Ernst Roets, Head of Policy and Action at AfriForum. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency(ANA)

Former President Nelson Mandela famously said that to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. Mandela also said that a person who wishes to take away the freedom of others is a prisoner of hatred.

The banning of the so-called “gratuitous display” of the old South African flag has been applauded by journalists and political commentators who should know better.

AfriForum’s stance for civil liberties has also been grossly misrepresented by many of the same people. Despite AfriForum having stated repeatedly that AfriForum does not display the flag, AfriForum has inaccurately been described as a supporter of the flag or what it represents.

One of the main reasons why the policies of the previous white minority government are accepted as being atrocious is that political expression that was regarded by the ruling elite as unacceptable was banned by law for all practical purposes. It is therefore quite ironic that in an attempt to deal with the past, the current ruling elite resort to the same apartheid-style tactics of banning and censorship. 

To claim that the flag hasn’t really been banned, given that the display of the flag for journalistic, academic and artistic freedom is still allowed, is disingenuous. Arguing along these lines would be equal to arguing that the ANC was never banned, because you could still refer to them for journalistic, academic or artistic reasons on condition that you toe the ideological line of the government with regard to the message that you bring across.

What is even more ironic (or perhaps tragic) is that the quest for apartheid-style censorship and banning of expression is spearheaded by none other than the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

So why is AfriForum opposed to this?

In preparation for the court case, AfriForum wrote to the Nelson Mandela Foundation to propose a way forward for an amicable outcome as opposed to one that it divisive.

We re-emphasised our position that we acknowledge that the flag has the capacity to cause offence and emotional distress, that AfriForum has no particular love for the flag or what it represents and that, in the exceptionally rare instance that if anyone displays it at an AfriForum event, we ask them to put it away. We stressed that an issue as politically loaded as this could best be resolved through dialogue and that a court order in this regard would jeopardise intercommunal relations. A process of dialogue and mediation was proposed in order to reach a mutual agreement on the
way forward.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s lawyers responded with a short e-mail, stating that their client has instructed them to reject AfriForum’s request.
The truth of the matter is that the display of the flag was not a problem of disproportionate magnitude. The number of Afrikaners who regard the flag as a symbol of their identity and who associate with that with which the flag is associated is negligible. People have moved on. Only on a rare occasion would you see one and usually that person wouldn’t get significant attention.

What the Nelson Mandela Foundation did, however, was firstly to propagate the lie that there is widespread use of the flag, secondly to associate the flag with Afrikanerdom, thirdly to compare Afrikaners to Nazis (through claiming that the flag has to be banned just like the Swastika) and in the fourth place to reject dialogue aimed at a mutually acceptable conclusion. 

After the judgement, Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, claimed on the steps of the court building that the police would not be used to enforce this ban – just days before he filed criminal charges against me. Also, after the judgement, the Nelson Mandela Foundation
dishonestly claimed that they have been in favour of dialogue all along, despite their written statement to the opposite effect. 

The judgment goes as far as claiming that even having a flag in your bedroom amounts to hate speech. What is hailed as a victory by the Nelson Mandela Foundation is in fact a deafening blow to civil liberty.

The problem with this, as we have warned before the judgement, and as we have seen after the judgement, is that the ruling has hardened the hearts of white and black people. As a result, racial friction has worsened. This is because it is not the task of government to regulate social issues and because the Nelson Mandela Foundation is using the courts to fight its culture war.

Now, the landscape has changed. For many the flag now represents the fight against apartheid-style censorship and for civil liberties in South Africa.

This attempt to regulate speech is unpatriotic to the democratic project and morally treasonable to justice and Nelson Mandela’s struggle for civil liberties for all.

Banning in the name of freedom is no different than drinking in the name of sobriety.

* Ernst Roets is Head of Policy and Action at AfriForum.

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