History of the South African Flag

In the early 1990’s, South Africa was arriving at a major turning point in it’s history, with apartheid coming to an end, Nelson Mandela was about to be elected as the first black president of the country. With this turning point, came the need for a new flag, that would represent a new South Africa, free from racial segregation and economic discrimination. The previous flag, which was borne in controversy and adopted in 1928, was later perceived by a large section of the population as a symbol for apartheid, and thus no longer acceptable.

South African Ambassador to the U.S. Harry Schwarz presenting the new flag to the U.S. president Bill Clinton and vice president Al Gore in May 1994.

A public competition was subsequently held, with members of the public encouraged to submit their designs. Over 7000 designs were received, but none of them were deemed good enough, and no flag was chosen. Furthermore, a number of graphic design studios were contacted, but again none of the designs elicited any sort of enthusiasm.

With time running out, Fred Brownell was contacted to design the new South African flag. Interestingly, current president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa was given the task of contacting Mr Brownell. Fred Brownell had designed the Namibian flag, so he had some experience, and he had been apparently sketching new ideas for the flag already, for several years. He came up with the basic idea in Switzerland in 1993, while attending the 15th International Congress of Vexillology (the study of flags), and thus the flag was born, making it’s first official appearance at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no universal symbolism attached to any of the specific colours of the South African flag, but rather that individual colours (or colour combinations) represent different meanings to different people in South Africa. Some ideas are that the black, gold and green come from liberation groups such as the African National Congress, while the red, white and blue, come from the Dutch and British colonial flags. Other common theories around the colours on the flag include:

  • Black triangle: the determination of the black population
  • Gold: representing the mineral wealth of South Africa
  • Green: The fertility of the land
  • White: The white population, and peace
  • Blue: The blue skies and/or oceans
  • Red: The bloodshed during the several wars

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