The controversy surrounding the National Monumental Flag Project provides an appropriate yardstick for the appraisal of the relationship between national symbols, social cohesion and the national identity.

Billed as an initiative of the sport, arts and culture department , this project entails the construction of a giant flagpole from which the national flag will fly 100m above Freedom Park in Pretoria, at an estimated cost to the public of R22 million.

It sparked intense condemnation by civil society, members of the alliance and from other political parties, resulting in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s declaration that he had advised besieged Sport, Arts and Culture Minister, Nathi Mthethwa, to “cancel this thing”. In conveying his message beneath a chuckle, one got the impression that, for the president, this episode was little more than an irritating embarrassment.

His response is reminiscent of a popular expression in township lingo. When one is about to foolishly engage in public misconduct – especially of the kind that may damage the group’s “street cred” – friends often whisper the caution – Jinda daai ding!

Critics argued that the initiative was an overpriced “vanity project”, and that the Minister was “out of touch”.

As the wave of public criticism flooded in, the department tossed out several justifications in a desperate attempt to keep the project afloat.  These included that it would serve to “deepen social cohesion”; at night it would be lit to “continue education day and night”, and that its “value would outlive us.” In the end the project was withdrawn, pending a review.

A distinctive flag is one of the primary symbols through which a nation projects its sovereignty to the global community of nations. While all national symbols are important the national flag and anthem are typically used as the quintessential manifestations of a people’s founding tenets.

In the case of South Africa, in addition to the flag and the national anthem (Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica) the portfolio of national symbols includes the coat of arms and its motto (!KE E: /XARRA //KE), the national tree (real yellowwood); national bird (blue crane); national fish (galjoen); national flower (protea) and the national animal (springbok).

National symbols are a window into the soul of a nation. They define a nation’s relationship with its past, and provoke its imagined futures. They lionise the soul of a nation and toughen it for impending battle. Infused with these sentiments, some of these symbols power national teams, such as our rugby and cricket squads, as they take on the world and generate intense pride in moments of triumph.

Against this background, it is disappointing that after 28 years of democracy, South Africa has still not defined what it truly means to be South African.

For a country with such a rich political and cultural DNA, our nation’s character is bland and uninspired. Our nation’s totemic chants do not intimate any peculiar attributes, nor do they entice citizens to a well-articulated cause.

In part, this is because, although some of our symbols may insinuate concepts such as unity, there is no definitive socio-political or philosophical framework that incubates such national values in us for them to be born of us.

We do occasionally develop some fuzzy feelings of nationhood, usually around competitive sporting events, but the symbols that draw us into these arenas yield a fragile romance that has never transcended the field of play.

In the era of former president Nelson Mandela, we embraced the idea of a rainbow nation, a rather non-interrogative, neo-liberal ticket that circumvented sincere reckoning with those systemic inequities that still commit our country to a future as ugly as our past.

In the era of former president Thabo Mbeki, we attempted to lift our gaze towards a distant horizon, deep into the heart of the continent. These ideals, however, require a bold refashioning of the national psyche, such as that sponsored by black consciousness and Pan Africanism.

These were not conventions rooted in the congress tradition, and at times they appeared misplaced in an organisation that was historically more at ease with measured reform than radical overhaul.

With the forced handing of the baton to Jacob Zuma, the Africanisation of the national identity was aborted by tribalism, which destroyed any remaining traits of political consciousness, including lessons in non-racialism. العب وربح

Under this cultish leadership, our liberators of yesteryear became not only the captors of our nation’s future, they also soiled our national identity.

Then history desperately tapped the former deputy president – during an incessant nap on duty – with the song Phakama Ramaphosa. He finally got his groove back with Hugh Masekela’s Thuma Mina.

Citizens jumped on to the floor in anticipation, as his rendition seemed to challenge them to a dance with government in redirecting our course. With the country having been pulled back from the brink, this was the perfect opportunity for the president to whisper sweet somethings about how to cuddle as partners of change and how the light of the new dawn would lift the gloom of yesterday’s clouds and brighten our flag.

However, beyond the charm during foreplay, there has been no happy ending.

It is for these reasons that the public outcry against the national project ought to yield more than just childish embarrassment from the President.

To the attentive ear, it is another warning sign of a failing system; a system once sold to citizens on the promise of substantive change but of which the outcomes have largely been symbolic.

Indeed, the public rejection of the primary image of South Africa is a proclamation that Ramaphosa’s administration has failed to bring about an inclusive democracy. Citizens are by this demonstration, rejecting such symbolism as mere trickery that is intended to obscure the miscarriages of our democracy.

Consequently, it was encouraging to see that the recent policy conference of the ANC included the issue of an arts, culture and heritage policy on its agenda.

One hoped that the organisation would do substantive justice to this important item, but, from reports thus far, it appears to have been drowned out.

Liberation heritage, in particular, currently sits as an awkward addendum – almost as an afterthought – to policy.

There is no legitimate reason that several monuments to our national freedom are muted, neglected spaces despite several legislative provisions that mandate their promotion and protection as national heritage.

Historically the Steve Biko Foundation had some success in experimenting with alternative heritage models, some of which, such as the Steve Biko Centre, included participation by the department.

Over a decade, valuable lessons have emerged that provide innovative proficiencies in heritage management, which can augment those of other contributors from civil society.

It is timely for the minister to drive an overarching contemporary framework that will improve the department’s relationship with progressive heritage institutions and practitioners, strategically bringing its mandate closer to communities.

Historically, art, culture and heritage were effective tools of political liberation, as was sport. They must continue entrenching development.

Thus this framework cannot be politically neutral. It must be radical and decidedly enabling, and that it have inbuilt guards against regressive apolitical impulses of officialdom. كازينو888

We have an opportunity to customise our cultural mandate and related symbols for effective self-definition, bringing alive teachings in nonracism, nonsexism, egalitarianism, consciousness and communalism. The deliberations of the congress and the nation must yield practical, living programmes that are founded on fundamentals such as memory, discovery and action – the dictum of the centre.

But the definitive cure for the failure of the monumental flag project is a total reimagining of social cohesion. The first reckoning is that it cannot be ghettoised in a single structure such as the sport, arts and culture department. To do so is to set that department up for further failure.

As it is, Minister Mthethwa has a monumental headache – the unenviable task of bandaging a festering wound. He seemed rather apprehensive in his interview, while the president described him as dejected when he approached him for advice, although later reports suggest that the matter remains alive. قوانين البوكر

One hopes that in its improved form, it will heed the lesson that there is no likelihood of success for social cohesion through such projects without simultaneously building social capital through material change.

Economist Judith Maxwell offers a guiding definition of social cohesion, which states that it involves building shared values and communities of interpretation, reducing disparities in wealth and income, and generally enabling people to have a sense that they are engaged in a common enterprise, that they face shared challenges, and that they are members of the same community. This definition locates the mandate of social cohesion in every aspect of the state.

With South Africa as the leader in inequality, with 56 percent of the population living beneath the breadline, it should not come as a surprise that citizens feel distant from the national flag. For them it represents total humiliation – born of apartheid and magnified despite freedom.

Thus, for social cohesion and other symbolisms of the department to truly foster the flag, their fundamentals must power tangible interventions by the state and deal a decisive blow to societal inequities.  Consequently, cohesion will ooze out of our communities as the lived reality of the people who will willingly hoist the flag into the heavens at all costs.

The nuanced response by the public to the monumental flag project points a finger directly at the head of the table. While his professed admonishment of Mthethwa is welcome, Ramaphosa is hereby duly forewarned to please mind the gap.

Given that he is also a “mjita van Soweto af”, perhaps such a warning is best expressed in the more resolute idioms of his erstwhile hood: “Boza, goetes is nie dolly nie! Jy moet tshekisha, of sal jy pheshuka! “.


Nkosinathi Biko is the founder and a trustee of the Steve Biko Foundation which developed and runs the Steve Biko Centre. He also manages several Grade 1 national heritage sites linked to Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, which have been included on the Unesco interim list of world heritage sites

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