OPINION / 30 AUGUST 2019, 11:59AM / RUDI BUYS
AfriForum deputy CEO Ernst Roets, Ernst Roets could soon be charged and convicted for contempt of court over his display of the apartheid flag if the NMF has its way. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency(ANA)
At the end of October 2017 thousands of mainly white South Africans protested farm murders as part of “Black Monday”, wearing black, gathering peacefully and praying for the future of the country.
However, not everyone arrived to pray. Some arrived to wave the old South African flag – the apartheid flag. As images of these protesters circulated, the organisers immediately distanced the movement from the flag.
So did the lobby group, AfriForum, which claimed a leading role in organising the protest. Still, the images of the old flag went viral, raising questions on the intentions of the movement.
Soon the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the SA Human Rights Commission sought an order from the courts to declare any gratuitous display of the old South African flag as hate speech. AfriForum opposed the application, arguing that only actual words can be considered hate speech, not symbols, and that limiting a display of symbols contravenes the freedom of expression entrenched in the Bill of Rights.
However, last week Judge Phineas Mojapelo handed down judgment and found that the old flag may only be displayed for good reason. If not for artistic, academic or journalistic purposes in the public interest, to display the apartheid flag constitutes hate speech, unfair discrimination and harassment.
Heated debates followed and continue in public forums and on social media.
A representative of AfriForum immediately posted the old flag on social media in protest of the judgement and now faces further legal action.
A drama such as this, centred on symbols with broad societal impact, is rooted in the complexities of how and why a society remembers and forgets the past – a societal “drama of nostalgia”. The old flag represents a fraught history, a history that different people remember and want to forget in different ways and for different reasons.
Nostalgia is more than sentiment; it’s a longing for a particular past. A yearning for a time and a place remembered as more familiar, less confusing, more innocent, and more heroic.
Nostalgia requires selective remembering and forgetting to fit an ideal, good version of the past. This ensures that the past realities that different people long for are no more than symbolic and imaginary – white nostalgia for the blind days of innocence, and black nostalgias for the heroic days of struggle.
However, the social drama of nostalgia is more than a longing for the past. It is also a longing for the future.
In similar ways that nostalgia for the past represents only imagined realities, societal aspirations of a new future represent nostalgia for an imagined and symbolic reality – the rainbow nation nostalgia. As the Constitution does, national symbols today represent South Africa’s ambition and attempt to become an all-embracing society – a longing for a time and a place not yet realised.
Also, the social drama of nostalgia makes actors of all citizens. The imagined reality you long for moulds how you think and behave, what symbols you hold on to and what relationships you value – you perform as an social actor.
In what they think and do, people construct and re-construct a symbolic past and future of our society – the “performances of nostalgia”. In social imagination lie both the threat and the promise of nostalgia.
A threat when nostalgia displaces your sense of self and others, and removes you from the present to live in a perceived ideal past or future; a promise when nostalgia infuses the present with new ways of thinking and doing togetherness.
* Rudi Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.