WSM: Frying the flag – Unpacking the uproar over the DA’s controversial advert

William Saunderson-Meyer critiques the uproar over the recent DA advert featuring a burning South African flag, jokingly calling it a “monstrous slur” by the Democratic Alliance. He humorously notes that in reality, an ANC comrade would likely steal the flag before it could burn. Saunderson-Meyer highlights the intense backlash, including accusations of treason from President Ramaphosa, yet he dismisses the outrage as political posturing in the heated pre-election environment. The article reflects on the symbolism of the South African flag and suggests that the advert’s controversy stems from its poignant depiction of the country’s challenges under ANC rule.

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By William Saunderson-Meyer

An advertising spot that shows a South African flag in flames, to represent our country’s destruction by the African National Congress. What an outrage! We should all unequivocally condemn this monstrous slur on the part of the Democratic Alliance.

For starters, it’s untrue. We all know for a fact that long before the official symbol of the nation could go up in a puff of smoke, an ANC comrade would have stolen it. (Fortunately, there is always another comrade at hand to replace any charred or missing piece of coloured cloth by way of a corrupt multimillion tender.) 

The DA’s television spot is a computer-generated depiction of a paper flag lying on what looks like a grill. Over the course of some 33 seconds — while an off-camera speaker warns that “life will only get worse” under a “coalition of corruption” between the ANC, a violent Economic Freedom Fighters and the Zuma faction — the paper spontaneously ignites. 

It crisps to a pile of ashes as the black-South African accented voice intones, “This election is about survival.” Then, in response to the words “Unite to rescue South Africa, vote DA,” the flag is miraculously restored to wholeness.

Perhaps not the high point of creative originality, one must say. But not too shabby either. It encapsulates in half a minute the stark choice confronting voters on 29 May. 

Our country is demonstrably a wreck, the only point of contention is how, by whom and over what period South Africa conceivably might be resuscitated. Nor is there any doubt that powerful partners in the tripartite alliance favour an alliance with the hard left; at a Worker’s Day rally last week, the president of Cosatu, the ANC’s influential union federation ally, said as much.

Read more: DA burning flag ad sparks debate on free speech and national identity – Sara Gon

Despite this dire background, or perhaps because of it, the anti-DA backlash has been fierce. The ANC is outraged, or pretending to be, and there hasn’t been such self-righteous spluttering from the commentariat about what are the acceptable limits to political metaphor and artistic licence for at least a decade. 

It reminds one of Brett Murray’s Spear of the Nation painting in 2012 of President Jacob Zuma, which had the ANC incandescent. He depicted Zuma in a pose that mimicked Soviet-era propaganda portrayals of Lenin – chin tilted, chest out, arm aloft, coat-tail flowing in the revolutionary wind — but with the addition of a sturdy set of genitalia dangling provocatively outside his trousers. The unmistakable allusion to Zuma’s misogyny, polyandry and rape trial was crude but effective.

Murray’s painting was condemned at the time as being racist and inappropriately disrespectful of the country’s head of state. The DA’s ad, however, seems to be seen as much worse.

Ramaphosa has written in a tweet on the social media platform X that the ad is “treasonous”. “The national flag is a sacred symbol of our unity and existence as a nation and to burn it is despicable. Any organisation that commits such an act, especially in the name of political expediency, is an organisation that seeks to destroy our country, that seeks to destroy our country’s unity and collective identity.”

Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Zizi Kodwa foresees dire consequences. The DA’s advert has the potential to “sow division and hysteria in our nation”. Kodwa said his department’s director-general, advisers, and its legal unit have all been instructed to provide urgent input on legal recourse against this “abhorrent and unpatriotic desecration” of a national symbol. 

State agencies have been quick to echo the ANC position. The Human Rights Commission, probably the most cravenly lickspittle “independent” entity that exists in South Africa, says the DA advert is a ‘grave violation” of democratic ideals and “seriously risks social peace and security”. The public broadcaster, dutifully tugging its forelock, has banned the advert.

All this huffing and puffing should be taken with a pinch of salt. There’s about as much chance of DA leader John Steenhuisen seeing the inside of a courtroom as there is of state looters like the Gupta brothers experiencing a similar fate. 

These are the closing weeks of the highly contested general election and one must also allow for the media’s insatiable appetite for faux outrage, especially when it comes to the Official Opposition. News24 political journalist Qaanitah Hunter was quick off the mark, condemning the ad as not only a juvenile desecration of a national symbol but “fear-mongering at best and swart gevaar at worst”. 

“The DA’s messaging has failed spectacularly. It fuels disillusionment in politics and adds to the growing disdain among the electorate … It’s a strategy that may just go up in flames,” predicts Hunter.

In Britain’s Financial Times, local political analyst Ralph Mathekga agrees with Hunter that this is a “very risky” political strategy. “Burning a flag isn’t part of the sort of normal political discourse leading up to an election. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see at a protest.” It opened, he said, the DA to criticism that it longed for a country under a different flag, rather than the one adopted at democracy and meant to unite South Africans.

There’s a little bit of irony here. The opposition parties in general and the DA in particular, appear to love waving the flag. DA speakers invariably have the flag on the podium at any public event. In contrast, the ANC at its party events only displays the ANC colours and ANC flags. 

I did a trawl of more than 500 online images of ANC events going back to 2012 — national conferences, anniversaries, rallies, jamborees, and Ramaphosa’s victory at the 2017 electoral conference — and didn’t find a single South African flag on display on the podium. The only time one finds the president or his ministers next to the national flag is on official state occasions.

Of course, neither flying the flag nor not flying it, is a reliable indicator of political sincerity or national feeling. But it’s simply absurd to assert that the DA’s incineration of a paper flag as a metaphor for what it believes the ANC opponent is doing to the country is the moral equivalent of burning an actual flag as a calculated act of political disrespect or provocation. 

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We have so striking a national flag that in the 30 short years of its existence it has become one of the most identifiable flags in the world. It has the kind of brand recognition that gives the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, which have been around for centuries, a run for their money.

Funnily enough, like the democratic transition itself, the flag is a happy accident, the result of the boer maak ’n plan national ethos that finds its best expression when it aligns with pressing circumstances. In 1994, the ANC had wanted a clean break from the past and instead of entrusting the task of designing a new national flag to Fred Brownell, the State Herald of the time, it held a national competition that drew scores of thousands of entries.

Unfortunately, these were uniformly atrocious. With just weeks in hand, the transition committee asked Brownell to pull together something as a temporary measure. The flag he produced, which blends with true genius the politically significant colours of our history — green/black/gold and red/white/blue — was an instant and phenomenal hit with the public and talk of it being a “temporary” flag was quickly abandoned.

As the ANC rightly says, our unconventional Y-front flag, loaded with all the emotional resonance of our troubled history, is the symbol of the best of South Africa. However, the country and nation of which the new flag so caught the mood in 1994, is not the country and nation of 2024. 

That is what the DA advert pithily captures. That is possibly why the ANC and its media apologists are so put out.

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This article was first published on PoliticsWeb and is republished with permission