Wednesday, June 29, 2022
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Nathi Mthethwa’s giant R22M flag of shame


By Fred Khumalo

The first time I went to France was on official business, and the schedule was so tight that I could not go and bask in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, which I’d only seen from a distance.

The next time I went to Paris, the tower was one of my first stops. For you have never been to Paris if you have not been to the tower.

If you visit New York in the US and fail to go and genuflect at the feet of Lady Liberty, consider your sojourn to the Big Apple incomplete.

A visit to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, rings hollow if you don’t go and pay your respects to Christ the Redeemer.

If you have had the chance to visit Dakar, Senegal, consider yourself inefficient for failing to include on your itinerary a stop at the Door of No Return in the House of Slaves museum.

It is in this spirit that Sports, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa unveiled plans for the erection of a larger-than-life flag that would be a major tourist attraction and symbol of unity for our country.

Why he chose a flag – not a lion, not a cheetah, not a protea or any uniquely South African thing – is not the question.The question is: Why are South Africans so angry, cynical and downright vulgar regarding this seemingly logical and thoughtful idea of something that tourists will remember us by?

Some have said that, at a cost of R22 million, the project is too pricey – this in a country where millions go to bed on an empty stomach.

The EFF has said the minister could use the money to develop sports, especially women’s football.

Naturally, matters that involve money always make people hot under the collar. But when you come right down to it, R22 million is not a lot of money. It cannot feed many people for any length of time.

To break it down even further, Safa’s annual budget for women’s football is R45 million.

During Covid, Safa received $500 000 (R7.9 million) from Fifa for women’s football development. So, R22 million is pretty negligible.

My sense is that many South Africans are objecting to this flag idea as a matter of principle. Having been lied to so many times in recent memory, they are suspicious of any project that involves government and money.At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was revealed that some connected people had been awarded contracts to supply personal protective equipment to the value of R125 million, which turned out to have been approved in breach of existing regulations and was extremely inflated, allowing the politically connected individuals to basically steal public funds.

In October, the nation gasped at the revelation that R15 million in public funds had been spent on the creation of the Lesseyton Sports Field in Komani, Eastern Cape, when even the dumbest person could see that the removable metal stands next to a patchy athletics track couldn’t have cost R100 000 to construct. The set-up was merely a vehicle through which connected individuals accessed public funds.

These amounts, some of them relatively small, all add up at the end of the day. The result is that service delivery is compromised. This erodes the public’s trust in government.

That’s the operational word here – trust.

South Africans do not trust their government. If we were a properly functioning country, the allocation of funds towards the installation of the flag wouldn’t be such a sore point.

I believe a country’s national symbol has no price to it. Poorer countries than ours have spent 10 times more than what Mthethwa is talking about on their national symbols.

For example, in 2010, Senegal, which has an economy that is a fraction of ours, unveiled a national statue that cost $27 million.

But why do we need the symbolic structure in the first place, and why now?

Abysmal communication and timing seem to be perennial problems in our government. Even when it does something that is right and necessary, it fails to communicate it properly.To announce such an indulgence at a time when people are grappling with real challenges such as rising food prices and inflated fuel and transportation costs seems insensitive, even when we know that, in the larger scheme of things, R22 million is not a lot.

But poor messaging becomes grist to the mill of those who are already unhappy with government and how it handles public funds.

Penny Lebyane, a former radio announcer and one of Mthethwa’s most vociferous defenders, wrote on social media: “Obviously @NathiMthethwaSA is not liked by a whole industry that hates itself, so nothing new there for me. But I have a question: How did they build your favourites – the Eiffel Tower in Parys, the Statue of Liberty in New York, Christ The Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro? Why do you like them?”

History shows us that these iconic structures she refers to were built to mark and celebrate specific epochs in human history. Construction on the Eiffel Tower (in Paris, not Parys, Penny) started in January 1887 and the completed tower was unveiled in 1889, in time to coincide with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.

Clearly, this was an important milestone in the evolution of democracy and republicanism all over the world.

While the Statue of Liberty is in the US, it was not built by the Americans. It was gifted to them by the French in 1886, in acknowledgment and celebration of their triumph during the American Revolutionary War, which ousted Great Britain as the ruler of various colonies in the vast North American mainland.

It should therefore be clear, even to Lebyane, that the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty have deep historical reasons for their existence. Not only are these structures steeped in history, but they themselves are also markers of important milestones in modern history.

What are we celebrating through the proposed flag?

If the idea, as seems the case from what Mthethwa has said, is to draw South Africans and internationals to a place that is a repository of information about our country, its history and culturally and racially diverse heritage, we already have Freedom Park Museum in Pretoria.

This sprawling museum is strategically placed opposite the Voortrekker Monument.

Unlike the monument, which celebrates the sectarian history and heritage of Voortrekkers, Freedom Park is representative of South African history and heritage in its diversity.

The way Freedom Park is structured, you can see it is in conversation with the Voortrekker Monument.

On the many occasions I have been to the heritage site, the majority of visitors I encountered were from foreign lands. It is a great pity that many locals don’t even know of its existence.

If you are too lazy to read books about South African history and heritage, Freedom Park, in a matter of a few hours of watching video footage, reading walls and documents, will set you right.

If Mthethwa and his advisers were sincere about drawing the attention of South Africans and internationals to a place that speaks uniquely of South African history and heritage, a place that should be a go-to venue for both locals and internationals striving to find the spirit of South Africa, it is the Freedom Park Museum they should be promoting.

I know Mthethwa has said the flag will be installed on the premises of Freedom Park. But does this museum need a clichéd beacon in the form of an overpriced flag to draw attention to itself, and to sell South Africa to the world?

It’s difficult to understand the real rationale behind the idea. It therefore becomes easy for suspicious South Africans to see it as yet another money-grabbing vehicle for individuals connected to those who have their hands on the public purse.

Fred Khumalo is a respected editor

–City Press

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