EDITOR-AT-LARGE: What’s in a Flag?


The airports of the world and the events of eight years ago give Maps Maponyane pause for thought


I’ve been through so many airports over the years that it’s like wallpaper. They all blur into one and the details disappear. But there is one thing that always catches my eye: national flags.

They’ve long fascinated me, and although I wouldn’t quite call myself a vexillologist (I also had to practise that tongue-twister a few times, but it refers to a person who studies the history and usage of flags), I am genuinely interested in what national flags mean to people, and why they matter. It is less a historical dive into vexillology and more a brief investigation into patriotism, and the symbolism behind that.

Take the South African flag. There was a colourful time here back in 2010 when you’d see the proud and enthusiastic parading of the national flag everywhere. If you were in the country at the time, you will know exactly what I’m talking about – because even you made sure to be a part of it. From being carried and waved wherever appropriate, to dressing up vehicle, homes and even people, our colourful flag adorned the nation. It was, of course, around the time that we hosted the FIFA World Cup.

Given the chance to show the world what our continent and country are truly made of, we fully embraced the event, and the colours of black, white (yes, I know those are not technically colours), red, green, gold and blue became our rainbow. The pure joy and excitement of taking on the responsibility as the first African hosts of the soccer showpiece were intoxicating, and served as a powerful snapshot of what the flag always aimed to represent (and I’ll quote the South African Vexillological Association here): convergence and unification.

It’s all changed a little since then, though, hasn’t it? Aside from attending a big stadium crammed with supporters at an international sporting event, these days you would have to dig quite deep to find the same level of national pride. It’s as if we packed all our national vexilloid paraphernalia away, relegating it to a moment in history and closing a chapter that is now just a distant memory.

There is no doubt that we all want a sense of belonging, and being proudly blanketed in one’s national flag reinforces that. And of course, as much as national flags can act as unifying symbols, they can also be divisive. Much depends on how the national politics are playing out – not everyone will support the current version of what the nation’s ideals are or ought to be.

In the end, we all have our own understanding of and relationship with our nation’s flag. Personally, I love it. I love its colour and design, and all that it’s supposed to represent. It’s because I truly love my country and her people too: I was born into a time of hope in South Africa, the hope that real convergence and unification are possible. Call me an optimist, but we’re still a young democracy trying to figure things out. Either way, I reckon our flag deserves more time out in the sun.

Just one thing though, if you wouldn’t mind indulging my OCD for a moment: if you’re proudly waving our beautiful flag, please remember red is always on top and blue at the bottom, with the head of the “Y” pointing left!



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