The South African flag was an interim design with a projected lifespan of five years after the first free elections. That it is still around, bristles with irony... Picture: Frank Augstein/AP
The South African flag was an interim design with a projected lifespan of five years after the first free elections. That it is still around, bristles with irony... Picture: Frank Augstein/AP

South African flag and a few other of life's little ironies

By Alex Tabisher Time of article published Jun 30, 2020

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By definition, an irony is the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning. For example, if I complain to someone that I had to work the entire weekend, and the reply was, “How nice!”, that would be an irony.

That example might be obscure until we see the unintended insensitivity embedded in it. We do not know the full implications of the complaint, so the response is almost silly.

It helps if we see that irony is often an agency for wit, or ridicule or plain insensitivity.

If a fire station burnt down, that would be ironic. If it was an act of arson from a fireman disgruntled with his salary, that would really double the irony. The protest action of torching trains or buses as a protest against poor public transport would be an irony. As is a traffic cop who is jailed because of unpaid traffic fines.

My exemplars are called situational irony. It can cause one to gulp or to laugh; or shake one’s head in confusion at the parameters of stupidity.

One could laugh at a person who slips on a banana peel and the next minute fall into an open drain and break a leg in an attempt to avoid that disaster.

But before we descend into the Cartesian reduction ad absurdum, let us take a further look at irony in a more austere light.

The South African flag was an interim design with a projected lifespan of five years after the first free elections.

That it is still around, bristles with irony, especially in the light of the following revelations from my addled brain.

With barely seven days before the new flag was to be flown in public for the first time, the State Herald of South Africa, Fred Brownell, was tasked to come up with a design. Who do you think set the deadline? Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer.

A black man and an Afrikaner. No Englishmen? Coloureds? Muslims? Jews? Anybody? Now there is a classic irony. And the story develops.

I am of the opinion that the design is strongly influenced by a modernist Dutch painter called Piet Mondrian. I am merely applying my mind here, but I haven’t heard Mr Brownell acknowledge Mondrian’s aesthetic conviction that primary colours on flat geometric planes would transcend divisions in culture and engender a new language of commonality.

By my skewered logic, the national flag bristles with ironies, because its very purpose was to dislodge the assumed superior inherited advantages of the previous regime. Based on a Dutch design?

And here are a few more of life’s ironies.

White babies are still entrusted to the hands of black nannies. And black hens lay white eggs. And a black cow provides white milk. And thousands of BEEE workers in the food industry serve the haves and go home either hungry or eating the leftover scraps.

And the ultimate irony? Look around you and see who has benefited the most from the minute the voting booths closed in 1994.

* Literally Yours is a weekly column from Cape Argus reader Alex Tabisher. He can be contacted on email by [email protected]

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus

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