Frederick Brownell passed away on Friday, 10 May, at a time when South Africa was undergoing its sixth transitional phase.
The news of his unfortunate passing came just two days after the country had gone to the polls to elect a new leader.
The 79-year-old was very much a part of our historic transition from apartheid to a more inclusive and democratic system in 1994.
His contribution to it, with the creation of the modern South African flag, immortalised him as one who will always be remembered for envisaging the convergence and unity that was birthed from the ashes of tyranny.
How Frederick Brownell designed the South African flag
It was in May, 37 years ago, when Brownell was promoted to State Herald at the South African Bureau of Heraldry. Prior to that, he had been an assistant State Herald for five years.
His duty was to design coats of arms, badges and flags. He is even credited as the designer of the flag of Namibia.
But none was more important, both in his career and in the country’s history, than the creation of the modern South African flag.
Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, in his reaction to the news of Brownell’s passing, recalled the time when the late 79-year-old delivered the designs of the flag just in time for its proclamation on 20 April 1994.
“After 3 years of failed attempts, on the night of 25 August 1993 Fred Brownell doodled an idea on the back of a congress program based on the idea of the convergence of South Africa’s peoples into one nation. This idea is what was to become the 1st flag of democratic South Africa,” Mthethwa tweeted.
After 3 years of failed attempts, on the night of 25 August 1993 Fred Brownell doodled an idea on the back of a congress program based on the idea of the convergence of South Africa’s peoples into one nation. This idea is what was to become the 1st flag of democratic South Africa pic.twitter.com/k73mYU1Vbd
— Min. Nathi Mthethwa (@NathiMthethwaSA) May 12, 2019
The first three-pronged design
Brownell knew at the time that there was a frantic need for a new national symbol to accentuate the undertakings of the country’s transition to democracy.
However, after penning down rough drafts of the flag — Three arms that came in from the flagpole side of the flag (the “hoist”) and became one — at a flag conference in Zurich, Switzerland, Brownell pocketed the idea, not knowing that he would revisit it again.
In a 2014 interview with BBC News, Brownell recalled the night he received a call with instructions to deliver a flag for the new South Africa, eight weeks before the first democratic elections.
“My mind started wandering. And then it struck me – aren’t we looking for convergence and unification? I was struck by the extent it resonated with what Mandela had in mind. ‘Yes, it might work!’ I thought,” he recalled.
The importance of the flag’s colours
The variations of the initial design all featured the three-pronged arms. However, thanks to his daughter, Claire, the middle arm was removed and it became just two arms converging into one.
“Dad, use your brain! People will stand that on its head and turn it into the nuclear peace sign. The middle leg must go.” she said.
The placement of the colours on the flag was another critical factor Brownell had to consider. The converging arms could not be red. He had to be very cautious about the usage of white, blue and orange too.
“I think one must realise that red, white and blue or orange white and blue harked back to South Africa’s colonial heritage,” he stated.
So, channelling inspiration from South Africa’s cultural diversity and the colours of political parties that played a crucial role in the fight against apartheid, Brownell borrowed the green, gold and black from the flag of the African National Congress (ANC).
He also featured the blue, white, and chilli red to encapsulate the inclusivity of a nation once torn by hatred and segregation.
At the time, President Cyril Ramaphosa was the ANC’s negotiator, and after the design had been approved by FW de Klerk and his council, it was his responsibility to present the mock-up of the flag to Mandela, who at the time, lived in Rustenberg.
“A design had been sent to Mandela by fax. Somebody on the other end had to run down to the stationery shop, grab some colouring pencils, and colour in the flag,” Brownell recalled.
After Mandela’s approval, the flag went into production. Brownell recalled the quiet reception the flag received when it was brandished for the first time after the elections.
“Public reaction was muted, originally. But once Mandela was inaugurated on 10 May, with the flags draped over Union Buildings in Pretoria, people warmed to the fact they had a new president, with a new flag to go with him. The level of acceptance exceeded my wildest expectations,” he added.
Till this day, the flag Brownell designed speaks of the long road to unity South Africa has been embarking on. It may be a long way to go before the country becomes truly unified but the resilience in our efforts was expressed, to perfection, by Brownell.
May his soul rest in eternal peace.