first place? By REBECCA DAVIS.

Brace yourself for a short history lesson. The precursor to the modern flag was the military standard. It was some form of identifying symbol, not necessarily a flag or even made of fabric, carried into battle since Bronze Age conflicts. It was only in the late 18th century, with the rise of nationalism, that countries began to adopt flags to be used in civilian (as distinct from military) contexts. One of the first was the Danish flag, introduced in 1854. Flags for individual political parties followed shortly after, with a colour protocol quickly developing: red flags for left-wing radicals, black flags for anarchists and dark blue were associated with conservatives.

The ANC’s own flag has several components. The spear and shield represent early resistance to colonial rule and the MK armed struggle. The wheel comes from the campaign for the Congress of the People, and symbolises non-racialism. Colour-wise, black is for South Africa’s people, green is for its land, and gold is for the resources Julius wants to nationalise. That’s some heady historical significance, all in all. When Malema’s supporters show disrespect for the flag, we assume MK vets see it as an act of disrespect towards their fight and the ANC’s whole history.

They’re not alone in feeling attached to their flag. Whenever flags are burned, it’s seen as a symbolic insult to the government of that country, and they’re accordingly sensitive about it. Flag desecration is illegal in countries as diverse as Austria, China, Germany, Israel, and New Zealand. In South Africa burning flag isn’t illegal – be they national or the ANC or any other. So the protesters were on the right side of the law. But they’ll still face the ire of the party elders. iM

Photo: Reuters


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