Friday, June 18, 2010

Why I hate flag-waving

When I was working as a priest in Manchester, England, there were one or two things I battled with in the realm of the Church of England, as the Established church. The Queen is the head of that church. That struck me as more than odd. And allied with that the national flag, the Union Jack, is every now and again brought into the sanctuary and left to stand there proudly. On nationalistic occasions, like Armistice Day and on other peculiar occasions, like when the Scouts and Girl Guides have a Sunday parade and when various military regiments, which are somehow attached to the church (in ways I could simply never fathom), come and celebrate this or that.

It made my skin crawl. I felt the hair standing out on the back of my neck. Because I looked at that flag, not as an insider, but as an outsider. I saw it, in my mind's eye, fluttering over God knows how many battlefields throughout the world, including many in my own country. I saw it as a symbol of colonial domination and power. I saw it as a symbol of a great deal of evil, to go with all the trumpeted benefits which it was supposed to bring throughout the Empire, when the Empire was viable. I could not pay it any honour. And I would not.

I can remember the first time I saw the new South African flag. It was flying late in that heady period betwixt the release of release of political prisoners and the inauguration of the new democratic state. It was flying, for no apparent reason, on a semi-famous landmark in Johannesburg - Gallagher's corner, in Orange Grove.

I slowed my car down to a crawl and savoured the moment. I wept, like everyone else, when the helicopters flew the new flag at the inauguration of our first democratic President. My heart skipped a beat, for a while after that, every time I saw it on a government building.

And now, the flag is, undoubtedly, a significant focus of unity, in the context of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Faces are painted in its colours. Shirts and socks and hats and scarves. The commercial opportunities seem to be endless - and especially for those highly inventive Chinese, who make most of it.

But by identifying oneself so visibly as one thing, you are, almost by definition, identifying others as another thing. We celebrate being South African. And that does not include Zimbabweans, or Nigerians. It is explicit in its exclusions. There are those inside and there are those outside. That is just the way it is. That is the way it is designed to be. That is the function it serves.

And then we lose. And then the flag-painted Vuvuzelas go quiet. And fewer flags flutter on the cars. And fewer faces are painted. And a national gloom settles in, while others are raised high in victory.

That is the problem. Because flags inevitably make an "us" and a "them". That is what they do. That is what they are designed to do. And it is a short step away from "them" taking "our" jobs. "Them", the criminals and "us" the victims. "Them", who shouldn't be allowed into "our" country. That is what flags do. They engender nationalism. It starts off with a thing called "national pride" and if not extremely carefully controlled in a very sophisticated way, it ends up in xenophobic violence.

While I am happy to acknowledge the role our flag has played in enabling South Africans to find each other, then and now, I remain deeply suspicious and extremely wary. Because waving a flag does not make one patriotic. Criminals can wave flags and sing the national anthem with the rest of us. I see people speeding past me on the highway, talking on the cellphones on their ears, with numerous flags a-flutter on their cars. It is the way one lives, as a South African, that reveals one's true patriotism, not the flag one flies.

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