Culture : Usual Symbols of South Africa Won’t Be at the Olympics : * The country will take part for the first time in 32 years. But it will send substitutes for its national flag and anthem and keep its sports springbok emblem at home.
When South Africa’s Olympic boss, Sam Ramsamy, announced a few days ago that his nation’s absence from the Olympics would end next summer, after 32 years, the whoops of delight echoed from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
But some of the cheers quickly turned to boos when whites learned there was a small catch.
South Africans would be in Barcelona all right--but without the national flag, the national anthem or the national sporting symbol, the springbok.
Instead, the first multiracial South African Olympic team would have a newly designed flag and a new anthem--Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” And the only South African springboks will be the four-legged kind nibbling grass in the country’s game parks.
The old symbols, though linked with the apartheid state in the eyes of millions of blacks, are being portrayed these days by President Frederik W. de Klerk as the South African equivalent of Mom, baseball and apple pie.
“The green and gold, with the springbok, has a proud history,” De Klerk told a recent party meeting in Pretoria. “And I think it is shortsighted to disregard these facts and trample a proud tradition underfoot.”
De Klerk’s minister of sport, Louis Pienaar, called it “a slap in the face of all South Africans.” A day later, Pienaar was on the stump again, calling the decision “arrogant, insensitive and undemocratic.”
The furor has risen from the emotional heart of South Africa’s past, and it suggests the difficult road that lies ahead for this country as it attempts to undo the damage of apartheid and heal the deep wounds that remain.
As usual, the controversy has split South Africa along racial lines.
On one side of the debate are the black masses, who remember the South African flag flown over police stations and other notorious symbols of apartheid, the national anthem sung with such fervor by De Klerk’s ancestors and other architects of apartheid and the springbok emblem that for years was denied to black athletes.
On the other side of the debate are whites who believe they have no apologies to make for the past. Apartheid was a well-meaning policy that didn’t work, De Klerk has said. And he argues that the flag, anthem and springbok have always stood for all South Africans, black as well as white.
Ramsamy said that neither the new flag nor the new anthem are intended as permanent replacements. Those will only emerge once a new government, elected by black and white South Africans, is in place.
Nevertheless, he has touched a nerve among whites, many of whom fear that a government run by blacks will replace the hallowed symbols of the past, rewrite street and city names and topple statues of Afrikaner heroes.
Only the athletes--black and white--eyeing their first crack at Olympic medals, have expressed a willingness to compromise.
“White South Africans are going to have to accept the fact that some of our symbols are not loved or deeply respected by all South Africans,” said Bruce Fordyce, one of the country’s top marathon runners, who is white.
“Athletes I’ve spoken to are prepared to accept any compromise, anything to get to Barcelona,” Fordyce added. “We will wear purple with pink spots on and be quite happy to be called bush pigs, just to get to Barcelona.”
Evette de Klerk, a white sprinter and Olympic medalist hopeful (who is no relation to the president), said South Africans should stop “moaning and groaning about what flag and what anthem we are going to use.”
“I don’t think everyone is happy, but as long as the flag has South Africa on it, I’m satisfied,” she added.
One of the country’s leading distance runners, Xolile Yawa, who is black, says he’s always known that the springbok was doomed because of its historical association with white exclusivity in sports.
“I’ve been very proud to wear the springbok colors. Very proud,” Yawa said. “But now we’ve got to forget the past and try a new thing. We’re in a new South Africa. And the important thing is that we go to the Olympics.”
The new flag, designed as a symbol of South African unity, has five Olympic circles on a gray diamond-shaped background. The diamond represents the country’s mineral wealth, and the flag’s colors of blue, brown and green stand for the sea, the land and the crops.
It will replace South Africa’s flag and the springbok emblem. “Ode to Joy,” the international Olympic hymn, will replace “Die Stem,” or “The Call of South Africa,” a turgid hymn that celebrates Afrikaner freedom from the “enslavement” of British colonialists.
“We felt that it would not be appropriate to use symbols and flags used by sections of our communities in the past until such time as a national decision (on such symbols) is taken by all South Africans,” Ramsamy said.
The South African flag has led every South African team into the Olympics since 1928, though it shared prominence with the Union Jack until the country’s last Olympic appearance, at the Rome Games in 1960.
South African athletes marched to “God Save the King” (and, after the death of King George VI in 1952, to “God Save the Queen”) until the 1960 Games, when “Die Stem” was the country’s official anthem.
Dumping the South African flag and anthem was controversial enough. But it was the decision to abandon the precious springbok that triggered the most scathing criticism of Ramsamy, who many remember as a leader of the long, successful African National Congress-inspired boycott of South African sports.
Springbok is the Afrikaans word for a fleet-footed gazelle found throughout the country’s game parks--and even, occasionally, on the nation’s barbecues. All across the world, the springbok is synonymous with South African athletic teams. And every South African athlete’s dream is to one day be awarded springbok colors, which go to the top performers in every field.
But blacks were denied access to the springbok colors until the 1970s. And, for many blacks, the springbok remained a symbol of segregation and white-dominating sporting teams.
Nevertheless, whites with shorter memories insist that the springbok belongs to blacks as well as whites.
“The springbok has no more identity with apartheid than a 10-rand note,” said Malcolm Spence, who won a bronze medal as a sprinter on South Africa’s all-white team in the 1960 Olympics.
“There will not be a single South African who will be ashamed to wear the proud springbok on his chest,” Spence added, writing in the letters column of a Johannesburg newspaper.
But, with the springbok gone for the time being, South Africans and helpful foreigners have offered more than a few suggestions for replacements.
The Rev. Allan Hendrickse, leader of the Colored house in Parliament, suggested the zebra. But that was shot down by those who thought the zebra’s distinct stripes represented segregation rather than racial harmony.
Vrye Weekblad, a left-wing Afrikaans-language weekly, made the suggestion, with tongue in cheek, that South Africa adopt the hippopotamus as its national sporting symbol. The paper’s reasoning: the hippo is the only animal upon which this divided country could possibly agree.
Norman Lock, a resident of neighboring Botswana, suggested that the ostrich would be most appropriate.
“That bird best portrays your national character over the last four decades and more,” Lock said in a letter to the Citizen newspaper.
De Klerk’s ruling National Party, so accustomed to near-absolute control of this country during the past four decades, has been frustrated by the pesky independence of the local Olympic committee. Ramsamy’s panel, recognized by the International Olympic Committee, completely controls South Africa’s return to the Olympics.
De Klerk urged the public to complain about the committee’s decision, but he reminded the party faithful, “You have to realize this is one thing for which you cannot blame the government or the National Party.”
Many commentators here, including two liberal white-run newspapers in Johannesburg, have criticized De Klerk for attacking the very sports officials who are bringing South Africa back to the Olympics. They contend De Klerk is wrapping himself in the flag to show whites that he is as committed to preserving the country’s history and culture as the next white man.
As expected, De Klerk’s opponents in the pro-apartheid Conservative Party blamed the president for the premature death of the flag and anthem.
Andries Treurnicht, the Conservatives’ leader, suggested that ANC President Nelson Mandela, and not De Klerk, is calling the shots in South Africa and trampling the rights of whites.
“This is the logical outcome of the road to (apartheid) reform which Mr. De Klerk’s government has taken,” Treurnicht said.
Looking for Unity
The flag below will accompany South Africa’s team to Barcelona. It has five Olympic circles on a gray background. The diamond shape represents the country’s mineral wealth, and the stripes of blue, brown and green that run across it stand for the sea, the land and the crops. It was designed as a symbol of unity.