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Banning old SA Flag will be counter productive

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If calls for banning the old flag are answered, it will no longer be a cloth not worth our time, but it will become a martyr for freedom.

There’s a pervasive and absurd notion floating around the world nowadays that if something offends us, we must in some way venture to ban or censor it. That we must argue with it, ignore it, or ridicule it no longer occurs to us; instead, we want to use violence to ensure we don’t see or hear it, writes Martin van Staden.

The Apartheid government, certainly, was one of the enablers of this mentality. It banned ‘obscenities’ like pornography and gambling, and conduct which ostensibly offended public morality, like interracial marriages or press coverage against the Apartheid system.

The Australian government today bans video games it deems grotesque, often hiding behind the now-dead horse fallacy that video games cause violence among children.

As South Africans, we should be pretty proud of our post-Apartheid government, for our level of freedom of expression is literally unrivalled throughout the continent. Even places like Germany has less freedom of expression than South Africa. The South African government has slipped up in some respects, however, not least of which are its threats to ban Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keepers.

The recent Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, stands to ban virtually all expression of any consequence.

Other legislative interventions like the Equality Act also make certain kinds of bigoted speech sanctionable, but usually only with hefty fines. These laws should be opposed, but on the whole, South Africa has done pretty well.

The latest clarion call is for the old South African flag to be banned. Some qualify this demand, saying that it is inappropriate for the flag to be displayed in so-called ‘public’ spaces, but that it can be displayed privately. Others call for a total ban.

What is public space?

What is and what is not a ‘public’ space, of course, nobody knows. Does it refer to public property, i.e. that which is possessed by government? Does it refer to spaces where, hypothetically, two strangers might run into each other in the ordinary course of events? Does it refer to specially-designated zones? What makes a house ‘private’, but a business not? Does my home stop being private if I ordinarily invite strangers in for coffee?

The absurd potential consequences of this indeterminacy were almost manifested with government’s draconian liquor regulations, which now appear to have been shelved.

Those regulations banned the sale of liquor within 500 meters of a list of ‘places’. Among these were ‘transport facilities’. This term, not defined in the regulation, by common sense would dictate that everything from roads and sidewalks to bus stops and train stations were transport facilities.

Where, then, in South Africa would one be able to sell liquor? The answer was nowhere, save perhaps for a remote patch of dirt in the Karoo.

Those proudly displaying the old South African flag deserve criticism. But as rights-bearing individuals, they are entitled to be free from violence.

Rights not relative

“Rights are not relative. Bigots, like decent people, have rights, and enjoy all the entitlements of those rights. Rights cannot be revoked simply because one uses them in a displeasing way.

The concept of freedom would be meaningless if it meant one can only do popular things. Instead, rights exist specifically to protect people doing those things which the political class or the majority in society do not approve of.

Libertarians generally do not have the luxury of choosing our fights. For instance, it is not we who chose to ban marijuana or sex work. Moral busybodies did that. We resisted it and, after we lost, continue to agitate against those bans.

We would much rather concern ourselves with those things that comprehend a good life; fun, work, responsibility, community, family, etc.

Instead, we are forced to take up issues – often uncomfortable ones – because a significant segment of society is always looking to betray their one key obligation in a civilized world: Do not violate the liberty of other individuals.

It is not because we want to smoke weed or patronize prostitutes that we stand up for individual liberty, but because we find it morally detestable that violence is used as an apparent ‘solution’ to these ostensible social ills.

The flag

In the case of the flag, most South African libertarians are likely either opposed to it for representing a period ln our history where individual rights were not constitutionally protected and the government branch – Parliament – was sovereign, or apathetic toward it, because at the end of the day it is simply a piece of cloth meaning different things to different people.

Most of us do not want to talk about the old flag. But we seem to be entering a period where it will become very relevant for libertarians to talk about, and to fiercely defend, the rights of those who choose to fly and associate themselves with the flag.

To be clear: If the old South African flag is banned, whether it is limited to ‘public’ spaces or not, it will – it must – become a rallying post for everyone, of whatever race, who is concerned with freedom of expression and association.

Not because we associate with the movement for an Afrikaner homeland or with Apartheid nostalgia, but because we know it is a slippery slope. First the flag, then Die Stem, then Afrikaans being struck from the national anthem in total, then English, then Afrikaans will stop being a language of instruction at schools, then Zulu, until only English (and Mandarin) remains, then this will also become mandatory for private schools, then private schools will be indistinguishable from public schools and suffer regulatory banning, then Afrikaans television and radio will be forced to ‘transform’, etc. This is how the creep of statism works in the presence of a weak constitution.

Inevitably, if calls for banning the old flag are answered, it will no longer be a cloth not worth our time, but it will become a martyr for freedom. Few people will understand why and will, predictably, label everyone who stands only for the right of individuals and communities to associate with whatever and whoever they want, as racists.

Let’s avoid this tedious exercise by nipping the whole narrative in the bud. Let those who so choose to fly their ‘cloths.’ Rather engage them, ridicule them, insult them, or ostracize them, but if you use violence against them, directly or indirectly through the State, you are not winning or putting yourself on the ‘right side of history’. Instead, you are making them martyrs and using the exact same thinking as the Apartheid government you claim to oppose.

(This is a shortened version of an article published on Rational Standard. Martin van Staden is Editor in Chief of the Rational Standard and BeingLibertarian.com.)  

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