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South Africa (1928-1994)


Last modified: 2023-05-20 by bruce berry
Keywords: south africa | suid-afrika |
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image by Clay Moss, 07 Dec 2005

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Flag of 1928-1994

Following the Union of South Africa , that is the joining of the former colonies of Natal, Cape, Transvaal and Orange River on 31 May 1910, South Africa used  defaced red and blue ensigns.  Having suffered defeat in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), many South Africans particularly of Boer extraction found these flags unacceptable.   Discussions about a new flag had taken place from time to time but were interrupted by such pressing issues as World War I and achieving Dominion Status within the British Empire etc. and it was only in 1925 that the matter began to receive renewed attention.  The Balfour Declaration adopted at the Imperial Conference of 1926 defined in general terms the mutual constitutional relationship of the self-governing members of the British Empire (later Commonwealth) whereby Great Britain and the dominions were "equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another" and as such South Africa, as an independent state was entitled to a flag of its own. The flag issue in South Africa was also considered along with the question of nationality.

The issue of inclusion of the Union Jack proved to be a very emotional subject, with the English-speakers on the one side demanding its inclusion and the Afrikaners (Boers) seeing its a symbol of British imperialism demanding it be excluded! A number of proposals were put forward but it was not until the Prinzenvlag design based on the House of Orange that consensus began to emerge.  This design was based on the commonly held view that Jan van Riebeeck has raised an orange, white and blue horizontal tricolour when he arrived at the Cape in April 1652.  The original design had a quartered shield in the centre, each quarter having a symbol to represent the territories making up the Union.  Various other designs were submitted to a Parliamentary Committee which had been established to resolve the issue but none found favour. 

The compromise design eventually adopted saw the flag of the Republic of the Orange Free State hanging vertically in the centre of the white stripe of the Prinzenvlag with the Union Jack spread horizontally towards the hoist from the centre and the flag of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal) spread towards the fly.  In terms of the Union Nationality and Flags Act of 1927 South Africa had two flags, namely the Union Jack to denote association with the British Commonwealth of Nations and a national flag described as being:
 "Three horizontal stripes of equal width from top to bottom, orange, white, blue; in the centre of the white stripe the old Orange Free State Flag hanging vertically, spread in full, with the Union Jack adjoining horizontally, spread in full, towards the pole, and the old Transvaal Vierkleur adjoining horizontally spread in full away from the pole, equidistant from the margins of the white stripe.  The flags shall be of the same size and their shape shall be proportionally the same as the National Flag and the width of each equal to one-third of the width of the white stripe".  This Act came into force on 31 May 1928 when both the new national flag and the Union Jack were hoisted together for the first time at simultaneous ceremonies at the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town and at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.  The flags first hoisted at Parliament are now on display in the Old Assembly chamber.

image by Clay Moss, 07 Dec 2005

The dual flag arrangement continued until 06 April 1957 when the Government brought it to an end with the Flags Amendment Act.  This Act also provided for the sole national anthem of South Africa to be Die Stem van Suid-Afrika/The Call of South Africa without "God Save the Queen" despite Queen Elizabeth II still being head of state.  South Africa withdrew from the British Commonwealth of Nations and became a republic on 31 May 1961.  No changes were made to the national flag or anthem.

The flag, commonly known as the oranje-blanje-blou (orange, white and blue) continued to fly until it was replaced on 27 April 1994 by the flag representing a democratic South Africa.
Bruce Berry, 01 Feb 1998

What are the colour specifications of the former (1928-1994) South African flag in (BS) RGB values?
NB: Blue was BCC 150 Lapis Lazuli in the British Colour Council's "Dictionary of Color Standards".
Mark Sensen, 15 Jun 2002

The only colour specifications I could find for the old SA flag in the old British Standard Colour Classifications are:

  • Orange: BBC 57
  • Blue:  BBC 218
  • Green: BBC 24
  • Red:  BBC 210

Bruce Berry, 03 Jul 2002

Regarding the shade of blue on the former South African flag, the blue stripe was originally described as being "solway" blue but over the years, as can be expected given that South African flags originally came from the UK, the blue stripe changed to the darker "Union Jack blue" until the blue stripe became almost black. This prompted a return to the lighter "solway blue" shade following a Government investigation into the matter in 1982.

Speaking to flag manufacturers on this matter yesterday, all agreed that they used the same shade of blue for the blue stripe and in the Union Jack and Vierkleur flags in the centre of the flag as well.

The other shades in the flag were described as "Spectrum orange", "Green Beetle" and "Union Jack red" with the BCC classifications as indicated above.
Bruce Berry, 06 Dec 2005

Research into the controversy surrounding what flag was used by Jan van Riebeeck when he started his replenishment station in Table Bay on 6 April 1652 reveals the following as outlined in my forthcoming book on SA flags:

"Van Riebeeck makes no mention in his Journal that he hoisted a flag, but it is assumed that he did. There is considerable controversy as to which flag Van Riebeeck might have hoisted. The flag generally used by Dutch vessels at, or before that time was in the colours of the House of Orange in honour of the Prince of Orange, the Stadtholder of the Netherlands. It was the orange, white and blue horizontal tricolour or Prinzenvlag. It was originally used by the so-called Watergeuse or Waterbeggars at sea during their struggle against the Spanish during the Eighty-Year's War and by the end of the war it was firmly established as the national flag of the Netherlands Republic. It is considered that the flag had its origins with the flag of the Province of Zealand which was red, white and blue horizontally. The red was then replaced by orange in honour of William the Silent, Prince of Orange and its first appearance as this Prinzenvlag occurred circa 1572.

Later, towards the middle of the next century, the orange was again replaced by red. The reason for the change of the orange colour to red is not known with certainty, but some authorities ascribe it to the fact that the orange coloured dye was not easy to make and did not remain colour-fast.

Van der Laars, an authority on the flags of the Netherlands, states that from about 1648 and certainly by 1663, the orange had changed to red, and the orange, white and blue tricolour was replaced by the red, white and blue tricolour of today. The point in dispute is whether it was already red at the time of Van Riebeeck's arrival, or still orange. According to Van der Laars, it is likely that it was still the orange version.

Gerard in Flags over South Africa (1952) [ger52], however, makes out a good case that it was already red. He quotes sources, which indicates that most of the bunting used by the Dutch at that period came from India. Proof of this exists in the archives of Zealand (7.11.1630), which records the delivery of six rolls of bunting, red, white and blue. An advertisement in the Navorsher of 1634 mentions ten rolls of bunting, red, white and blue and in 1653 there is mention of many bales of sater - Indian cotton, dyed red, white and blue. The Indian dyers used kurkuma (turmeric) to which they added kav - a reddish rocky material - in order to obtain the orange colour used to dye the khadi-material (loosely hand-woven cotton cloth which we call bunting) to orange. This kav-stone was ground into a fine dust and then mixed with oil, water and turmeric wherein the khadi-cloth was then soaked. In order to obtain a rich orange colour, more kav and less turmeric was used by the Indian dyers and in time the orange changed to a flame red colour. *

Gerard also states that in many of the paintings of the Thirty Year's War (1618 - 1648), the ensigns of the Netherlands are clearly already indicated as red, white and blue. He further states that it is therefore clear that when Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape he did so with flags which were already using flame red instead of orange. Dr Pama in his book Lions and Virgins (1965) [pam65] produces evidence that on 14 August 1654 Jan van Reinbeck ordered rolls of red, white and blue bunting from Batavia in order to make flags for the fort and ships at the Cape. This seems to confirm Gerard's view. However, Pama also found an instruction by Van Riebeeck dated 22 August 1653 to the garrison and visiting ships that on the sighting of approaching vessels, the Princevlag (his spelling) must be hoisted over the Fort and the same must be done by the approaching vessels. This was obviously meant as a recognition signal during the time of the First Anglo-Dutch War. Pama explains this contradiction with the view that there was at that time not a great deal of importance attached to whether the upper bar was orange or red, with red probably only regarded as a discolouring of orange. The red took on political importance only during the decades of struggle for power between the States-General of the Netherlands and the Princes of Orange which ended with the confirmation in power of William III in 1672 as Stadtholder and Captain-General of the Dutch forces. The instruction for the signal was arrived at in consultation with Captain Douwe Aukes, captain of the Phenix who was strongly in favour of the orange bar in the flag. The year before he had been in command of another East Indiaman Struisvogel and participated with her in the encounter between the hostile English and Dutch fleets off Plymouth in 1652. It was during this naval battle that the colour of the flag had become a political question and the Dutch sailors refused to fight under any other flag than the orange-white-and blue. The reason for the politicising of the flag was the refusal of the States-General to appoint a member of the House of Orange as head of the government and expressed its enmity by changing the orange to red in the national flag. This decision was strongly resented by the people, especially the sailors. He also quotes the Dutch historian J.C. de Jonge who in his authoritative work on the maritime history of the Netherlands writes as follows: "At least until October 1653 the old Princevlag was still in use by the Netherlands navy" and he shows that between 1653 and 1660 the States-General's red-white-blue flag was generally introduced because of the enmity between the States and the House of Orange. Pama's opinion is that when Van Riebeeck ordered the red bunting he was simply conforming to his superiors instructions and following their declared policy for changing the orange to red".

I am of the opinion that no matter whether it was red or orange, Jan van Riebeeck probably used the VOC flag over the fort. He was after all a servant of the Dutch East Indies Company and not of the States-General. What is certain is that the Dutch tricolour was most definitely already red, white and blue fully a century before the First British Occupation of the Cape.
Andries Burgers, 02 June 2005

* Gerard claims that he obtained this information from Professor P.K. Gode, curator of the Bhandakar Oriental Research Institute in Poona, India. He unfortunately does not provide his other sources or dates.

This was interesting to read. One conclusion could be, that it is not possible to set a date for the change of orange into red of the Dutch flag, because it was made during a span of time. Is that right?

If the change would have been made by some decision, who would have decided on this? The States General, the Stadholder or someone else?
Elias Granqvist, 06 June 2005

Pending evidence to the contrary, this is (given the so far available data) the only conclusion possible. None the less, we now have a definitive date from which we may say that the change was "documented", and visual proof (upon which we can place reasonable reliance) that the change had become officially recognized by 1665.
Christopher Southworth, 06 June 2005

Current status regarding the display of the flag in South Africa

South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that the “gratuitous” public display of the country’s old apartheid-era flag amounts to hate speech and racial discrimination and can be prosecuted reports Associated Press (21 April 2023).

The Supreme Court didn’t, however, give a ruling on whether displaying the national flag from South Africa’s era of brutal racial segregation in the privacy of a home should also be considered hate speech or discriminatory.

Arguments over that specific matter should first be presented to the lower court that initially banned the flag in 2019, the Supreme Court said.  The decision on the public showing of the old flag, which was South Africa’s national flag from 1928 until it was abolished when the country achieved democracy in 1994, upheld that ruling given by the Equality Court four years ago.

Afriforum, a lobby group that says it represents the interests of South Africa’s white Afrikaans people, challenged the banning of the flag in the Supreme Court, saying such a “wide-reaching ban” was an infringement of the right to freedom of expression.

But in its ruling, the Supreme Court said that “those who publicly hold up or wave the old flag convey a brazen, destructive message that they celebrate and long for the racism of our past.”

The fate of the orange, white and blue flag has been a highly charged issue in South Africa, particularly for the country’s Black majority, many of whom view it as an overt symbol of the institutionalized racism and brutality of the apartheid regime.

The apartheid system officially came into being in 1948 and was formally dismantled when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994, when Blacks were allowed to vote for the first time. South Africa adopted its current flag at the time of those first all-race elections.

For some South Africans, the apartheid-era flag has similar connotations to the swastika flag of Nazi Germany.

Arguing in support of the ban, the South African Human Rights Commission referred to the case of Dylann Roof, the white man convicted and sentenced to death for the 2015 racist killings of nine Black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, as an example of how the apartheid-era flag retained clear connections to violent white supremacists.

Roof once appeared in a photograph wearing a jacket with the flag on it
Gerald Imray (Associated Press), 21 April 2023

The South African Flag Controversy (1927)

The Afrikaners - Boere; Voortrekkers; or South African Dutch (according to the English) -  in spite of being a mixture of Dutch, French, German and quite a few other nationalities, including Khoi, cherished their Dutch connections for most of the nineteenth century during their increasingly bitter struggles against British imperialism. There is still in Afrikaans today a saying: "Die Kaap is weer Hollands" ("The Cape is Dutch again") meaning everything is all right again. This came about when the Cape was returned to the Batavian Republic at the Peace of Amiens in 1803. Three years later the British were back again for the next 160 years. After the turmoil of the Great Trek when the Voortrekkers left the Cape Colony for the interior, they  established the Republic of Natalia and not surprisingly chose the red, white and blue of the old Dutch "Driekleur" (three colour), but with the white an inverted pile, as their flag. This republic did not last long as in 1843 it was annexed by the British who could not stand the thought of British subjects simply trekking away from their allegiance, however unwilling, to the crown.

In the 1850's the British suffered a bout of anti-colonialism and abandoned the countries to the north of the Orange River to their fate.  In 1854, the Boere in the Trans-Oranje, established the Republic of the Orange Free State (Oranje Vrijstaat). On the day of independence they hoisted the Driekleur for lack of their own flag.  This flag they called the Bataafsche Vlag in memory of the Batavian Republic, they having of course no experience with the Dutch Kingdom established in 1816.  The first president, Josias Hoffman, then wrote to a friend of the Voortrekkers in Holland asking him to approach King Willem III for the grant of a flag and a coat of arms for the new republic.  This must be a unique event in the history of both vexillology and heraldry - a republic asking a monarch to grant a flag and arms?  The upshot of all this was the old Orange Free State flag with the Driekleur in the canton and the three orange and four white bars.

The Transvalers took a while longer to find unity and establish an organised state, but in 1856 they finally adopted a constitution and a flag. The committee who decided on the design of the Transvaal Vierkleur (four colour) was advised by the Reverend Dirk van der Hoff, his brother Marthinus and Jacobus Stuart, all born Hollanders. The result was the Driekleur (three colour) with a vertical green bar added along the hoist. The continued attachment of the Boere to the old Driekleur and their Dutch heritage comes out clearly in the flag designs which they adopted for these three republics.

After the Anglo Boer South African War (1899-1902) and the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the British Union Jack became the national flag of the united South Africa. The Red and Blue ensigns with the Union coat of arms in the fly, were granted by British Admiralty warrants in 1910 (amended in 1912) for use at sea as was the case all over the British Empire. They were not intended as national flags for the Union although some people used them as such (especially the Red Ensign).  It was only in 1925, after the first post-Union Afrikaner government took office, that a Bill was introduced in parliament to make provision for a national flag for the Union of South Africa. This action immediately led to some three years of civil strife and near civil war. The British thought that the Boere wanted to do away with their cherished Imperial symbols. The province of Natal even threatened to secede from the Union. A compromise was finally reached which resulted in the adoption of a flag for the Union late in 1927 and which was first hoisted on 31 May 1928. This was based on the so-called Van Riebeeck flag, which was in reality the old Princevlag, of orange, white and blue horizontal stripes with three smaller flags centred in the white stripe.  These 'flaglets' were the British Union Jack towards the hoist, the Orange Free State Vierkleur hanging vertically and the Transvaal Vierkleur towards the fly. The choice of the Prinzenvlag as the basis of the new flag had more to do with finding an acceptable compromise (the Prinzenvlag supposedly being the first flag hoisted on South African soil - although this is not at all certain - and being a neutral design as it was no longer a current national flag) than having anything to do with Afrikaner political desires. A further part of the compromise was that the British Union Jack would continue to fly alongside the Union national flag everywhere over official buildings. South Africa was thus one of a few countries in the world, as far as I am aware, that flew two national flags simultaneously!  This situation continued until 1957 when the Union Jack was finally dispensed with by an Act of Parliament.

Sources: "The South African Flag Controversy" by Henry Saker, Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1980; [skr80]
"Die Vlae van Suid-Afrika" by Dr C. Pama, Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town, 1984; [pam84]
"SAVA Journal SJ: 4/95: The History of Flags of South Africa before 1900". [zyl95]
Andre Burgers, 18 Jan 2001

Although it was taken into use in 1928, the parliamentary debate on the orange-white-blue flag took place in 1927, so it is frequently referred to as the flag of 1927.  Looking at your page on flag proposals, I notice that one particularly insulting nickname of the House of Assembly’s proposal – the one which stuck – is not mentioned.

The National Party, which had a slender majority and was in government, was not able to prevent this flag design from being approved, but maintained that the shield was no more than a scab which would in due course fall away. The shield flag was for many years known as the “scab flag” – possibly because the only people who referred to it in public were the radical Nationalists (especially Dr D F Malan’s Gesuiwerde Nasionale Party which abandoned the coalition government of 1934).

Dr Malan’s preference was for the Princevlag, so for him the “scab” (the quartered shield) was totally unacceptable. Yet his party (the Herenigde Nasionale Party which won the 1948 general election) quite happily accepted the 1928 flag (despite the presence of the Union Jack), and eventually abandoned its intention of returning to the Prinzenvlag.
Mike Oettle, 24 May 2002

I remember reading somewhere that somewhere around the years 1969-1971 a proposal was made for replacing the "1928" flag with the Prinzenvlag. Does anyone know more details about this? Was it an official proposal and/or was it taken in consideration seriously?
Mark Sensen, 24 May 2002

On 28 September 1968 the then ruling National Party announced a commission under the chairmanship of Mr Justice JF Marais to look into the matter of a new flag for South Africa and that any new design should be hoisted on Republic Day (31 May) in 1971 - the 10th anniversary of the declaration of the the republic. However, Mr John Vorster, the then Prime Minister of South Africa, decided later that new flags and symbols were not necessary and that it would be "petty politics" to interfere in the matter and accordingly, no further attempt was made to change the then national symbols of the country until the advent of democracy in 1994.

As most vexillologists are aware, the previous South African flag was born following a fierce debate and was in essence a compromise symbol between the English and Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans following the Anglo-Boer South African War of 1899-1902. There were numerous attempts to change the flag, particularly from Afrikaners who detested the "Union Jack" being part of the flag.

The former Prime Minister (and architect of apartheid) Dr Verwoerd had a dream to hoist a "clean" flag over South Africa in the 1960s. The proposed design comprised three vertical stripes of blue, white and orange (Princevlag colours) with a leaping springbok over a wreath of six proteas in the centre. This flag was designed by Mr HC Blatt, then assistant secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister had already approved this design but his assassination in 1966 left the matter in abeyance until the National Party meeting in 1968, as referred to above. The successor to Dr Verwoerd, Mr John Vorster, raised the flag issue at a news conference on 30 March 1971 and said in the light of the impending elections and 10th anniversary Republic Day celebrations, he preferred "to keep the affair in the background". This he said was done because he did not want the flag question to degenerate into a political football (perhaps reflecting on the 1920s experience) and that the matter would be considered again when circumstances would be "more normal".

"I only want to warn, and express the hope, that no person should drag politics in any form into this matter because the flag must, at all times, be raised above party politics in South Africa" he said.

Verwoerd's dream for a new South African flag, with black and white illustration, is published in SAVA Newsletter 3/92 (July 1992) and is based on an article published in the Afrikaans newspaper, Rapport, on 15 December 1991.
Bruce Berry, 31 May 2002

Upside-down Union Flag ?

The UK flag within the Old South African one is upside down. Is that the way it is supposed to be?
R Nathan Bliss, 6 March 1998

This is my understanding and feel free to correct me:
It isn't upside down; it is being seen from the back! This was an elaborate trick to keep any one of the three flags from having "precedence" - the British flag as portrayed on the old South African flag as at the honour point (left); but since you are seeing the reverse, from the "proper" perspective the UJ is really on the left.
Joshua Fruhlinger, 9 March 1998

The Union Jack is not upside but is spread horizontally from the Free State flag towards the hoist, thus is in the superior position (by being closest to the hoist) but also reversed.  As Josh says, an "elaborate trick"!
Bruce Berry, 10 March 1998

World War II

I was wondering what flag South African army forces would have been flying during World War II alongside the British? Can you help me out?
Tristan Noone, 13 Jun 2001

South African forces in East Africa flew their own national flag. In a July 1941 letter to the Colonial Office about the use of British flags in the territory, the Governor of Tanganyika referred to the Union Jack, adding that "I do not use the expression out of ignorance but since the wartime eruption of Union troops in East Africa the term Union Flag is usually associated with the Vierkleur (Four Colour of the former Transvaal)."

The formation badges were yellow and green.  That of the 1st South African Division (raised in Kenya in 1940, then  Somaliland, Abyssinia and North Africa) was a diamond divided in half horizontally, yellow over green, later a rectangle yellow over green on which was superimposed a black wildebeest. The 2nd South African Division in North Africa was a circle divided yellow over green while the 6th South African Armoured Division in Italy was a yellow triangle with a green border.
David Prothero, 15 Jun 2001

It is quite correctly stated that the Union Flag of 1927 was used by SA forces. My father, who served in the Second World War, assured me that the Union Jack was hardly to be seen at SA military installations. Ironically, since my Dad served (in 1944-45, in the 6th SA Armoured Division in Italy) in a Natal infantry regiment (previously he had been in the SA Corps of Engineers and the SA Tank Corps, and was not himself from Natal) there was one exception to this:
Natal Command (army regional headquarters) in Durban, from 1927 to 1961, always flew the Union Jack and the Union Flag side by side. The Natal Provincial Administration also flew the two flags together, as did most Natal local governments (the corporations of Durban and Pietermaritzburg and the boroughs of the other towns).

The reason for this was that Natal was far more closely attached to the British Crown than the other provinces of the Union, and was fiercely loyal to the British connection. The deviation at Natal Command was tolerated for this reason.

The only military bases elsewhere in the Union where the Union Jack was flown were the Royal Navy installations on the Cape coast and the Joint Flying Schools, which were run by both the Royal Air Force and the South African Air Force. At these, naturally, the White Ensign and the Air Force Ensign respectively were also in evidence.
Mike Oettle, 08 Dec 2001

Retention of the 1912 Red Ensign

The 1912 Red Ensign was retained as South Africa's merchant flag until 1951.
Mike Oettle, 10 May 2003