The current flag of the Republic of South Africa was adopted on April 27, 1994, during the first free elections and the end of apartheid. A new national flag was adopted to represent the new democratic South Africa.
None of the flag designs submitted by the public was supported by the committee charged to select the final design. An interim flag was designed by State Herald Frederick Brownell for the April 27 elections, the nation's first fully inclusive elections, and for Nelson Mandela's May 10 inauguration. The flag was so well received that the interim version was made the final, national flag in the South African Constitution. Given the troubled historical context, it is remarkable that a consensual replacement for the former national flags was found. The new flag is seen as an enduring symbol of the modern South African state.
The flag has horizontal bands of red (on the top) and blue (on the bottom), of equal width, separated by a central green band which splits into a horizontal "Y" shape, the arms of which end at the corners of the hoist side (and follow the flag's diagonals). The Y embraces a black isosceles triangle from which the arms are separated by narrow yellow bands; the red and blue bands are separated from the green band and its arms by narrow white stripes. The stripes at the fly end are in the 5:1:3:1:5 ratio. The South African flag is the only national flag in the world with six colours and without a seal or brocade. In blazons (a vexillological description using flag terminology), the South African flag is described as "per pall fesswise gules, sable and azure, a fesswise pall vert fimbriated argent, Or and argent."
After the Anglo-Boer War from 1899 to 1902 and the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the British Union Flag became the national flag of South Africa. As was the case throughout the British Empire, the Red and Blue Ensign with the Union coat of arms were granted by British Admiralty warrants in 1910 for use at sea.
These ensigns were not intended to be used as the Union's national flag, although they were used by some people as such, especially the Red Ensign. It was only after the first post-Union Afrikaner government took office in 1925 that a bill was introduced in Parliament to make provisions for a national flag for the Union; this action immediately prompted three years of near civil war, as the British thought that the Boers wanted to remove their cherished imperial symbols. Natal Province even threatened to secede from the Union.
Finally, a compromise was reached that resulted in the adoption of a separate flag for the Union in late 1927, and the design was first hoisted on 31 May 1928. The design was based on the so-called Van Riebeeck flag or Prinsevlag ("Prince's flag" in Afrikaans) which was originally the Dutch flag, and consisted of orange, white, and blue horizontal stripes. A version of this flag was used as the flag of the Dutch East India Company at the Cape (with the VOC logo in the centre) from 1652 until 1795. The South African addition to the design was three smaller flags centred in the white stripe. The smaller flags were the Union Flag towards the hoist, the Orange Free State Vierkleur hanging vertically and the Transvaal Vierkleur towards the fly.
The choice of the Prinsevlag as the basis upon which to design the South African flag had more to do with compromise than Afrikaner political desires, as the Prinsevlag was believed to be the first flag hoisted on South African soil and was politically neutral as it was no longer the national flag of any nation. A further element of this compromise was that the Union Flag would continue to fly alongside the new South African national flag over official buildings. This state of duality continued until 1957 when the Union Flag lost its official status as per an Act of Parliament; the Red Ensign had lost its status as South Africa's merchant flag in 1951.
Following a referendum, the country became a republic on 31 May 1961, but the design of the flag remained unchanged. However, there was intense pressure to change the flag, particularly from Afrikaners who resented the fact that the Union Flag was a part of the flag.
The former Prime Minister and architect of apartheid, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, had a dream to hoist a "clean" flag over South Africa in the 1960s. The proposed design comprised three vertical stripes of the same colour of the Prinsevlag with a leaping Springbok Antelope over a wreath of six proteas in the centre. H.C. Blatt, then assistant secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister, designed the flag. Verwoerd's successor, John Vorster, raised the flag issue at a news conference on 30 March 1971 and said that in light of the impending 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, as happened in the 1920s over the Union Flag, and that the matter would be considered again when circumstances would be "more normal". He also went on to say that "I only want to warn, and express 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".
Despite the flag's origins predating the National Party's ascension to power, the presence of the three little flags in the middle was internationally perceived as being an implied endorsement of apartheid. In this light it is possible to theorise that the end of apartheid may not have beckoned a change in national flag if a more neutral one had indeed been selected in the 1960s, or perhaps even if the three subflags had been merely excised before the Prinsevlag became the inadvertent symbol of apartheid it did.
The choice of a new flag was part of the negotiation process set in motion when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. When a nationwide public competition was held in 1993, the National Symbols Commission received more than 7,000 designs. Six designs were drawn up and presented to the public and the Negotiating Council, but none elicited enthusiastic support. A number of design studios were contacted to submit further proposals, but they were again without success. Parliament went into recess at the end of 1993 without a suitable candidate for the new national flag.
In February 1994, Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer, chief negotiators of the African National Congress and the National Party government of the day respectively, were given the task of resolving the flag issue. A final design was adopted on 15 March 1994, derived from a design developed by Frederick Brownell who had also designed the Flag of Namibia. The proclamation of the new national flag was only published on 20 April 1994, a mere seven days before the flag was to be inaugurated, sparking a frantic last-minute flurry for flag manufacturers. As stated in South Africa's post-apartheid interim constitution, the flag was to be introduced on an interim probationary period of five years, after which there would be discussion about whether or not to change the national flag in the final draft of the constitution. However, the flag was very well received and was included in the final draft without much debate.
To manufacture or reproduce the flag in any manner requires permission from the President of South Africa.
Despite these rules, the new flag has in essence become 'public property', and it would seem that many South Africans are unaware of the fact that rules of respect that had applied to the previous flag also apply to the current flag. The current flag is regularly seen painted on faces during sports events, and 'cut into pieces' for clothing and other uses.
Tradition also states that when draped vertically, a flag should not merely be rotated through 90 degrees, but also reversed. In the case of the South African flag, the black triangle must be uppermost and the red band on the left. One "reads" a flag like the pages of a book, from top to bottom and from left to right, and after rotation the results should be the same. It is also insulting to display the flag in a frayed or dirty state. The same rule applies to the flagpoles and halyards used to hoist the flag – they should always be in a proper state of maintenance. The flag may never be defaced by placing slogans or any writing or design directly on the field of the flag.
The flag should be displayed completely spread out with the red stripe on top. If hung vertically on the wall behind the podium, the red stripe should be to the left of the onlookers facing the flag with the hoist cord at the top.
During a ceremony where the flag is hoisted or lowered, or when the flag is passing in a parade, all persons present, except for those in uniform, should face the flag while standing at attention with the right hand over the heart. Hats should be removed and held in the right hand at the left shoulder with the hand over the heart. Those present in uniform should salute. The same rules apply when the national anthem is played.
An addendum to the Transitional Executive Council agenda (April 1994) described the flag in heraldic terms as follows:
The National flag shall be rectangular in the proportion of two in the width to three to the length; per pall from the hoist, the upper band red (chilli) and lower band blue, with a black triangle at the hoist; over the partition lines a green pall one fifth the width of the flag, fimbriated white against the red and blue, and gold against the black triangle at the hoist, and the width of the pall and its fimbriations is one third the width of the flag.
Schedule One of the Constitution of South Africa (1996) replaced the heraldic definition and described the flag in plain English as follows:
The national flag is rectangular; it is one and a half times longer than it is wide.