Twenty Years Ago Today: A Rainbow Flag Flies

South_AfricaTwenty years ago today, the government of South Africa finally decided what the design of the new national flag was going to be, something that had become imperative since the release of Nelson Mandela and his insistence that the old flag be abandoned if he was going to take part in the democratic process. Flag of South Africa, 1928-1994

The old flag was a compromise, but not one that made any concessions to Africans. It reflected the Dutch and British heritage of the Afrikaaner nation, being composed mainly of the old Dutch flag with a few teensy flaglets in the middle that came from the UK and the former republics on the same territory as South Africa. If you were black, it represented you not at all, and that was something that needed to change.

And so a competition was announced, and the public were invited to send in their designs for a new national flag. 7,000 entries were submitted, of which six were picked to be put before the public and the negotiators working to manage the transition to majority rule.

Nobody liked them.

So it was back to the drawing board. A new solution was fast-tracked: get the expert in. The expert in this case was Frederick Brownell, a retired state herald and vexillologist - someone who designs flags, and understands the symbolism that goes into them. He'd already sketched out an idea on the back of a cigarette packet while in a Zurich restaurant. So he dug that out, messed about with the colours a bit to find something that worked, and presented his design: a "Y" shape that symbolises two cultural traditions and people coming together as one, featuring the colours used widely by black resistance groups (including the ANC) alongside those of the European colonists.

Nobody liked it.


When it was announced, it was immediately derided as the 'Y-Front' design and thought to be a singularly ugly compromise. But it was too late to start the process again before the elections in May, when it absolutely had to be flown across the nation and at embassies worldwide. So it was announced to the world with the proviso that it was only going to be the temporary state flag for the next five years. If it didn't work out - well, they'd come up with another one. The flag went into production, and there were barely enough completed in time for Nelson Mandela to accept the presidency of the new South Africa on May the 10th.

And then something odd happened. People started to get used to the flag and think that it wasn't that bad. The symbology actually works, while still keeping a form that looks like a proper national flag - and one that happens to be completely unique. You can't mistake this for anything other than South Africa. It became the branding for the rainbow nation, recognised across the globe - and when the time came to decide whether or not to ratify it as the permanent national flag, it wasn't even a question. It became part of the South African constitution with hardly any need for debate.

In the end, everybody liked it.

Of course, the success of the flag doesn't mean the path to majority rule was easy - there were violent clashes between the ANC and Inkatha, a terrible fear of Afrikaaners turning to terrorism, Bantustans dissolved in acrimony, grinding poverty and rising crime - and yet somehow they made it.

You can easily add another layer of symbolism to the flag: because just like Frederick Brownell's design, no one expected the new South Africa to work. And yet it does. It's far from perfect - but it's even further from the descent into anarchy that the world was dreading.