SA’s flag symbolises success and unity on the sports fields and doesn’t deserve ‘burning’

SA’s flag symbolises success and unity on the sports fields and doesn’t deserve ‘burning’
Bongi Mbonambi celebrates with the South African flag following victory at the Rugby World Cup 2023. (Photo by Gaspafotos / MB Media / Getty Images)

Literally hundreds of moments of sporting excellence accompanied by the rainbow flag have epitomised the best of the country over the past 30 years.

In 1991, I was tending bar at an establishment frequented by military men of the old South African Defence Force (SADF). This was a time of sweeping change in the country and as a young man, just out of school preparing for adulthood in a country that was no longer a pariah, excited me.

The unbanning of the ANC, the release of Nelson Mandela, and the promise of a return to international sport, among many other changes, meant hope for the country. Hope for young people such as me, and hope for so many others, who never had it. 

On this night, two officers – one a huge captain, at least two metres tall – and the other a short, stocky lieutenant, were in discussion about the future of the country. 

I didn’t understand it then, but as permanent force members of the SADF, they were probably frightened of what the future held. 

At this stage in the discourse of the country, there were reports of changing the name from South Africa to Azania and changing the flag. As we know now, the name never changed but the flag did. And it was the hot topic of discussion at the bar that night. 

The short officer was red and fuming. In Afrikaans, he declared that “the day that this country becomes Azania, and the day they change the flag, is the day I fight until the bitter end”. It was quite extreme stuff. 

The response of the hulking captain, who I can only presume, was raised in a similarly conservative community as the lieutenant, has always stayed with me.

“Ag, f**k man, it’s just a f***ing name, and it’s just some colours on a piece of material, it’s not worth dying over,” was his comeback in Afrikaans. It silenced the puce lieutenant as he mulled this idea. 

And that’s the thing with nationalistic symbols – some are willing to die for them, and some see them as nothing more than an abstract idea, not worth getting too worked up over, one way or the other. 

Riled up 

Which brings me to the DA’s “flag burning” advert this week. It’s got the country talking – mostly by those riled up about it, while many have also defended it. 

I’ve always been wary of nationalistic symbols because they can be manipulated by self-serving politicians for power in strategic moments. A bit like the DA just did. 

But as a sports journalist, and as someone who was afforded a career covering local and international sport because of the changes this country went through after its painful history, my association with the SA flag is intertwined with success and triumph. 


Wing Cheslin Kolbe proudly draped the South Africa flag over his shoulders during celebrations after the Boks won RWC 2023 in Paris. (Photo: Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

Cheslin Kolbe and Bongi Mbonambi draped in the South Africa flag, doing a lap of honour at the Stade de France after the Boks won Rugby World Cup 2023, is an abiding image of the tournament. 

Images of Josia Thugwane, Chad le Clos, Roland, Ryk, Darian and Lyndon, and Tatjana Schoenmaker (now Smith) and Natalie du Toit, among others, standing proudly under the flag after winning Olympic or Paralympic gold medals never fail to move me. 

Josia Thugwane (R) flies the SA flag high after winning the Marathon at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. (Photo: Mike Powell /Allsport)

TOKYO, JAPAN – JULY 23: Flag bearers Phumelela Luphumlo Mbande and Chad Le Clos of Team South Africa lead their team out during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Siya Kolisi cheers fans who came to catch a glimpse of the Springboks during the Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour in Johannesburg on 2 November 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Siya Kolisi holding the trophy at O.R. Tambo International Airport in October 2023. The Springboks beat New Zealand in the final winning their 4th Rugby World Cup. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Pretoria, SOUTH AFRICA – NOVEMBER 02: Siya Kolisi during the Rugby World Cup 2023 Springbok Trophy Tour in on November 02, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images)

Literally hundreds of moments of sporting excellence accompanied by the rainbow flag over the past 30 years have epitomised the best of the country. 

“Burning” that emblem is, to my mind, not the best way to get a point across about state failure, because I associate and attach success and unity to the sight of the flag, rather than hate and corruption. 

The collapse of South Africa’s parastatals, the freefalling economy, the rising crime and the increasing sense of desperation and hopelessness of so many are symptoms of a failing state.

But the flag, especially in a sporting context, presents the exact opposite image. It’s a symbol of courage, determination, skill and good old South African grit. 

Unites us 

Many of us might not be proud of what’s happened and is happening in the country, but the flag is the thing that unites us. It certainly does not divide us. 

When national teams play, the stadiums are awash with the colours of the rainbow nation. 

That doesn’t mean people are oblivious to the problems in the country, because they aren’t. But we are all united in this struggle of being South African under one flag. It binds us. 

With the help of animation technology, symbolically “burning” the flag just sits uncomfortably. 

Much is failing in the country and the DA, or any other political party should point it out and strive to be better. The DA does a good job in the Western Cape, even an excellent job by comparison with the rest of the country. 

But the Western Cape also happens to be a part of the country that falls under the flag they “burned” for dramatic and shock effect. 

The flag is the one thing that evokes positive images of South Africa, mostly, but not exclusively linked to the excellence of sporting success in a country that routinely punches above its weight on fields and arenas globally. 

The flag might “only” be an emblem, but in 30 years, it’s been a symbol of far more good news in the country, than bad. That, to me, is the point that was missed. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kevin Venter says:

    The burning of the flag has been taken out of context. The DA are trying to show that the very value in the flag that South Africans hold dear is being eroded by the malaise of the ANC. Wrapping our sports people up in a flag every so often because they have excelled on the sports field is akin to saying that as long as our sporting teams are any good, it doesn’t matter that South Africa is being pillaged by the ANC. Aversion tactics at its best. I don’t agree with the DA doing what they did because surely they would have calculated the fallout but lets be honest here… Trying to sell the country as successful because our sporting teams wrap themselves in the flag is BS. Even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day. When the springboks won the world cup, the country was united and rejoicing and drinking alcohol, what happened the next day? The country woke up to the same shit just a different day, the only difference is that South Africa then has bragging rights. The DA failed to realize the fallout of their stunt and this close to an election that is only going to hurt them.

    • Willem Boshoff says:

      It’s a disgrace that clear-headed people continually have to point out that the DA didn’t burn the flag; it shows the flag burning under an ANC-MK-EFF coalition, whereas the DA intends to restore/save the flag. The DM cartoonist already depicted MK and the EFF burning the Constitution, which is just about the same thing – not a peep. It is obvious what the DA’s intentions were but like screaming toddlers, the media and X-army refuse to see the truth of it. The fallout is revealing in itself – maybe backfiring – but also bringing the irrational, racially-charged hatred of the DA to light.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Shame, another snowflake triggered by an animation

  • A B says:

    The new flag represents systemic racism, corruption, murder rape, crime, theft, oppression. Marxist terrorist rule. Child rape. Let it burn.

  • John Kuhl says:

    Sadly the world is not about sport….. See things in context and what real life is and will continue to be under this regime and coalitions to proliferate this regime.

  • Philemon Solomon says:

    More click bait which can only aid in the actual burning of our country which DA is highlighting. Saving our country is more important than cooking up rubbish about DA for clicks. Shame on you DM.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    You object to the DA “burning” the flag which you specifically state is “burning”. Maybe your objections would stand up to scrutiny if you objected to what the ANC is doing to this country, which is a hell of a lot worse than metaphorically burning something

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      Spot on. Its not about the DA burning a flag, but rather about the ANC burning what the flag represents. South Africa. It should be pretty obvious to almost any reasonably sensible person.

  • Carlito Brigante III says:

    The truth hurts. The ANC has put S.A and the flag on a Bonfire of greed, corruption and violence.

  • Karl le Roux says:

    To me it is extraordinary that the Daily Maverick has published not one, but TWO articles about the “burning of the SA flag” in the DA advert – which I believe most thoughtful South Africans, if they actually watch the advert, would find an fair and appropriate symbol of what has been going on in SA under the ANC (and certainly of what would happen if the ANC went into coalition with the EFF or MK). I deeply love the SA flag and what it symbolises – but found the advert completely inoffensive and quite frankly appropriate about the state of our nation.

    DM – you can to better than this. This is poor quality, tabloid style journalism that does not “Defend the Truth”. The truth is that over the past 15 years ANC misrule has make everyone, especially the poor, even poorer and that we are precipitously close to a fiscal cliff that could turn us into a second Zimbabwe. And quite frankly, the only party that has shown that it can govern competently and honestly over that same period and can turn things around is the DA. Why is the DM not telling that clear and obvious truth, instead of retreating behind a smokescreen of manufactured and self-righteous outrage?!

  • Lyle Ferrett says:

    This article is a desperate attempt to paint the DA in a negative light. The advert is inoffensive; the flag even REGENERATES towards the end of the advert while the narrator talks about an alternative future to the one we will have if the ANC continues to pillage the country.

    That said, have you ever seen a South African being flown at an ANC rally? No. Because the ANC are not patriots, unlike the DA.

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    If the flag is such an important symbol of unity, a way of saying “proudly South African” and if it is ‘sacred’ as our President puts it such that the burning of it is ‘despicable’, then surely it must be insisted upon that only flags manufactured in South Africa should be allowed to be displayed. We should also insist on this for Springbok supporter regalia and political parties should only get their posters and t-shirts from South African manufacturers. Holding up a multimillion-rand consignment of ANC campaign T-shirts from China before the April 2014 elections was one of the factors that fed into the leadership purge of the South African Revenue Service (Sars), according to what amaBhungane was told at the time.

  • Coen Gous says:

    DM has become like News24. Blatantly sidelining with the DA party.

  • ST ST says:

    One would do better to separate the ANC deeds and the SA flag. Most people are mad at the ANC, but not at the flag. Understanding the symbolic meaning of the flag to ALL South Africans of ALL races who fought and died in unity to achieve a largely peaceful transition from apartheid. Desecrating this flag does not equal desecrating the ANC and pals. Not in the minds of many. Clearly.

    Of course, there may be those still mad at the current SA flag for replacing the previous one, and therefore have no allegiance to the current SA flag. There maybe those who are younger who may not understand fully what was done to get here. Or those who have not thought deeply about it. Or those who genuinely agree with the DA tactic. But I expect those groups to be smaller.

    A country’s flag is sacred. Hence it’s a crime to desecrate it in some countries. You would actually expect an enemy of the country to do that. Or anarchists who want to bring the government down.

    The DA messed up. They failed to find a more creative, impactful but inoffensive way to deliver their message. And trust me, people who live in SA know exactly that the country is under threat. If they don’t vote for the DA, it won’t be because they don’t know or disagree that change is needed. It’s a question of who do they trust not burn them for the third time!

    So DA would do better to actually convince the electorate as to why they should be voted in, without insulting them. This shows DA’s lack of reflection and learning about the core and essence of the other very big ‘half’ of SA.

    Question for the eternal SA opposition party is, in all the decades what have you learnt that has kept you in that position, and what have you done or can do about it. DA had a shot…but failed to explore reasons for stagnation. What a shame.

  • Stuart Graham says:

    Surely the intent is to make people upset that we rally around our flag as a nation to show our love for SA, but the criminals who are in power shame the flag and the country and essentially burn our hopes and dreams with their actions. Sometimes it requires a deeper understanding of the action and not the action itself.

  • Renn Moore says:

    Shame. Our country scores poorly when compared to other countries on the “international intelligence index”. Children in grade 4 cannot read with understanding. Reading this article, I see what these people mean. Good gracious, man. “burning” the flag? Really? Speak to those who are destroying the very respect you write about, rather than trying to seem clever about a simple symbolic illustration! I believe most citizens of normal intelligence will see your argument as intellectually lazy!

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Well, for a government that was hell-bent on killing the sporting “springbok” insignia, and which NEVER flies the SA flag at its conventions, this article on the redemptive association of the SA flag with sport rings hollow.

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