Getting rid of symbols will not get rid of mindsets maintaining them

Getting rid of symbols will not get rid of mindsets maintaining them
The heated and emotional debate over the old South African flag reveals the delicate political fault lines within our fragmented society.

First, freedom of speech and expression is a sacred element of our democracy.

Free speech is the notion of being able to speak both openly and freely without restrictions. Our Constitution guarantees rights and freedoms, only to such reasonable limits prescribed by laws as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression including freedom of the press. On liberty, there is always a struggle between the competing demands of liberty and authority, and we cannot have the latter without the former.

The debate in our country regarding measures against abuse of freedom of speech and association in order to incite against others, because of racial, religious or political motives, is not new.

These arguments do not differ from the global controversy on how to strike a balance between those freedoms, in a democratic and pluralistic society, and the principles of co-existence, tolerance and respect for the human rights of all.

Second, the flag debate reveals how it has been viewed with pride, fear, anger, nostalgia and disgust. Removing some symbols of the past is important, but the old flag’s staying power is a testament to the people and institutions that support the symbol’s longevity.

Getting rid of symbols will not get rid of the mindsets that maintain them. But instilling the value that we are all in this together certainly renders symbols of bigotry meaningless.

Supporters of the old flag use it to celebrate the courage and valour of their ancestors, however it serves as a painful reminder to those of us with a memory of the horrors of apartheid.

The facile description of the old flag as a relic of a bygone era prevents us from comprehending its distressing implications for the future of the country. It also prevents us from addressing and perhaps healing the growing rifts in our society that the flag symbolises. There are those who feel the flag represents their heritage and the pride that that they have for those who died for their cause. It is indeed a sad state of affairs that after 26 years of democracy the nation still has a culture infected by a deep and moral dilemma that engenders vehement debate over a piece of cloth, a relic of history that represents a culture entrenched in violence, racism and brutal class discrimination.

In a country whose whole existence was borne on the backs of black people and floated on their sweat, blood and tears, we still have nothing better to do, it seems, than debate a cultural relic that represents one of this nation’s most offensive moral sins.

It is for us to ensure that the debate over the old flag is not focused on the historical embers of the past, but in the seeded new growth of change that is embodied in an equitable future that does not distinguish between race, class, gender or religion.

Any form of racism must be condemned, the injustices of our racial order must be corrected, and all our fears for the future need to be addressed.

* Farouk Araie, Johannesburg.

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

Cape Argus