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Court Limits Display Of South Africa's Old Apartheid Flag, Citing Hateful Legacy

Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang points to South Africa's current flag as he welcomes a ruling against its old flag in Johannesburg Wednesday. At right is Ernst Roets, leader of the AfriForum group that was targeted in the foundation's lawsuit.
Denis Farrell

A South African court is restricting gratuitous displays of the country's old apartheid-era flag, calling the banner "a vivid symbol of white supremacy and black disenfranchisement and suppression."

The flag was the official standard of South Africa from 1928 until the end of apartheid in 1994, when it was replaced by a six-color flag whose Y-shape symbolizes unity. On Wednesday, the Equality Court ruled that the old flag is "a symbol that immortalizes the period of a system of racial segregation, racial oppression through apartheid, and of South Africa as an international pariah state that dehumanized the black population."

The lawsuit was filed by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which said displaying the apartheid flag amounted to hate speech, unfair discrimination and harassment against black people.

"Judge Phineas Mojapelo of South Africa's Equality Court delivered the ruling to restrict the use of the orange, white and blue flag of the former white minority regime," NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports. "However, he said the move was not a complete ban, because use of the divisive flag associated with the apartheid years is protected by law for artistic, academic, journalistic and other purposes in the public interest."

The suit targeted a group called AfriForum, which is widely seen as representing the views of a conservative white minority of Afrikaners. In court, AfriForum's representatives contended that South Africa's hate speech laws apply only to words, not symbols. They also said that under the constitution, displaying the flag is a protected expression.

"Simply displaying it, in our view, is not sufficient for it to be hate speech," AfriForum Head of Policy and Action Ernst Roets said after the court released its decision. "For it to be hate speech, it has to be coupled with some form of a call to action to inflict harm or something to that effect."

On Wednesday, the Nelson Mandela Foundation said the 1928 flag has become a global symbol of white supremacy and hatred "and is considered by most South Africans as a source of trauma and terror."

The foundation filed suit after the flag appeared at protests in late 2017 that decried deadly attacks on white farmers. Those protests, dubbed "Black Monday," were promoted by AfriForum.

In siding with the Mandela foundation, the Equality Court ruled that in addition to being racist, gratuitous display of the old flag "demonstrates a clear intention to be hurtful" and to promote hatred against black people.

Given the flag's adoption by a whites-only parliament and its six decades of symbolizing the apartheid era, the court said, "It is thus, not surprisingly, viewed differently even today by mostly white people on the one hand and black people on the other."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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