Faculty members at the University of Pretoria (UP) have paid tribute to UP alumnus Dr Fred Brownell, designer of South Africa’s iconic flag, who passed away at his home in Pretoria on Friday 10 May.
Dr Brownell was a postgraduate student in UP’s Department of Historical and Heritage Studies who obtained his PhD in History in 2015 with a thesis entitled “Convergence and unification: the national flag of South Africa (1994) in historical perspective”, under the supervision of Professor Karen Harris, head of the department. “He was an absolute pleasure to work with,” Prof Harris says. “I was honoured to have him as a student, and the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at the University of Pretoria is proud to have him as an alumnus.”
Professor Tawana Kupe, UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal, expressed the UP community’s sadness at the passing of such a storied alumnus. “Dr Brownell’s momentous contribution to South Africa’s democratic story will live on via our much-loved flag, the most colourful in the world, and certainly one of the most recognisable. The University of Pretoria is proud to have been the academic home for Dr Brownell’s much applauded doctoral studies, and we extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. We trust that his work and memory will live on in the flags he helped create, one of which so quickly became an iconic symbol for millions of South Africans.”
Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of UP’s Faculty of Humanities, also extended the faculty’s condolences. “Dr Brownell’s signal contribution to nation building, which has helped so greatly in uniting South Africans in their diversity and commitment to creating a society that reflects all its people, is a contribution that captures the very essence of the Humanities. We are proud of the impact which our students and alumni continue to make in the world, and each in their own way fly the flag of South Africa and its values, as well as the flag of UP.”
Dr Brownell’s doctoral thesis presented a detailed analysis of the process by which South Africa’s democratic-era national flag came into being ahead of its unveiling in March 1994, and its first official hoisting on 27 April 1994, the day of South Africa’s first democratic elections. Dr Brownell, who was South Africa’s State Herald from 1982 to 2002, was also involved in the design of the Namibian flag adopted in 1990. He was not only directly involved in every phase of the process of choosing a new South African flag, but saw his design chosen after a public competition failed to produce a design that elicited public support.
“In contrast to the previous national flag adopted in 1928, which was essentially a symbol of state, our present national flag has truly been embraced as a symbol of the people,” Prof Harris says. “When we consider the historical tensions in South Africa before and during the negotiation process which led to our new democratic dispensation, the level of acceptance of this flag, across the broad spectrum of society, has been truly remarkable.”
In recognition of this achievement and for his work as State Herald, Dr Brownell was the first South African to receive (in 1995) the Vexillon award of the International Federation of Vexillological Associations (FIAV) for “his important contribution to vexillology”. He is currently the only recipient to have received this award twice, as he was awarded a Vexillon again in 2015 for his doctoral thesis, which has been praised as one of the most significant academic contributions to flag science. He was also recognised as a Laureate of the FIAV.
Dr Brownell was also a recipient of the Order for Meritorious Service, Silver, as designated by President Nelson Mandela in 1999.