The inconvenient and unknown history of South Africa’s national flags

Here’s another interesting back of the chappie gum wrapper fact – Guess which is the correct South African flag South Africans fought under during World War 1?  Bet most people will think of the old “Orange White and Blue” South African flag, but that would be wrong.

As a serving officer in the South African Army I had to be familiar with flag protocol and etiquette, it’s a key part of soldiering when national flags go on parade. However the funny thing in South Africa is just how poor our collective knowledge is of our own national flags.

These are in fact all of South Africa’s national flags:17309179_1539170599434728_8929150928988660165_nMany times in military veteran circles there is steaming debate on when to use the “old” national flag and in what context – however few people in South Africa know what flag to use, what they really mean and even less know what the first South African flag actually looked like.

Here is a classic case of the misunderstandings surrounding South African national flags – This is the painting the “Birth of the Union” James E McConnell.  The painting was so poorly researched he used the wrong flag.

Birth of the Union of South Africa

This is a modern day photo-shop version of McConnell’s painting and it shows his original on the left and a more correct South African Union flag at union on the right.


The flag he used for his painting was the oranje-blanje-blou (known more commonly as the “OBB”) which all South Africans will recognise. However the flag of South Africa at the time of Union in 1910 was the South African “ensign flag” (British Union Jack top left and the South African National Coat of Arms inserted bottom right). Known as a “Red Duster” – now not too many South Africans today have ever seen that flag.

To show what the first South African national flag, the “Red Duster,” actually looked like here it is:

threeIt is very doubtful that there would have been huge public elation of Boers and Brits embracing one another under this National Flag as depicted in the painting, although this was the National Flag that South Africa fought under during the First World War (there where two versions of this ensign flag which they used – one Red and one Blue).

13686500_616785705157832_3286773017917395641_nIronically, the Boer Commandos that joined the South African Union’s Defence Force at Union in 1910, used and fought under this “South African Ensign” in the South West African and the East African campaigns of World War 1 from 1914 to 1918.

As noted, there was another variant of the “Red Duster” which is an ensign with the respective nation’s emblem against a Blue Background and a British Union flag in the left hand corner (you’ll still see this variant used in New Zealand and Australia for their National flag).

Both South Africa’s “Ensign” flags – Red and Blue qualify as the de facto South African national flags from 1910 to 1928, however the Red one was more common.

The Red Duster variant was the primary flag adopted by South Africa and Canada (Canada used their ensign version during WW1 and WW2 – it was only changed to the Maple Leaf in 1965)

Slide4Given the Ensigns were the flags usually adopted for British “Colonies” and “Dominions”, the South African Union government (which was in fact an independent Parliament to Westminster and made its own laws) felt differently. To the South African Union the national flag of 1910 was “still born” and not reflective of the history of the Boer Republics which made up the other half of the “Union” nor did it adequately reflect on South Africa’s Dutch colony origins.

The oranje-blanje-blou (“OBB”) was adopted by the South African Union Parliament as the “new” national flag in 1928. It was proudly flown as the flag of “Union” representing the old British Colonies of the Cape and Natal and the old Boer Republics of the Transvaal (South African Republic) and the Orange Free State. The use of the British Union flag inserted in the OBB, placed closest to the flag mast/pole (the most honoured and senior position for any “inserted” national flag on any flag format) ahead of the two Boer Republic flags, which take a lessor position, calmed down and appeased the “English” detractors who objected to such a dramatic flag change away from the standard Dominion Red Duster.


However, confusion as to South Africa’s national flag to use even reigned at this time.  Here Jan Smuts makes the front cover of a late 1940’s edition of “Time” magazine with the National Flag in the background and this time they are incorrectly using the “old” blue ensign flag and should have been using the”new” OBB.


So here’s another fun fact, the OBB is not the “Apartheid” flag, the National party when they came to power in 1948 put forward a proposal to have it amended and remove what they called the “Bloed Vlek” (Blood Stain) which was the British Union Flag inserted in the OBB. This was a National party pet hate as it reminded many Afrikaner nationalists of British decimation of Boer families and farms during the Boer war – the campaign to change the OBB flag was stepped up by the National Party under Hendrik Verwoerd when South Africa became a Republic and when he withdrew South Africa from the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961.

However broader public pressure at the time prevented the initial National Party proposals for a flag change from been passed by the South African Republic’s Parliament and the idea was eventually shelved. In effect the initial campaign to change the OBB died with Verwoerd in 1966, but the National Party attempts to change the OBB to a “new” Republic flag did not stop there.  In 1968, the National Party Prime Minister, John Vorster, again proposed the adoption of a new flag to replace the OBB from 1971, the rational was to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the declaration of South Africa as a Republic.  Even though a National newspaper campaign was run asking the public for suggested flag designs, Vorster’s proposal did not get momentum in Parliament and the flag change never materialised.

Historically speaking, although the hardline National Party members hated the “OBB” and its inserted British “Union Jack”, but they disliked the original South African ensign “Red Duster” national flag with its massive “Union Jack” even more, they hated this flag so much it was literally erased from the South African collective consciousness and very few examples of it survive to this day. It certainly was not top of mind when McConnell painted his “Birth of the Union” painting in 1976.

That the flag of South African Union was kept during the implementation of Apartheid by the National Party from 1948 to 1994 is unfortunate as it detracts from it’s rich heritage as the flag of the South African “Union” and as such it is not the flag of the South African “Republic” nor was it ever intended to be a Republic’s flag – it especially detracts from all the kudos that South Africa received during World War 2 fighting alongside British and American forces under the South African Union’s OBB.


The “new” (new) South African flag adopted in 1994 was actually  intended as a “five year interim” flag, however, it proved so highly popular it became the national flag almost instantly and was officially adopted by the government of South Africa on the election day, 27th April 1994.

According to its designer Fred Bromnell – It is actually a combination of the two “Colonial era” flags – The national flag of the Netherlands (Dutch flag) – Red, White, Blue and the the British Union flag – Blue, White, Red.  Then the two former Boer Republic flags – the South African Republic (Transvaal) “Vier Kleur” – Green, Red, White and Blue and the Orange Free State Republic Flag (using the Dutch insert flag and the white) and then finally the African National Congress (ANC) Flag – Black, Green and Gold (colours also present in the Inkatha Freedom Party and Pan African Congress flags).

The V symbolises inclusion and unification. In essence it is another flag of “Union” (unity) only this time acknowledging the county’s Black population and its historical heritage.  Symbols considered in the design of the “new” flag included Catholic and Anglican Priest’s Classic Chasubles, the universal symbol of Peace and the married Zulu female traditional head-dress.

There are some claims that the “New” South African flag is just a “design” with no meaning or symbolism – but that’s not the opinion of the man who actually designed it – Frederick Gordon Brownell.  Also, I find that whenever that when this argument is used  it’s usually to deny meaning to the new South Africa flag and to degrade the country, describing it as “jockey Y front underpants,” when in fact the truth is the opposite and the flag is stuffed full of meaning and symbolism.

In fact the “New” South African flag reflects all the old flags of South Africa, these exist right there for all to see, plain as day to the trained eye (and even the untrained eye) – symbolically placed in the new flag – and that’s an inconvenient truth to both the “new” flag’s detractors and the detractors of the “old” OBB.


The funny thing is the “New” (new) flag was only meant to be an interim one, hence the mash of historical South African flags.  The irony kills me whenever I see the “new” South African youth and current South African political class with the flag they are now saluting, flying and even wearing – and it consists of their much despised “Colonial” Dutch, British and Boer Republic flags, and most of the “Apartheid” flag – irony lost on them but not on me.

Here’s the another irony – the “old” South African flag i.e. the “OBB” Union flag was born out of the ideals of Union led by Jan Smuts and Louis Botha. Not under the Apartheid ideals of  DF Malan and HF Verwoed. I personally see a lot of irony when hard-line right wing Afrikaners slam Jan Smuts and brand his values of consolidation and union with the British as an act of treason to the Afrikaner people – when at the same time they fully support, and at times even fly, the very flag created in honour of his very Unionist ideal – with its British “Blood Stain” symbolising Smuts’ reconciliation in full and proud senior position.

Furthermore it is ironic that after many years of trying to change the National flag after South Africa was declared a Republic in 1961, it was the National Party that finally achieved its goal in February 1994 when they, as the National Party government, briefed Frederick Gordon Brownell at the government’s own heraldry department to design a new flag (funnily in some sort of déjà vu – they had to involve the country’s National Herald this time after another newspaper campaign for designs from the public had failed, albeit 20 years later).  The result is the current flag we see today.  It was designed literally in a week and the only change in the decades long National Party narrative on changing the OBB this time was that both FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela had to approve the new design.

So, lump it or leave it – there is nothing in “Union” flags that appeal to “all” people and everything in “Union” flags that appeal to “all” people.

All I can say is that the “new” South African flag has been the most cross cultural flag ever composed in South African history and it has been the least controversial i.e. it has been the most universally accepted by all South Africans (the very vast majority) with the least amount of disgruntled political posturing to change it.

In summary, to the “old” South Africa OBB supporters I would say:

  1.  The OBB was not the only South African national flag both Afrikaner and English South Africans fought under prior to 1994.
  2. The OBB pays a very high homage to The British Union National Flag in terms of the Vexillology of Flags and Flag Etiquette, especially in terms of the superior/senior position it takes relative to the two Boer Republic flags.
  3. The OBB symbolises the union of Afrikaner and English races – a central philosophy of Jan Christiaan Smuts and that of  “Union” Political Coalition partners and Governments.  Not those ideals of nationalist Afrikaners like Malan, Verwoed and Vorster, whose central political premise was that of an independent “Republic” and “Apartheid”.
  4. The OBB, although a flag of Union with the British, is now very dated.  Times and history changed since South Africa declared itself a Republic, so too the demographic and even social landscape of South Arica.  It cannot work as a current national flag in modern South Africa, change was inevitable – even Smuts would have seen that, and knowing his way of governance he would have welcomed a new flag to reflect it had he been around (in his time he served and lived under four different national flags).
  5. Many key Commonwealth countries have traded in their “Colonial” ensigns and Union flags – Canada, Jamaica, Kenya, Singapore, Hong Kong to name a few, and those still holding onto theirs – Australia and New Zealand, are under strong popular pressure to change them ahead of changing times.

To the “new” South Africa, current National flag supporters I say:

  1. The OBB is the flag of “Union” and it is one of the two Union flags used to bring   South Africa into existence as a country on the central principles of “reconciliation” and “tolerance” between two previously warring races (Boers and Brits), it is not the flag of “Apartheid”- in fact it was developed long before Apartheid was instituted as an ideology (in 1948) and symbolically it’s the complete opposite of Apartheid.
  2. Even the hard-line Apartheid Nationalists hated the old South African OBB, so much they wanted to change it – and eventually they did, and ironically it is the flag you now support, salute, fly and even wear – it was designed by a brief from the outgoing Apartheid Nationalist government in its final throws of office.
  3. The “new” flag very strongly and powerfully associates the flags of South Africa’s “Colonisers” and “Boers” in its design and in fact it celebrates this history – in addition to celebrating the history of the Black peoples of South Africa.
  4. The “new” South African flag does an excellent job balancing South Africa’s history and is very relevant to the current time.  I can’t possibly think of a better solution, and if the ANC and EFF one day decide to change it because of all its “colonial” and “white” legacy, I would hate to see what some Gupta owned design agency in India comes up with, because that really would round off a ‘state capture’.

This is why I allow myself a wry ironic smirk every-time South African flags are so hotly debated.


Researched and written by Peter Dickens.

Featured image by James E McConnell, Watercolour on Board 1973, photo-shopped version and background information courtesy Nicholas Pnematicatos.

30 thoughts on “The inconvenient and unknown history of South Africa’s national flags

  1. Hi I have a copy of a page from The Eastern Province Herald dated 3 August 1927 where they published a full page headed “Are we going to Sacrifice The Jack” showing the flag they wanted.
    I have the original page. Where couldI send the image to.


  2. The new South African flag of the 1920s was by no means a consensus symbol. Natal in particular resented it as a rejection rather than dilution of the British connection. This controversy is well covered in H. Saker, The South African Flag Controversy 1925-1928 (Oxford University Press, 1980). It is also often overlooked that the old South African flag continued to be flown outside the UN Headquarters in New York right up to the transition in 1994. This was a matter of right, since, although South Africa had been suspended from the General Assembly, she continued to be formally a member of the the UN.


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  4. Peter the OBB was to be officially used as the new flag at the Union celebrations on 31 May 1928.Parliament passed the Bill on 27 May 1928 in time for the celebrations. A South African official, from the Dept of Finance, attending a conference in Havana, Cuba pre-empted this and took with him an OBB. On the morning of the 28th May he presented the new flag to the staff hoisting the flags of all the countries represented and thereby used the OBB officially and representing the Union! Did you know this? The conference was on Free Trade in the world? Nogal!


  5. The story of the South African Private Faulds VC, a stretcher bearer at the Battle of Delville Wood, is one of the great heroic stories of WW1. Well worth documenting!


  6. Great article, thank you.
    I see two versions of the “Red Duster”, one with the lower right emblem representing the four provinces and a second one showing the same emblem on a white circular background with the two opposing Springbok. i.e. There are 3 versions shown. ( I have one of the latter in a rather moth-eaten state) What is tjis flag? Thank you for a fasionating article.


    • Johann, the version with the national animals flanking the South African coat of arms was used on government buildings, the one pictured comes from the South African embassy in London and belongs to a friend of mine as part of a rare collection.


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  8. Peter, thanks for the article. Very informative. I was taught that the three smaller flags in die OBB were positioned in such a way as to give them all equal status. Although the Union Jack was closest to the pole (i.e. position of more status), it was reversed. You can see this by looking at the diagonal red lines on the flag. The Orange Free State flag is hung in a vertical position and the old Transvaal flag is furthest from the pole, i.e. each has a “strange” element to it that makes them all equal in status. If that makes sense. Leon


  9. Having come from a family that served from the Boer Wars (on the Boer side), both World Wars (in the Union Defence Forces, Afrikaner and English speakers) to the SADF, the ignorance of historical fact leaves me astounded. A good and informative article.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Peter,
    Congradulations on a good and topical article.

    Roelf Meyer told me that at the presentation of the flag for approval by Fred B, to him, Cyril R and the negotiation committee, one of the committee members commented that there was no Orange in the flag. Fred’s responded that there was!. The Red is not Crimson or Signal Red but Chili Red (aka Army Red). The official heraldic definition of Chili Red, is Red with a hint of Orange. – So there you have it.

    I am given to understand that the Flag is still an interim flag because it has not been gazetted yet. Can anybody confirm this? Also the flag is the only flag worldwide with more than five colours, ie six colours.
    John Del Monte


    • Thoroughly enjoyed this article and the comments. However, the current South African flag also has 6 colours in it.


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  12. What a wake up call always new the NATS wanted the Union Jack out the flag. That is why I cannot understand the hatred to it. Just a time in history.


  13. Whilst your article is factual and informative, it is positioned to excuse the OBB from its role in apartheid. It’s true that it preceded apartheid however it is very clear that the purpose of the OBB was to unite white people.
    “The OBB symbolises the union of Afrikaner and English races ”
    Don’t forget that the Union of SA neatly coincided with the Native Lands Act, which was the precursor to full blown apartheid, whilst severely limited to no political franchise was the order of the day for people of colour.
    The OBB represented inequality and subjugation under white supremacy.
    You article, whilst very informative tries to explain that away.


    • Hi Craig, the purpose of the article was to explain the hidden symbology of the flags and misinterpretation – in no way do I try and explain away Apartheid, I’ve written countless articles on the Apartheid period and you’ll note I’ve exposed the National party for their underpinning Nazi philosophy countless times.


  14. I have certainly enjoyed reading this article, Mr Dickens.

    Throughout the article, conspicuous in its absence, is the recognition of the rest of the people in South Africa’s indigenous and ethnic groupings.

    Wheres the historic role that they played? Any significant fact or contribution from their side.

    I notice huge emphasis on colors. Would it not have been appropriate to include and/or consider fauna and flora, or any unique, or combination of rare features around the country like Table Mountain (WCape), Gods Window (Mpumalanga), Big hole (Northern Cape), Hole in the wall, (Ecape), etc.?

    Despite all our South African heritage’s unique features, beliefs, practices, etiquette, interpretation and the like, surely the one national symbol which operates as a beacon the world over should portray same.

    It was not only Anglo / Boer activity that brought is through the 16 to 1900’s.

    Recognized during ww1 n 2 or not, SA history should reflect all of it’s people.

    Can we start writing about their contribution?


  15. The Red and Blue Ensigns could not have existed at the time of Union on 31st May 1910, as the arms of the Union of South Africa were not granted until 17th September 1910. The shield was then used on the Red Ensign until 1951 and on the Blue until 1946.


    • You are correct John, but I would hate to change Nick’s portrayal of the Red Duster at Union in the picture comparison with the original – and ask him to replace it with the Union Jack – which was the flag in use as at 31st May 1910, but I think the point on the first official flags of South Africa (and not the UK) being the ensigns with the South African coat of arms.


  16. Really enjoyed this article Peter and learned a few more things about our flags (you have written about them before). You really do need to collate all this history into a book which will probably become the reference book for SA history.


  17. The old OBB indeed stand for union brits and boers. But it also stand for a country with 85% non- white population whose colors presence on that flag simply denied. That is why it has been taken by coloreds as apartheid flag. Sorry for my English.


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