Vexillology is the study of the history, design and symbolism of flags. Originally a sub-discipline of heraldry, vexillology has emerged as a separate discipline over the past four decades. The term vexillology is derived from the Latin vexillum, meaning "standard" (flag) and the Greek -ology which means "the study of" and was coined by Dr Whitney Smith in 1957. Dr Smith, now considered one of the fathers of vexillology and the world's most eminent vexillologist, later founded the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Massachusetts, USA on 01 February 1962. The purpose of the Flag Research Center was to provide a focal point for the research and dissemination of information about flags, a depository for flag collections and where vexillological information between individual vexillologists and members of the public can be co-ordinated. The decolonisation process at this point in history resulted in a large increase in the number of national flags as many countries, particularly in Africa, were granted their independence. In order to disseminate the growing amount of flag information, Whitney Smith and Gary Grahl started the publication of "The Flag Bulletin" on 01 October 1961. This purpose of this periodical was to supplement and update existing flag books and charts with accurate flag information. So from this humble beginning, the idea of a specialist study of vexillology as a discipline in its own right began and similar organisations and publications devoted to flags were established in other parts of the world, such that the first International Congress of Vexillology (ICV) was held in the Netherlands in 1965, following which the International Federation of Vexillological Associations (FIAV)
was established in 1967 as an international forum for vexillologists and vexillological associations. Today FIAV has member associations from every continent and ICVs continue to be held every two years.
The Southern African Vexillological Association (SAVA) was formed in November 1990 to promote vexillology in southern Africa. Members of the Association are drawn mainly from flag manufacturers, collectors, military historians and generally anyone with an interest in flags. SAVA became a member of FIAV at the 14th ICV held in Barcelona in 1991 and was the host of the 17th ICV held in Cape Town in 1997.
SAVA produces a Newsletter
three times a year which deals with matters of local and international vexillological interest, new flags and matters relating to the running of the association. A more scholastic Journal
is also published which deals with a particular research topic related to vexillology in southern Africa and is recognised internationally for its high standard. Currently a series on all South African regimental colours and standards since 1652 is being published which will be the most comprehensive record of such flags ever published in this country. SAVA has also published a series of Flag Specification sheets
focusing on the flags of Africa.
Members of SAVA include the former State Herald of South Africa, Mr Frederick Brownell, who is credited with designing the new South African national flag and the current flag of Namibia. Members of the Association have been involved in the design and manufacture of many other flags, particularly municipal, military and corporate flags both locally and elsewhere in southern Africa. The Association has also become an important source of vexillological information and research, including more recently on the internet. Bruce Berry, a founder member of SAVA, is the southern, central and eastern African editor for Flags of the World
, the premier vexillological website and has also served on the Board of FIAV.
The national flag is the most well known symbol of South Africa’s democracy and has been embraced by most South Africans with flags being flown more now than ever before. SAVA is committed to encouraging the flying of the flag and has produced a pamphlet on how to fly the flag correctly and the appropriate protocol when displaying the flag with other flags, at half-mast, indoors etc. Members of the Association, in conjunction with the Bureau of Heraldry, also assist with flag design and address interested groups, such as school children, on all facets of flags.
Although is it not regulated, it is a universal fact that every country today has a national flag which it can call its own. Dr Whitney Smith remarks that "flags are a universal characteristic of human civilisation. With the exception of the most primitive societies and nomadic peoples, it appears that every culture has invented for itself flags of one kind or another - with remarkable similarity in form and function observable throughout the world". Flags are now more widely used, in more ways and in more varieties that ever before, having even been taken into space and planted on the moon. Much to the delight of the one of the world's newest disciplines, this is certainly the "Age of Flags".