A brief history of the South African flag

  • 08 June 2015 | Daphney Mngomeni
The South African flag flies high and proud. Image courtesy of Kyknoord

South Africa is steeped in history. From the first humans and their evolution millions of years ago, the gold rush in the 1880s to democracy in the early 1990s and the country’s growth into one of Africa’s most-developed countries in the 2000s.

There are many symbols that represent the country’s freedom, its cultural diversity and the unity of its people. One such symbol is the national flag.

South Africa’s flag was adopted on 27 April 1994 – now known as national Freedom Day – and is a representation of the country’s democracy, with each colour depicting an important element in our history and country.

Originally commissioned as an interim flag, its approval was last-minute, with the final product making it in the nick of time to poles around the country in order to usher in a new, democratic era.

Members of the public were initially asked for ideas of the new flag. The result was more than 7 000 entries, none which elicited excitement. Authorities then asked design studios to submit their flag ideas, but none of those were deemed suitable either.

Finally, it was former state herald Fred Brownell’s design that got the nod, and the nation welcomed their new president Nelson Mandela and the new flag – a reflection of the dawn of a democratic era in South Africa.

Brownell managed to incorporate South Africa’s diversity and unity into the central design, which starts at the flagpost in a “v” shape and joins into a single horizontal band, representing the convergence of the country’s diverse elements.

The South African flag is one of the youngest flags in the world, and the only six-coloured flag worldwide.

The design and colours are a synopsis of principal elements of the country's flag history. Individual colours, or colour combinations represent different meanings for different people and therefore no universal symbolism should be attached to any of the colours.

Did you know

The flag must be treated with respect at all times and must not:

  • Touch the floor or ground.
  • Be used as a tablecloth or be draped in front of a platform.
  • Be used to cover a statue, plaque or cornerstone at ceremonies, or be used to start or finish tournaments.

Other important things to know about respecting the national flag are:

  • When the national flag is displayed with any other flag, it must be hoisted up first and lowered last.
  • When our own flag is displayed with flags of other countries, all of them should be of equal size and flown at same height.
  • When the flag is displayed vertically against a wall, the red horizontal band should be to the left of the spectator with the hoist or the cord seam uppermost.
  • If displayed horizontally, the hoist should be to the left of the spectator and the red band uppermost.