Don’t Make the Old Flag a Martyr for Freedom

There’s a pervasive and absurd notion floating around the world nowadays that if something offends us, we must in some way venture to ban or censor it. That we must argue with it, ignore it, or ridicule it no longer occurs to us; instead, we...

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There’s a pervasive and absurd notion floating around the world nowadays that if something offends us, we must in some way venture to ban or censor it. That we must argue with it, ignore it, or ridicule it no longer occurs to us; instead, we want to use violence to ensure we don’t see or hear it.

The Apartheid government, certainly, was one of the enablers of this mentality. It banned ‘obscenities’ like pornography and gambling, and conduct which ostensibly offended public morality, like interracial marriages or press coverage against the Apartheid system. The Australian government today bans video games it deems grotesque, often hiding behind the now-dead horse fallacy that video games cause violence among children.

As South Africans, we should be pretty proud of our post-Apartheid government, for our level of freedom of expression is literally unrivaled throughout the continent. Even places like Germany has less freedom of expression than South Africa. Distressingly, Zimbabwe recently arrested an American for calling President Sir Robert, the Lord Salisbury, a “sick old man”. The former regime in Zimbabwe was largely just as censorious.

The South African government has slipped up in some respects, however, not least of which are its threats to ban Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keepers. The recent Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, on which Rational Standard contributors have produced a wealth of analysis and critique, stands to ban virtually all expression of any consequence. Even when discussing the weather must one be mindful of one’s words, if this bill is passed. Other legislative interventions like the Equality Act also make certain kinds of bigoted speech sanctionable, but usually only with hefty fines. These laws should be opposed, but on the whole, South Africa has done pretty well.

The latest clarion call is for the old South African flag to be banned. Some qualify this demand, saying that it is inappropriate for the flag to be displayed in so-called ‘public’ spaces, but that it can be displayed privately. Others call for a total ban. I responded earlier to Professor Pierre de Vos who thinks it is quite improper for people to assert their right to do as they please on their property.

What is and what is not a ‘public’ space, of course, nobody knows. Does it refer to public property, i.e. that which is possessed by government? Does it refer to spaces where, hypothetically, two strangers might run into each other in the ordinary course of events? Does it refer to specially-designated zones? What makes a house ‘private’, but a business not? Does my home stop being private if I ordinarily invite strangers in for coffee? What if I start charging a fee for the coffee? Does my house become public? Will I feel the wrath of public accommodations jurisprudence?

The absurd potential consequences of this indeterminacy were almost manifested with government’s draconian liquor regulations, which now appear to have been shelved.

Those regulations banned the sale of liquor within 500 meters of a list of ‘places’. Among these were ‘transport facilities’. This term was not defined in the regulation, but common sense would dictate that everything from roads and sidewalks to bus stops and train stations were transport facilities. Where, then, in South Africa would one be able to sell liquor? The answer was nowhere, save perhaps for a remote patch of dirt in the Karoo.

As I wrote in my response to De Vos, those who proudly display the old South African flag deserve criticism. But as rights-bearing individuals, they are entitled to be free from violence. Those of us who dislike or are otherwise apathetic toward the flag have no natural right to use the force of the State against them to ensure we are not offended. And even if South Africa law allows us to do this, it should not, and we should not use it.

I continued:

“Rights are not relative. Bigots, like decent people, have rights, and enjoy all the entitlements of those rights. Rights cannot be revoked simply because one uses them in a displeasing way. The very nature of freedom is that individuals are allowed to do things which a majority of others do not agree with.

The concept of freedom would be meaningless if it meant one can only do popular things. Instead, rights exist specifically to protect people doing those things which the political class or the majority in society do not approve of.”

Libertarians generally do not have the luxury of choosing our fights. For instance, it is not we who chose to ban marijuana or sex work. Moral busybodies did that, and are resisted and, after we lost, continue to agitate against those bans. We would much rather concern ourselves with those things that comprehend a good life; fun, work, responsibility, community, family, etc. Instead, we are forced to take up issues – often uncomfortable ones – because a significant segment of society is always looking to betray their one key obligation in a civilized world: Do not violate the liberty of other individuals. It is not because we want to smoke weed or patronize prostitutes that we stand up for individual liberty, but because we find it morally detestable that violence is used as an apparent ‘solution’ to these ostensible social ills.

In the case of the flag, most South African libertarians are likely either opposed to it because it represents a period of our history where individual rights were not constitutionally protected and where a government branch – Parliament – was sovereign, or apathetic toward it, because at the end of the day it is simply a piece of cloth meaning different things to different people. Most of us do not want to talk about the old flag. But we seem to be entering a period where it will become very relevant for libertarians to talk about, and fiercely defend, the rights of those who choose to fly and associate themselves with the flag.

To be clear: If the old South African flag is banned, whether it is limited to ‘public’ spaces or not, it will – it must – become a rallying post for everyone, of whatever race, who is concerned with freedom of expression and association. I have no particular affinity for the flag, but if it is banned or censored, I would have no choice but to throw myself in its corner.

It will not be because I now associate myself with the movement for an Afrikaner homeland or with Apartheid nostalgia, but because I know it is a slippery slope. First the flag, then Die Stem, then Afrikaans will be struck from the national anthem in total, then English, then Afrikaans will stop being a language of instruction at schools, then Zulu, until only English (and Mandarin) remains, then this will also become mandatory for private schools, then private schools will be indistinguishable from public schools and suffer regulatory banning, then Afrikaans television and radio will be forced to ‘transform’, etc. This is how the creep of statism works in the presence of a weak constitution.

Inevitably, if calls for banning the old flag are answered, it will no longer be a cloth not worth our time, but it will become a martyr for freedom. Few people will understand why this is and will, predictably, label everyone who stands only for the right of individuals and communities to associate with whatever and whoever they want, as racists.

Let’s avoid this tedious exercise by nipping the whole narrative in the bud. Let those who so choose fly their cloths. Rather engage them, ridicule them, insult them, or ostracize them. If you use violence against them, either directly or indirectly through the State, you are not winning or putting yourself on the ‘right side of history’. Instead, you are making them martyrs and using the exact same thinking the Apartheid government you claim to oppose used.

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  1. Tim Bester Reply

    The cross, hammer and sickle, the swastika, the star of david, the star and crescent are all excellent examples of symbols that evoke negative (for some) and positive (for some) emotion. Banning these would be beyond absurd!

  2. Jon Low Reply

    SA armed forces fought against the Nazis under that old flag before the apartheid government even came into power.

  3. Harald Sitta Reply

    Very good! From a legal point of view the “old” flag is just the flag of the Union of SA, then the RSA from the twenties until 1994. A flag stands normally – Soviet flag and Swastika excluded – for a state not an ideology . Also the ‘new’ flag which i find aesthetically much better stands for the state but NOT for a government or a party. If I as a permanent residence respect both old and new flag it a respect to ZA and not, repeat not any kind of party or party politics. s

  4. Gillian Benade Reply


  5. Mohammed Abdul Reply

    Nonsense. Ban and burn the damn thing. There is no need to debate the matter.

    1. Piet Vorster Reply

      “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

  6. Steven van Staden Reply

    A flag might represent different things to different people. Perhaps for a South African White of a certain age it might represent a right to a job for which he or she as a diligent worker is qualified, competent and experienced. For a Black person it might represent what used to be called Job Reservation which of course was a feature of apartheid. If a flag is to be banned because it is seen to represent only the offensive aspects of the rule with which it is associated, then by the same token calls could be made (which of course would fall on deaf ears) for the banning of the present flag which represents, for example, job reservation, corruption, maladministration and a myriad other wrongs of a different colour.

    I objected to a Daily Maverick article in which the old flag, recently displayed by a handful of farmers protesting about farm murders, was described as “the apartheid flag.” Perhaps to those farmers it represents, not the wrongs of apartheid, but a time of safely for them which no longer prevails under the new flag which is seen to represent a widespread collapse of law and order amounting to state-sanctioned murder of farmers. For reasons of their own, citizens should have the right to burn the nation’s flag if they so wish. As for the government banning it, Martin has taken care of all that need be said.

  7. Renier Gouws Reply

    Where can I get one?

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