Destroying the new and the old: The removal of a mural at the Durban Botanic Gardens depicting South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to Democracy

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The Durban Botanical Gardens was established in 1849 and is the oldest botanical garden in Africa. The Botanic Gardens curates major collections such as cycads, palms and orchids and, in the true tradition of botanic gardens, is several gardens within one.

The Durban Botanic Gardens Trust runs the Botanical Gardens.  The Trust is an independent and discretionary Trust, established in 1993 to support the Botanic Gardens with various maintenance and development projects including projects with a focus on education, biodiversity, heritage, horticulture, research and people, plants and culture.

This week a mural reflecting South Africa’s old and new flags was removed from the Durban Botanical Gardens after the Ethekwini Municipality received complaints that it was offensive and provocative. I have written before about the desirability of banning the old South African flag or not. In my view, a ban will be counterproductive. However, I understand the association of the old flag with Apartheid and I, therefore, personally discourages people from displaying it in public, other than for historical or artistic purposes.

The following newspaper article covered the removal of the mural:

Old SA flag removed from Durban Botanic Gardens

I live in Durban and visits the Botanical Gardens often. It’s a place of tranquillity and reflection, and it often hosts music concerts and other events. Many many people have therefore since it had been put up twenty years ago, walked past the mural at the entrance to the Gardens witnessing its magical transition from the old flag to the beautiful new South African flag. A powerful symbol of transition from the old to the new and symbolising change and renewal. Walking from the other side past the mural and towards the exit of the Botanic Gardens, only the new South African flag is visible unless one looked consciously back over your shoulder to then view the old South African flag. The artist producing the mural created this effect to symbolise the need to look forward rather than backward to a South Africa that belongs to all, Black and White.

Sadly because of a few complaints and the random act by an administrative functionary, Mr. Thembokosi Ngcobo who is the Head: Parks, Recreation and Culture at the Ethewkini Municipality, this beautiful mural is now lost forever depriving patrons and visitors to the Botanic Gardens of its powerful message and symbolism. He instructed that the mural be removed, and this was done in a matter of a day. On Twitter, he describes himself as a seasoned public administrator and political activist who tweeted the following after the mural was removed.

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At the time of the complaints from a few people on Twitter about the mural, the Durban Botanical Gardens tweeted as follows about the history and background to the mural on display, which reveals that the mural was commissioned by the Ethekwini Municipality itself and one of its Public Museums, the KwaMuhle Museum. Mr. Ngcobo therefore not only destroyed something commissioned by his employer namely the Ethekwini Municipality but he did so without obtaining permission from the Municipal Council to do so!

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The random act of Mr. Ngobo raises many serious questions that require answers from him and the Ethekwini Municipality. These are the following:

  • How can an appointed municipal official usurp the power to take what I suspect is in effect an illegal decision, without due process and consultation and that without anybody even batting an eyelid?
  • What evidence does Mr. Ncogo, have to say that municipal protocol was not followed when the mural was put up 20 years ago, especially seeing that the Tweet from the Botanical Gardens indicate that the Ethewkini Municipality itself commissioned it?
  • Were the Trust of the Botanical Gardens consulted on the matter? Looks like not because the IOL article linked above quotes an anonymous employee who says they received an instruction from the Municipality to remove it.
  • What about the patrons of the Botanical Gardens? Were they consulted or don’t they have a say in the matter?
  • What about the person who created the mural? Was he/she consulted and what about the irreparable damage done to his/her intellectual and artistic property?
  • Was the matter submitted to the Ethekwini Metro Council for a decision? Clearly not given the timeline involved.

This act is a clear example of abuse of power by an official who I suspect did not have the necessary authority or delegation to do so. It speaks to how most senior officials at municipalities these days are beholden to the political ideology of the ruling political party, rather than serving impartially all the citizens at large and without fear or favour.

My municipal career started back in the Apartheid days and functionaries of those times are often unfairly accused of having been dictatorial or not following due process. I worked for some 18 years at municipalities in a senior management capacity, and remember, for example, the hoops the Margate Borough and I as its Corporate Service Manager had to jump through to obtain the necessary permission to demolish the old Margate town hall to make space for much needed public parking. It took months of applications to bodies like the Heritage Council and consultation with the public. No usurping of power to do what we thought was in the public interest. We followed the due process in the interest of transparency and proper governance.

Given the wide definition of property in our Constitution, this act is but one example of how as citizens we can be robbed of it without compensation if the Constitution is amended as the African National Congress is planning to do. Let this serve as a warning to us all.

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Banning the Old SA Flag – Yes or No?

Other than the debate about the land issue no other issue elicits as much responses in our public discourse as the debate as to whether the old South African flag should be banned. The matter was brought to a head when the Nelson Mandela Foundation recently asked the Equality Court to declare “gratuitous and unwarranted” displays of the old South African flag as hate speech. In its application the Foundation submitted that displaying the old apartheid-era flag constituted hate speech, unfair discrimination and harassment based on race.

https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/equality-court-asked-to-declare-gratuitous-displays-of-old-sa-flag-as-hate-speech-20180228

AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel in response to the Foundations application said that they did not agree with the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s move to ban the old South African flag. He remarked that as Afriforum they don’t use the old South African flag at any of their events but felt that banning the flag would be a setback for freedom of speech and democracy, “if you start banning things, what is next?” he asked.

https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/afriforum-against-mandela-foundations-attempt-to-ban-gratuitous-displays-of-apartheid-flag-20180301

In another response the activist Johan Pienaar said that he wanted people to start talking about the old South African flag. He laid down the old Oranje, Blanje, Blou (orange, white, blue) with names of some of the most prominent apartheid architects and enablers written on it, inviting attendees of the US Woordfees in Stellenbosch to walk on it.

https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/we-need-to-have-a-discussion-about-the-old-flag-20180307

The flag was however stolen when somebody handed him a note that the flag is now expropriated without compensation.

https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/this-flag-is-now-expropriated-without-compensation-attempt-made-to-steal-old-sa-flag-used-in-protest-20180308

The anti-racism project team at The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation also weighed in on the subject by arguing that the old flag keeps us rooted in our ugly past.

https://www.news24.com/Columnists/GuestColumn/oranje-blanje-blou-keeps-us-anchored-in-the-ugly-past-20180316

I don’t want in this post to necessarily go into the merits of the arguments set out by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in support of their views other than to say I find their gratuitous use of the words “Black Majority Country” offensive as if South Africa do not belong to all who live in it, Black and White. If the standards of how we as South Africans is to be defined going forward are simply going to be by what the majority wants, then I’m afraid we are on the slippery road to a majority dictatorship (to illustrate this further its generally accepted that the majority of people in South Africa wants the death penalty to be bought back but this would clearly be unconstitutional).

What then is my view on the possible banning of the old South African flag. Whilst displaying the apartheid flag anywhere in public is currently not illegal in South Africa, I feel strongly that its display in public spaces is a clear a sign of disrespect and lack of consideration for the feelings of Black people for whom this flag remains a strong reminder of a painful past. I won’t therefore ever personally display the old South African flag or wear any clothing with it because I appreciate that the flag has a political connotation that many of my fellow South African’s find offensive.

Having said that I’m for several reasons also totally against banning the old flag including its display by those that still choose to do so. In the first place banning it will just drive its display underground by those that still see it as a symbol of White supremacy. It’s banning will create an unnecessary rallying call for those that want to try and regain the power they lost.

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Secondly, why would we in a democratic South Africa want to be like the Apartheid government who banned all those things they did not like, found offensive or a danger to their ideology like books, political parties, undesirable people and yes also flags like that of the ANC or SACP.

Talking about the SACP flag brings to me to my third reason for not wanting to ban the old flag – if its banned because of its political connection to Apartheid and the trauma and humiliation suffered by Black people then so must the communist flag, which is part of the SAPC’s heritage, also be banned as the said flag is tied to untold trauma suffered by millions of people worldwide under successive oppressive communist regimes.

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The fourth reason is that the flag, despite its political connection, is still part of our history and that its banning will not remove this fact. Our history books will be incomplete without the old flag being displayed therein serving as a reminder to us all, painful as it is, of our troubled past. Just as the British Union Jack as part the old South African flag reminded Afrikaners of the trauma and humiliation suffered under the British imperialist before, during and after the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

The fifth reason is that if the old flag is banned, will eventually also lead to our current beautiful national flag being questioned at some time, by populist like Julius Malema as its represents from a heraldic point of view a synthesis of some of our previous flags including, yes also the old SA flag. It contains the two “Colonial era” flags – The national flag of the Netherlands (Dutch flag) – Red, White, Blue and the British Union flag – Blue, White, Red. Then the two former Boer Republic flags – the South African Republic (Transvaal) “Vier Kleur” – Green, Red, White and Blue and the Orange Free State Republic Flag (using the Dutch insert flag and the white) and then finally the African National Congress (ANC) Flag – Black, Green and Gold (which colours are also present in the Inkatha Freedom Party and Pan African Congress flags).

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For further information on the history and symbolism of all South Africa’s national flags see the following excellent article on “The inconvenient and unknown history of South Africa’s national flags” written by Peter Dickens:

https://samilhistory.com/2017/03/15/the-inconvenient-and-unknown-history-of-south-africas-national-flags/

In the article the author has the following to say about the symbolism embedded in our new flag and what its means for the detractors of both the new SA flag and the old SA flag:

“The V symbolises inclusion and unification. In essence it is another flag of “Union” (unity) only this time acknowledging the county’s Black population and its historical heritage.  Symbols considered in the design of the “new” flag included Catholic and Anglican Priest’s Classic Chasubles, the universal symbol of Peace and the married Zulu female traditional head-dress.

There are some claims that the “New” South African flag is just a “design” with no meaning or symbolism – but that’s not the opinion of the man who designed it – Frederick Gordon Brownell.  Also, I find that whenever that when this argument is used it’s usually to deny meaning to the new South Africa flag and to degrade the country, describing it as “jockey Y front underpants,” when in fact the truth is the opposite and the flag is stuffed full of meaning and symbolism.

In fact, the “New” South African flag reflects all the old flags of South Africa, these exist right there for all to see, plain as day to the trained eye (and even the untrained eye) – symbolically placed in the new flag – and that’s an inconvenient truth to both the “new” flag’s detractors and the detractors of the “old” OBB (old SA flag).”

My sixth and last reason and for me personally the most important reason (and which I will therefore take time to explain as best as I can) is that, although I will never display the old flag for the reasons as stated above, it still has great sentimental value for me and many White South Africans, not because it reminds me (and hopefully the majority of my fellow White South Africans) of White supremacy, but because it’s the only flag under which we grew up.

For many many South Africans life as we know it did not start in 1994 and we have memories, some of it good and some not so good, from long before 1994. These memories include growing up in the old South Africa and being patriotic countrymen proud of our heritage and our country with all its beauty, but yes also with all its warts including the failed and tragic attempt at social engineering called Apartheid. For me and many other White South Africans the old flag was a symbol of a country that we loved and in which we were growing up. A country that despite all that was bad, was still the most advanced economy and developed country in Africa by far with many technological advances that was the envy of the rest of the world, a country that denied communism as it existed then to take a foothold, communism which at that time not only denied millions of people the right to vote in all communist countries, but which as I stated above, also killed millions upon millions of people in all parts of the world.

In summary therefore I will never display the old flag and try and convince those that still do so that it’s definitely not the right thing to do, but even if the old flag is eventually banned it won’t deny me the right to feel sentimental about the old flag just as I will never allow anybody to deny my love and admiration for our beautiful new South Africa national flag and for our changed country which now rightfully embrace all its people as first class citizens.

Footnotes:

  1. Whilst I appreciate that the old SA flag is offensive to Black South African’s as it reminds them of the discrimination they suffered under Apartheid, its important to note that the old SA flag was born out of the ideals of 1910 Union led by Jan Smuts and Louis Botha and not under the Apartheid ideals of 1948 of DF Malan and HF Verwoerd.
  2. When the National Party came into power in 1948 they wanted the old SA flag changed as they detested what they called the “Bloed Vlek” (Blood Stain) which was the British Union Flag inserted in the flag. This was a National party pet hate as it reminded many Afrikaner nationalists of British decimation of Boer families and farms during the Boer war. However broader public pressure at the time prevented the initial National Party proposals for a flag change from been passed by the SA Parliament and the idea was eventually shelved (see the article of Peter Dickens for more on the actual history of the old SA flag).
  3. The fact that the old SA flag was not the creation of the Apartheid idealists but those that came before them answers the question of many in support of banning the old flag namely why we should it not be banned it if the Nazi flag was banned as a symbol of hate in post war Germany. Fact is that the Nazi flag was designed and introduced by the Nazi party specifically as the national symbol of their murderous National Socialist regime whereas the old flag was as set out in 1 and 2 above not the creation of the Apartheid regime.
  4. Those in favour of banning the old flag often refers to the hurt they feel if they see it displayed in public. In response I have asked how regularly they in fact are exposed to its public display as I’m personally only aware of a few idiots and by far a minority of participants that did so during last year’s #BlackMonday protests (and even then the argument that it was displayed gratuitously at the event was wholesomely discredited when it emerged that certain unscrupulous journalists used previous pictures of the old flag on display saying it was from the #Black Monday event) . I drive around the country a lot given my work commitments and I’m yet to see or view the old flag being displayed openly in public view other than at the Castle in Cape Town.