The phrase was elaborated upon by President Nelson Mandela in his first month of office, when he proclaimed: "Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world" (cited in Manzo 1996, p.71).
In a series of televised appearances, Tutu spoke of the 'Rainbow People of God'. As a cleric, this metaphor drew upon the Old Testament story of Noah's Flood, and its ensuing rainbow of peace. Within South African indigenous cultures, the rainbow is associated with hope and a bright future (as in Xhosa culture).
The secondary metaphor the rainbow allows is more political. Unlike the primary metaphor, the room for different cultural interpretations of the colour spectrum is slight. Whether the rainbow has Newton's seven colours, or five of the Nguni (i.e., Xhosa and Zulu) cosmology, the colours are not taken literally to represent particular cultural groups. The implied rhetoric avoids direct reference to colour in the sense of race (especially when acknowledging that natural rainbows have neither white nor black, the two race-associative colours). The colours are simply said to symbolise the diversity of South Africa's usually unspecified cultural, ethnic or racial groups.
Rainbow Nation, as a spoken metaphor for South African unity is uniquely (although not deliberately) represented by the internationally acclaimed South African flag, which sports six near-rainbow colours.
The term 'Rainbow Nation' is most often applied by the South African media when referring to South Africa in the context of its fledgling democracy. As such, many non-South Africans know the country by this term. The wide-scale use of the term has lent itself as a quasi-patriotic expression, used in a multitude of applications (for instance, commercial when advertising a product.) This use is not unlike American patriotism and its unfettered use of the American flag and Bald Eagle when pushing or promoting a distinctly American agenda.
South African politician, academic and noted poet Jeremy Cronin cautions:
"Identity formation as well as the myth of the 'rainbow nation' and its performative intention have served to discursively create a national identity that has been top-down in its constitution and implementation. As a result, true reconciliation has been foregone in place of a simplified and somewhat candy-coated myth of peace that has served to reconcile those on the inside whilst pitting them against those on the outside. Allowing ourselves to sink into a smug rainbowism will prove to be a terrible betrayal of the possibilities for real transformation, real reconciliation, and real national unity that are still at play in our contemporary South African reality.
Perceptions of escalating crime rates in the country and a perceived weakening economy have led some to mistrust the beatific picture rainbowism portrays, much like the concept of the American Dream.
Gay-rights activists in South Africa have used the imagery provided by the Rainbow Nation phrase to interpret it to mean tolerance of homosexuals in the country. This alternative interpretation connects well to the international rainbow colour motif as used by gays and lesbians around the world to express their identity, as well as the original connotations of diversity and tolerance expressed in the term, but is an unintentional connotation of the phrase as originally used.