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EUSEBIUS MCKAISER | Mthethwa’s jingoism is a red flag — patriots refuse to be fooled

20 May 2022 - 18:48
Minister Nathi Mthethwa has asked the department to review the R22m 'monumental' flag project which has come under immense criticism.
Minister Nathi Mthethwa has asked the department to review the R22m 'monumental' flag project which has come under immense criticism.
Image: 123RF/rawpixel

The one moment we are debating the old SA flag that white supremacists are hell-bent on waving for fun while eating Ouma rusks. The next minute an underperforming minister wants to stop conversation about his multiple job failures by insisting we all look up. Instead of our collective energies being focused on solving the most urgent crises that are the real threats to our democracy, we find ourselves debating flags. This would be comical if it were not tragic, and costly in many ways. This latest flag debacle is the result of minister Nathi Mthethwa’s jingoistic dream that we should build a flag monument of sorts that will be impossible to miss in Tshwane, showing off democratic SA’s national colours, including at night when it will all be lit up, other than on those nights when Eskom’s penchant for darkness will scupper Mthethwa’s less than bright idea.

The use of important democratic era symbols and iconography to make us feel good about the nation we may yet become is badly timed, but intentionally so in my view. Very few people would deny that symbols and monuments have some value. Works of art and culture, including music and books, plays, and films, songs and poems, festivals, architecture and other anthropological footprints, artefacts, and outputs we leave behind, long after each of us are no longer alive, are indeed monuments to our collective group identity.

This is why a ministry in charge of arts, culture and sport is as important to our lives as ministries and departments that focus on economic development, justice, finance, international relations, or intelligence. We do not only require food, shelter, water, and physical security to flourish as a species. We also have complex psychosocial needs, as a community of sophisticated beings in search of, and creating, meaning. Mthethwa’s portfolio is therefore certainly not a frivolous one. But that is precisely why we are justified to criticise him for this R22m piece of jingoism he has dreamt up. It is a feeble and intentional attempt to get us to treat him, and the government, with kid gloves. Mercifully, almost no one is falling for this unfunny trick. Mthethwa’s jingoism is instead proving to be a red flag.

About half of South Africans who are capable of working are unemployed. Over the next three years our average GDP growth projections are less than 2% per annum. We are infamously one of the world's most unequal societies, including wealth, asset, and income inequalities. This, in turn, means that gross levels of consumption inequality will persist, and so intergenerational economic immobility will remain a cruel SA reality for a long while still. It feels brutal to complete this paragraph with even a cursory reminder of our high levels of poverty and food insecurity, quite apart from rampant corruption that evolved into state capture. This is a legacy we have not yet recovered from, the consequences of which are still seen and felt in a state that remains unfit for purpose, unfit to respond to past and present injustices.

Symbols like a national flag can be important in getting us to rally behind a common purpose. We need not be cynical about symbolic power. But, equally, we have a patriotic duty to distinguish between moments of national pride, like when we win the Rugby World Cup, and moments when useless politicians weaponise our national symbols to deflect from their failures.
Eusebius McKaiser

That state is led and governed by the ANC, and Mthethwa has been part of the ANC’s collective failure for a very long time, rewarded for his incompetence by being moved from one post to another. It is as if he is being encouraged by Luthuli House to demonstrate, at our expense, the range of his lacklustre skill set, and to perform the antithesis of leadership excellence, and indifference to the constitutional demands of responsive government. The ANC simply doesn't care about you or me. Mthethwa is the ANC, and the ANC is Mthethwa. That is also the very meaning of collective cabinet responsibility. It is also, by its own self-definition, the meaning of ANC democratic centralism. Tragicomedy is an ANC thing. It is collectively blameworthy, and despite President Cyril Ramaphosa joking about Mthethwa’s flag troubles in a speech this past week, we should read this whole ridiculousness as exemplary of ANC disdain for citizens. The joke is on us.

In a halfhearted attempt to rationalise this ridiculous flag idea, Mthethwa said, “We are memorialising our democracy and we are building this monumental flag which will be there forever to inform society about this symbol. It is quite a clear marker of a break with the colonialism and apartheid. It epitomises the democratic values and other values.”

Mthethwa is way off the mark. The best way to break with colonialism and apartheid is to change the material conditions of millions of black South Africans who have a degree of political freedom but no genuine economic and social freedoms. A monumental flag is not a restoration of black dignity. Clean, ethical and effective governance is the only way to put distance between contemporary SA and our brutal colonial and apartheid past.

The same goes for nation building, social cohesion and reconciliation. You cannot achieve these noble ends by erecting a monument. Deep levels of mistrust, across racial lines and increasingly also across intra-black class lines, can only be eliminated by ensuring that every citizen has a decent shot at self-actualisation. This, again, brings us back to governance excellence. And, of course, other sources of power such as big business, have a crucial role to play too, based on both business and moral premises. Civil society too cannot only defer to the state in the making of a more just society. We all need to leverage our agentive powers to create the society we dream of.

But this government keeps wanting to get massive discount for not doing what it is legally and politically mandated to do. We cannot let it get away with such tomfoolery. Symbols like a national flag can be important in getting us to rally behind a common purpose. We need not be cynical about symbolic power. But, equally, we have a patriotic duty to distinguish between moments of national pride, like when we win the Rugby World Cup, and moments when useless politicians weaponise our national symbols to deflect from their failures.

Jingoism won't help us to achieve the vision of our national constitution. Mthethwa should abandon his flag project, and focus on sorting our the sectors of the economy he has not shown much love to as minister of sports, arts, and culture. Gimmicks are no substitute for real work.

— McKaiser is a contributor and analyst for TimesLIVE  

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