South Africa’s Equality Court has banned flying the country’s apartheid-era flag, saying that “gratuitous” displays of the flag are acts of hate speech and racial discrimination.
As the Washington Post reports, the decision was handed down Wednesday by Judge Phineas Mojapelo, who said flying the Old Flag violated anti-racism and harassment laws under the Equality Act.
In his ruling, Mojapelo focused on the flag’s racist symbolism: how it flew high over a country that systematically and wholly used segregation to subjugate black South Africans.
“The dominant meaning attributable to the Old Flag, both domestically and internationally, is that it is for the majority of the South African population a symbol that immortalizes the period of a system of racial segregation, racial oppression through apartheid, of a crime against humanity and of South Africa as an international pariah state that dehumanized the black population,” Mojapelo wrote, according to the Post.
He added that displaying the flag, “visually communicates a message of the belief in or support of racism, white supremacy and the subjugation of the black population.”
There are some exceptions to the recent ruling: instances when the flag is part of work of art, academia or journalism are still permissible under the new guidance. Mojapelo said those flying the flag shouldn’t be arrested, “but should face deterrents such as fines or terms of community service,” writes NBC News.
The apartheid-era flag, also known as the “Oranje, Blanje, Blou” (Afrikaans for “orange, white, blue”), was retired in 1994, and has remained a divisive symbol in the country, in much the same way the Confederate flag is regarded in the U.S.
While some people of Afrikaner heritage view the flag as a nod to their heritage, it’s a painful and hateful relic of state-sanctioned terror and white supremacy to many black South Africans. This recent ruling puts South Africa more on par with countries like Germany than the U.S. when it comes to how the government treats racist, vile symbols of its not-so-distant past.
As Vox wrote recently, Germany and more than a dozen European countries have outlawed Holocaust denial; the country has also imposed stringent laws “banning Nazi symbols and what’s called Volksverhetzung—incitement of the people, or hate speech.” This includes swastikas, Nazi flags and art, statues of Nazi leaders, and Adolf Hitler’s biography, Mein Kampf.
The rationale, writer Sarah Wildman explains, stems from Germany’s conclusion that “a mix of education—and limiting free speech—was the only way to ensure the past would remain past.
In the States, of course, the Confederacy can barely be considered the past: the names of its leaders continue to people city streets and schools, the eyes of its generals glare back at the world from stone pedestals, and Old Dixie can be found flying high across the country.
While these symbols are every bit as divisive in America, they’re also protected—along with more explicitly vile, hateful and racist speech—under our First Amendment laws.
Here’s how one professor explained it to Vox:
“What Germany does is what Germany does,” says University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone. “They learned different lessons” from history. “The lesson we learned is not to trust the government to decide what speech is okay and what speech is not okay.”
“The First Amendment does not permit the government to forbid speech because ideas are thought to be offensive or odious. That’s a message we have learned over our history: that we don’t trust the government to make that decision.”
If we had, he says, it likely would have been used against civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights.
While Judge Mojapelo acknowledged that many South Africans were still divided on the Old Flag’s meaning, his ruling sides with the majority of black South Africans who were victims of the flag and everything it symbolizes.
The Mandela Foundation, which had advocated for such restrictions, celebrated the victory in a written statement, contextualizing what banning the apartheid flag means for South Africa’s past—and for its future.
“Gratuitous displays of the old flag express a desire for black people to be relegated to labor reserves, a pining for the killing, the torture, the abductions, a melancholia for the discrimination, the death squads, the curfews and the horrific atrocities committed under the flag,” the organization said.
“Our nation needs an opportunity to heal from the wounds of the past. To heal means to recognize what has happened, to not shy away from history, but to look at history and call it by its name. This means looking at our history and calling Apartheid a crime against humanity and a gross human rights violation. Without recognizing what has happened, we will forever be haunted by our history.”