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The paradox of SA’s ‘rainbow flag’ exposes the complacency of post-1994 black leaders

Published May 22, 2022

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Thousands of people bearing the new South African flag gather in front of Parliament during a Zuma Must Fall/Save SA protest. Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA

Johannesburg - Last week the people of this country, Azania, were again swept into a whirlpool of confusion and outrage over yet another flag. While previously the controversy was sparked by the apartheid flag, this time around it was the nation’s “rainbow flag”.

If we did not have so many problems as a country – including poverty, captured and corrupt leadership, racial inequality, national disasters and so forth – I would say this circus was a reflection of this “funny” rainbow government of the ANC. The indiscretions have reached an abysmal level.

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Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa has announced and doggedly defended plans by his department (actually the ANC government) to construct a massive monumental flag to boost “social cohesion”. This project will cost a whopping R22 million.

He apparently justified this plan by saying its long-term value lay in the fact that the elephantine flag would, and I paraphrase, offer 24-hour education on “social cohesion”, since the flag would be seen day and night.

“The education mustn’t stop,” he had quite ludicrously impressed upon the nation. Of course, this was before his boss, President Cyril Ramaphosa, had capitulated to the angry reaction of the people, which led to Mthethwa putting the project under “review” on Thursday.

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The good thing emanating from this misjudgement is a confirmation of how things have degenerated in this country, under the incumbent government leadership. Given the tribulations of black people in this “rainbow” country, one needs to have a heart of steel and zero conscience to moot such frivolously expensive plans in the face of a people literally facing death every single day on account of hunger, crime, poverty, disease and (un)natural disasters. That’s what the slogan, asinavalo means these days. It felt like the minister was telling the hungry masses: “Let them eat the flag!”, which is reminiscent of the nonchalant 18th-century French queen Marie Antoinette’s infamous retort to the struggling masses: “Let them eat cake!” Perhaps this is a sign of the times.

The irony of this whole episode is that it is unfolding during Afrika Month, which the Department of Arts and Culture launched three weeks ago. Indeed, the Afrikan continent will on Wednesday converge in spirit to celebrate Afrika Day, the climactic marker of a plethora of activities that have been undertaken since the beginning of this month.

It was on May 25, 1963 that Afrikan leaders met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to form the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), more than five years after Ghana obtained its independence, the first Afrikan country to achieve this feat. Driven by the spirit of pan-Afrikanism, the leaders were clear that their collective intent was to fight colonialism and imperialism throughout the whole continent. The liberation of Afrika, they maintained, could only be achieved through unity, which should galvanise the move towards undoing the balkanisation of the continent by establishing the United States of Afrika. At the centre was the objective to move towards true or total liberation from white supremacy, mental colonisation and, most importantly, economic emancipation of indigenous people in all the nation states on the Afrikan continent.

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The OAU was, for whatever reasons, transmogrified into the African Union on July 9, 2002. This year’s Afrika Day is therefore of huge significance to the nations within the AU, as it marks the 20th anniversary of the organisation.

The monumental move towards forming the OAU was spearheaded by son of Afrika Kwame Nkrumah, the founding president of Ghana. The spirit behind Nkrumah was a brilliant scholar, lawyer and politician from this country, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, who was himself the founder of the true ANC, which was pan-Africanist in character.

Nkrumah was struck by the views Seme had expressed in the US, at Columbia university, more than five decades earlier through his “Regeneration of Afrika” speech in 1906: “I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over a hostile public opinion.” These words unapologetically define Afrikanism and race-consciousness as the route towards the total liberation of the oppressed peoples of Afrika. Pixley was not shy to talk frankly about his “race” as an Afrikan, and also did not obfuscate and fudge the issues by using “non-racial” phraseology.

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It’s thus disappointing that Seme’s ANC was weaned off its pan-Afrikanist character after other races infiltrated and captured his organisation in the early 1950s.

In fact, even in recent times we encounter captured commentators and politicians who continue to vilify Seme in pursuance of a neo-liberal agenda. There is evidently a motive to write him out of the history of the organisation he founded and the country he sought to liberate from the clutches of colonialism and imperialism.

Post-1994 South Africa does not measure up to pan-Afrikanist ideals. As a matter of fact, the rainbow nation is a far cry from what Afrikanist leaders had hoped to achieve when founding the OAU. The post-1994 dispensation, the product of the Codesa talks, is a blatant betrayal of the liberation agenda of the true ANC of Seme which had influenced the pan-Afrikanist fibre of not only South African resistance politics but also the liberation politics of the whole continent.

It is therefore important to ask ourselves what the objectives of the liberation struggle were and whether the 1994 negotiated settlement equals the attainment of those objectives.

The 1994 rainbow-nation project is a betrayal of these ideals in that it has yielded a “neo-colonial” or “neo-apartheid” society. The land and the minerals are still in the hands of the usurpers, while the natives remain dispossessed and conquered. In short, the wealth and the economy still rest in the hands of the white minority. Therefore, when we invoke the discourse of “social cohesion”, which is an advert for the nebulous concepts of “national reconciliation”, “national unity” and “nation-building”, we need to resist the push by the ruling class for reconciliation without justice, or reconciliation with poverty, exploitation, landlessness and indignity, because, in short, it is a push for reconciliation with white supremacy and apartheid.

Back to Mthethwa’s “suspended” plans for the construction of the massive “rainbow flag”. Black people should not be swayed by stratagems meant to dissuade them from their pursuit of the ideals of the freedom struggle.

In this sense, this flag does not represent liberation. No flag of whatever size will ever engender social cohesion as long as systemic and structural elements of racism, coloniality or white supremacy remain intact. At the heart of all these lies economic power. I have previously rhetorically asked: “What benefit do black people derive from the so-called new ‘inclusive’ or rainbow flag while the country itself is an embodiment of the ‘apartheid flag’?” In such circumstances, the discourse of “social cohesion” is another piece of rhetoric that serves to hide the truth of the neo-apartheid status quo.

It’s a veneer of pain and suffering, unfulfilled hopes and dreams, ravaging racial inequalities, neo-colonisation, landlessness, and economic marginalisation. Social cohesion is therefore a myth.

In order to understand the complacency of our post-1994 leaders in selling us the empty dreams of freedom, we need to listen to the voices of our liberation heroes while we remain vigilant about what they envisioned to be the objectives of our liberation struggle as the peoples of Afrika.

We were cautioned about the danger of a leadership that consorts with our oppressors, imperialists and, by extension, white monopoly capitalism.

As far back as 1959, the founding president of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, opined that “there is a lot of flirting going on”, adding that “this wooing occurs at a time when the whole continent of Afrika is in labour, suffering the pangs of new birth”. As if predictive of the post-1994 political leadership in this country, Nkrumah proffered the same assessment four years later, in his iconic opening speech at the summit held on the formation of the OAU: “The unity of our continent, no less than our separate independence, will be delayed, if indeed we do not lose it, by hobnobbing with colonialism.” Going to bed with the enemy has sadly been the Achilles heel of post-independence Afrika and “post -apartheid” South Africa.

But, with forked tongues, we continue to “celebrate” and “embrace” Afrika Day.

It’s a paradox of unimaginable proportions to associate the “rainbow flag” with liberation. The celebration of Afrika Day and Afrika Month should serve as food for thought for Afrikan consciousness on the tenets of liberation.

In the final analysis, and following simple logic, both the old and new South African flags represent a colonial construct: a South Africa (not Azania) that entrenches white privilege and black suffering. Mayibuye iAfrika! Izwe Lethu!

David Letsoalo is a Sankarist, activist and legal academic

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