South Africa’s National Flag was first used 27-years ago as the country held its first democratic elections, heralding a new era for a country previously divided along racial lines.
Commemorated annually on 27 April, Freedom Day recalls the day when all citizens regardless of colour, culture and creed voted in the first democratic elections.
April resonates in the history of our nation as the month that saw the first democratic elections in 1994 that gave birth to freedom and a constitutional democracy.
The flag, which intrinsically ties in with South Africa’s democracy, originally was intended to only be used in the interim.
In the years preceding the historic elections, Fred Brownell who was the then State Herald of the country, started mulling the idea of what the new flag would look like. This followed the 1990 release of Tata Nelson Mandela – who would then become the country’s first democratically elected President – and the announcement of the unbanning of liberation movements.
It is said that for three-years he sought a theme for the new flag and in February 1994, a technical team was appointed by the then Transitional Executive Council (TEC) with Brownell as the team’s convenor. The team was tasked with “finding” a flag.
In 1994, TEC negotiations mulled the flag design and subsequently the flag was given the green light giving a new identity to the nation.
Fast forward to April 2021, with memories of the 1994 snaking queues to ballot boxes across the country still etched in the minds of many, work is underway to develop a structure honouring democratic South Africa.
“We are engaged in a feasibility study towards the development of the South African Monumental Flag. This will be a huge flag hoisted in a tall structure of more or less 100 metres high. It will be an iconic structure, a monument to democratic South Africa,” says the country’s current State Herald Thembinkosi Mabaso, speaking to SAnews.
Appointed to the post in 2002, Mabaso was given the mandate to transform the Bureau of Heraldry which was established on 1 June 1963.
In the initial stages, the bureau was a branch of the State Archives.
A year before Mabaso took office, the then Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, commissioned a survey on the recognition levels of the country’s national symbols.
The research revealed that national symbols were poorly recognised by South Africans. The research also identified a need to educate the public about national symbols, with particular emphasis on the education sector.
Following a radical popularisation strategy, which was a key recommendation, the status quo has since improved.
“As a result of the efforts by the Bureau of Heraldry team we have been able to significantly improve the recognition and appreciation of our national symbols,” Mabaso tells SAnews.
Heraldic representations have gone through considerable reconfiguration to reflect the diversity in South Africa.
The bureau (which receives applications from government, organisations, schools and private individuals), designs and registers heraldic representations such as coats of arms, badges, flags and seals as well as special names and uniforms).
There are currently three full time artists who design symbols on a daily basis.
It also keeps a public register of all heraldic representations, while also issuing registration certificates of heraldic representations.
The body which has national and international clients, also advises government departments on heraldic matters.
“The bureau also promotes national symbols. This is done through the development of informative publications, the staging of exhibitions, distribution of handheld flags and pamphlets at various National Day events. Furthermore, we install flags in schools so as to advance the national identity and also complement the curriculum on national symbols,” he says.
Mabaso has been privileged to partake in the “conceptualisation, development and promotion of our national identity.”
“I have been exposed to the reality of the power of the national symbols in uniting the nation,” he beams.
With a mandate to transform the heraldry, heraldic representations have gone through considerable reconfiguration to reflect diversity in South Africa.
“In the quest to reconfigure South African Heraldry, the Bureau had to dig deep in history, culture, folklore and other forms of indigenous knowledge systems. Together with my team, we had to search, identify and apply new symbolisms based on our diverse backgrounds. Whilst the structure and design principles are still tied to traditional heraldry, unique symbolic elements are rooted in Africa,” he says.
As a directorate of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, the heraldry has been instrumental in the transformation of South Africa’s national symbols. It has also been involved in conceptualising and developing new sets of National Orders which have traditionally in the past, been handed out on Freedom Day.
The Orders are the highest awards that the country, through the President, bestowed on citizens and eminent foreign nationals who have contributed towards the advancement of democracy and who made a significant impact on improving the lives of South Africans.
National Orders recognise individuals who made their mark in the building of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa, as envisaged in the Constitution.
“The FIFA World Cup that was held in South Africa in 2010 was also a great vehicle to promote the national flag. Since then, the South African flag is amongst the top most recognised flags in the world,” he adds, saying the National Flag in the Every School project has seen more than 25 000 flags installed in schools since 2007.
While there has been improvement in the recognition of national symbols, he points out that not all of us will know that the flag design on the sides of some of the country’s minibus taxis, was designed by the bureau as part of the Flag in Every Taxi Project.
“People are not aware that the Coat of Arms they encounter on their bank notes, identity documents, and even in birth certificates is the product of the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture.”
The bureau which charges for the design and registration of heraldic designs, is also behind the design of the emblem of the South African Police Service and that of the Presidential Protection unit, as well as the Coat of Arms of the Office of the Chief Justice, among others.
Over the years, the institution has embraced technology to advance its design and approval process with its clientele, however its final execution is handmade.
“The certificate that we issue, is considered more than a proof of registration, but also an artwork void of mass production.”
He notes that heraldry is a specialised area of operation.
“It is difficult to recruit people who are already pre-disposed with the exact knowledge and experience. Secondly, there are no national institutions that offer courses in heraldry. This forces the bureau to develop its own training regime. This requires time and resources.”
The national event to commemorate Freedom Day is being held on 27 April in Botshabelo, Free State, and will be addressed by President Cyril Ramaphosa.