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Birds of a (Different) Feather: The curious case of the Ciskei flag and its variants

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

Amathole Museum staff recently unpacked its Ciskei flags, which forms part of the museum's impressive collection of Ciskei objects, and were surprised to notice clear discrepancies in the flags, writes museum historian Stephanie Victor.

These differences were specifically in the depiction of the Blue Crane (Anthropoides paradiseus) or indwe as it is known in Xhosa.

For example, one of the flags depicts the bird with a twig in its beak whilst another boasts no twig and the portrayals of the Blue Cranes are significantly different. Furthermore, all the variations completely ignore the original specifications which were described in the Ciskei Flag Act of 1977 as follows:

The flag of the Ciskei shall be blue with a bend sinister of white, over all a Blue Crane proper edged white (sic). The width of the flag shall be equal to two-thirds of its length. The width of the bend sinister shall be one-sixth of the length of the flag. The height of the Blue Crane shall be one-third of the width of the flag.

We measured the width and length of the blue and white segments of the flags as well as the height of the Blue Crane and found that none of the flags in our collection adhered to the above specifications.

Moreover, although the official description gives the colours of the Blue Crane as proper - that is in its natural colour - in practice the indwe was depicted on the flag in black outline and with black detail against a white background.

The Ciskei is not the only Bantustan with differing flags. The detail for the leopard's head in the flag of Bophuthatswana, for example, differs whilst the font for the capital letter in Venda's flag also shows some variation. Some of the flags also depict colour variations, but none seemingly portray the amount of discrepancies present in the Ciskei flag.

So what is the reason for the widely differing portrayals?

According to Bruce Berry, Website Administrator of, the simple answer lies with the manufacturer's licence. The manufacturer followed the specifications on the official artcard as opposed to that described in the Act. This could possibly explain the presence of the variants.

One manufacturer for example, Monograms, produced flags showing a twig in the beak of the Blue Crane although this was never specified for the flag, but was present in the Ciskei's coat of arms.

Monograms subsequently won a Ciskei Government contract to supply flags and despite the error being pointed out by Bruce Berry the contract was honoured and the flags printed!

I managed to track down Monograms. The company still exists, but they no longer manufacture flags. An ex-employee stated that the company manufactured flags for all the TBVC countries. According to him, Monograms prepared samples for each flag, sent it back for approval to the client and then printed it.

He stated that all the flags were therefore pre-approved by the client. To make matters worse Monograms was not the only company producing incorrect flags, which is probably the reason for the variants in our collection.

The Blue Crane forms the central element of the Ciskei flag, a bird which is very special to the Xhosa. When a man distinguishes himself on the battlefield or by any deed of valour, he was often decorated by the chief in the form of a presentation of blue crane feathers.

The veterans who were honoured in this way would wear the mark of distinction in their hair during a battle. It is, however, still ironic that the indwe was chosen as such an important part of the Ciskei's national symbols as it is also the national bird of South Africa, a country from which the bantustan was supposedly 'independent' of.

Allowing these variants to occur in a nation's flag, arguably a country's most recognized national symbol, representing its people, its values and its sovereignty is perhaps tantamount to the Bantustan's true pariah status. The Ciskei was re-incorporated into South Africa on 27 April 1994 and ceased to exist as a separate political entity and the flag, with its variants, is no longer in use.

Stephanie Victor, Curator of History

Reproduced with the kind permission of the Amathole Museum. View the original article here.

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