Johannesburg - In today’s climate of racial polarisation and incessant demands to rectify past injustices, the redesign of the South African parliamentary mace offers a glimpse at how complicated social issues can be resolved through discussion and careful planning.
In 2003, in a small room inside the Parliamentary buildings in Cape Town, then-Speaker of Parliament Frene Ginwala and Deputy Speaker Baleka Mbete were in deep conversation with designer Grant Schreiber about the future of a South African symbol that had been part of parliamentary proceedings since 1910.
It had been nine years since the first democratic elections and other more pressing issues had needed attention first.
But now, it was the turn of the mace - an ornamental, club-shaped rod carried before the Speaker to indicate Parliament is in session.
There was a soft knock on the door and Serjeant-at-Arms Godfrey Cleinwerck entered the room, carrying an 18ct gold, metre-long mace with white gloves.
He’d fetched it from the safe and was presenting it for inspection to the three people tasked with redesigning the imagery.
While Cleinwerck turned the mace to view the wraparound engravings of springbok, a circle of ox-wagons, a ground plan of the Castle of Good Hope and Jan van Riebeeck’s flagship, the Dromedaris, Mbete’s face turned sour.
Schreiber recalls: “She turned to me and exclaimed: This does not represent my people.” To which I retorted: Mine neither!”
The mace was one of the first national symbols to fall, long before the statue of Rhodes.
Yet, unlike the statue, this 104-year-old gold symbol was not confined to a dusty archive, but reinvented as a work of art that aimed to represent the diversity of the South African society.
The parliamentary mace was examined for more than a year by designers, goldsmiths, heraldry experts and politicians to ensure the old symbolism went, but its ceremonial meaning stayed.
Neeran Naidoo, an adviser to Ginwala, had already conceived of the idea to produce an African version of this very European symbol.
The mace had been used as a ceremonial symbol in the English House of Commons since the 16th century, modelled on the preferred weapon for close combat by knights in battle.
The new mace was to retain its club-like appearance, but instead of being covered in 18ct gold, it was to explode in a vibrant celebration of African imagery.
Springbok skin is fixed in place over the top of the gold drum with jasper, agate, green quartz, yellow jasper, tiger’s eye and copper.
Platinum rings, like those worn by Ndebele women, are found at intervals along the shaft.
Indigenous hardwoods and even graphite (coal) have been used.
“Because the artwork had to wrap around the stylised drum at the top of the mace, a flat template was created,” says Schreiber.
He continues: “It was shaped like a curved rectangle, within which the artwork had to fit. Once folded, it created the drum shape. The flat design was then engraved, in relief, on to a solid gold drum. While the engraving was relatively quick, it took over a year to decide on the imagery. No one can say we rushed into changing the old for the sake of the new.”
The result was a dramatic, almost irreverent, break from the past.
A coats of arms representing the old Transvaal republic was replaced with a domestic worker washing the floor on her knees, slogans of “Eendrag Maak Mag” were replaced with a footballer, rearing kudus made way for a woman with a child strapped to her back ploughing a field.
Ordinary people had suddenly become the new heroes.
“At every meeting Ginwala, Mbete and myself would review my new drawings. There would be nods of approval at first, then one of us would exclaim: We’ve forgotten to include a musician!” There were times when I despaired on how I would fit the entire spectrum of South African society into a 50cm-wide drawing,” recalls Schreiber.
The conversation around the symbolism would stray into wider topics. Scriber recalls a planning session where Ginwala began lecturing about the origins of public holidays, that according to her, had come from the ruling classes wanting a day off, rather than any relief for the working masses.
“It occurred to me for the first time that all the new legislation, symbols and social engineering I saw around me had its origins in someone as passionate as Ginwala with an agenda for change,” says Schreiber.
Near the end of the process, the artisan tasked with engraving the design on to the gold drum arrived at Schreiber’s Greenpoint office for a meeting.
He pulled the solid gold drum from a dirty Pick n Pay bag.
“I was horrified,” says Schreiber.
“I said: You’ve just walked across town carrying a soon-to-be national symbol worth hundreds of thousands of rand in a plastic bag?”
He grinned and replied: “No one gave me a second glance. Who would guess I had anything of value inside something so inconspicuous?”
The finished mace now has pride of place inside the parliamentary chamber and can boast the title of most original heraldic symbol of any nation.
In a break from the Westminster tradition of the mace lying horizontally, the new is upright on a customised stand, ready for action.
Regardless of your political affiliations or views on Parliament, one thing is certain - our Parliament houses the world’s most expensive knobkierie.