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Tyler McBrien is an associate editor for education at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
On August 21, South Africa’s Equality Court ruled that gratuitous displays of the Apartheid-era flag counted as hate speech and discrimination. Confronting history head on, Judge Phineas Mojapelo wrote in his ruling that the flag represents “a vivid symbol of white supremacy and black disenfranchisement and suppression,” and flying it, “besides being racist and discriminatory, demonstrates a clear intention to be hurtful.”
The court ruled in favor of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, who argued that the Old Flag, as some call it, has long become a global symbol of “white supremacy, exclusion, and hatred.” Ultimately, the ruling is not an outright ban, but rather expressly prohibits “gratuitous” displays. This interpretation leaves room for the use of the flag for artistic, academic, or journalistic purposes, similar to the German law banning Nazi and other hate symbols outside the context of "art or science, research or teaching.”
Many in the country welcomed the Equality Court ruling, and members of opposition political party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) encouraged the government not to stop at the flag. EFF leader Julius Malema has urged the government to go even further in its banishment of apartheid-era symbols and to remove the Afrikaans portion, known as Die Stem, from South Africa’s national anthem.
But not everyone was happy. On the opposing side, self-described Afrikaner rights group AfriForum maintained that the flag restrictions curtail free speech, even though the group applauded a similar ruling in 2011, when the court deemed the anti-apartheid struggle song “Shoot the Boer” as hate speech (the group claimed that “boer” in this case referred to white farmers, and defenders of the song asserted that “boer” represented the system of apartheid as a whole). Nonetheless, AfriForum plans to contest the judgment. In fact, just hours after the ruling, AfriForum’s deputy chief Ernst Roets tweeted an image of the now-banned apartheid flag with the question, “Did I just commit hate speech?” In response, the Nelson Mandela Foundation promised to file an urgent request to hold Roets in contempt of court.
The recent lawsuit and subsequent fallout represent just one episode in the country’s ongoing reckoning with its apartheid past, a process that has picked up steam over the past few years. Amidst the greater context of decolonization, a social movement called Rhodes Must Fall erupted at the University of Cape Town in 2015 over a statue commemorating Cecil Rhodes, whom many see as a symbol of white supremacy. More recently, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has made land reform a priority, to address inequality in land ownership, which many see as the economic legacy of apartheid.
These developments offer a stark reminder that even South Africa, a model of reconciliation to many, remains divided and deeply unequal. Twenty-five years of political freedom has not translated into economic freedom for most in the country, which the World Bank considers the most unequal in the world. Though the flag ruling represented a powerful symbolic victory over the apartheid past, material and economic victories are proving much more elusive in a country where the white minority owns almost three quarters of all farmland. For South Africa, William Faulkner’s words ring true. The apartheid past is never dead, it’s not even past.