South Africa

South Africa

More than just a Giant Flag

More than just a Giant Flag

GREG NICOLSON went to the Eastern Cape last week looking for a flag of unimaginable proportions. Instead, he found a project that when completed will be a symbol of a more equal, more sustainable future in the face of desolation.

A gale from Graaff-Reinet slams into the cliff faces of the Valley of Desolation. Holding craft beers and biltong soup, a small crowd shivers while looking over Karoo’s Camdeboo National Park at night. Some say the view is majestic. There are columns of dolerite, horizons, hills, and clouds like the great lakes. The scorched earth lends itself to the question, “If lost, how long do you think you could survive here?”

The Giant Flag project says it’s a site of hope, a potential game changer in South African development. Officially launched in Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape, on Thursday team members said the project would incorporate different slices of development to drive socio-economic transformation in Camdeboo, a municipality 40% unemployment. The most recognisable outcome will be a 66-hectare South African flag so big it can be seen from space. That’s the size of 66 soccer fields.

The flag will be made up of 2.5 million coloured desert plants such as cacti and spekboom. A 6.6-hectare solar field, producing four megawatts, enough to power 4,000 households, will make up the black triangle. Organisers say the R180-million project will create over 700 permanent full-time “green collar” jobs for locals. The area has little economic activity.

Giant Flag aims to build national pride and tourism in Camdeboo. Looking at the unity seen during the 2010 World Cup, advertising firm FCB asked its head of green and social new business development Guy Lieberman to design a legacy project related to the national flag. This is what he came up with.

The project will give locals something to be proud of and quite literally put the municipality on the map. A tourism precinct including a conference centre and hotel is to be built and will connect with ecotourism initiatives and activities like hot-air ballooning and microlight sky tours.

Then there’s the Camdeboo economy. “Its people are racially and economically divided, reflecting the state of the nation,” said Mayor Hanna Makoba. She urged the public to support the initiative as the benefits will have an impact on surrounding towns and the country. “This is another vehicle that will give people hope,” said Makoba, one of the multiple speakers to link the flag to the fight against poverty, unemployment and inequality.

SA flag schematic with plants and solar panels

Photo: SA flag schematic with plants and solar panels

Deputy Minister of Tourism Tokozile Xasa was at the event and in a press release said South Africa’s tourism challenges are rooted in historical inequality. “The Giant Flag, with its strong desire to level the playing field, has broken the mould to significantly change the game. It’s innovative, it’s unique, and the model on which it is based has the potential to do the same in other countries where change is necessary,” said Xasa. The project, a first for the low-carbon innovation economy, will also help tackle issues of climate change, food security and health of the local environment, she added.

The Giant Flag is yet to be built. The project incorporates the three spheres of government as well as a host of other players, and so far the land is secured and the business plan, site development plan, impact assessment, and rezoning have all been approved. The first phase cost R4 million. The second phase has just begun and in the coming months, Giant Flag will be spreading its message. SABC has agreed to broadcast a 52-episode mini-series of weekly two-minute episodes about the project and Google has offered an advertising grant of R100,000 per month, in perpetuity.

The Giant Flag website is open for crowdfunding. For $10 (approximately R100) you can adopt a specific plant and then monitor it through the site. This second phase is set to cost in the region of R25 million, which includes the kick-off: the germination of the 2.5 million plants, the construction of the white road, the security fencing (enclosing the full 100ha site, which includes the 66ha Flag and the 34ha buffer zone made up of a mix of Spekboom, food gardens and medicinal plants).

The third phase is the big one. At an expected cost of R145 million added to the R25 million, building is ambitiously expected to start in early 2015. The solar field will cost R100 million and the tourism precinct, 22,000sqm canopy structure, biogas facility, 11 million liter reservoir (this will be the first commercial scale solar field in the world to harvest water), algae plant and civil works coming to R45 million. Conditional funds have been committed by the Development Bank of Southern Africa’s Green Fund, and the Giant Flag Trust has been in exploratory discussions with the National Department of Tourism, and the Nedbank Foundation.

If all the money were committed, we’d be looking at a 2-year germination, transfer and building process before the gates of the Giant Flag were opened.

Watch: The Giant Flag in Graaff-Reinet

Above the envisaged 700 jobs, the project could have a flow-on effect to boost the local economy. Once completed, energy from the solar field will be sold to go back into the grid and the profits from Giant Flag operations will go into an endowment fund, aimed at developing further opportunities in the local social, green and innovation sectors through micro-loans and skills development. Beneficiaries of the fund will be required to participate in training and incubation programmes. An education fund is also planned to upgrade schools in the area and provide tertiary scholarships.

While the project seems ambitious, Giant Flag already has a list of key partners and a number of organisations helping with key work pro bono. The project’s key goals are aligned to that of the country: reducing poverty, inequality and raising investment; ensuring food security; broadening social cohesion; boosting private investment in labour intensive sectors; strengthening youth programmes and skills training; and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Lieberman, who is acknowledged for driving Giant Flag from its inception, spoke at length on Thursday about the potential change it could bring – sustainable jobs, more electricity, an increase in training and business opportunities. “The sky’s the limit,” he said. “I see opportunity upon opportunity upon opportunity when I visualise the flag and the communities that live around it.”

Organisers were clear that there’s still work to be done and asked for South Africans to rally around the project. If they pull it off, Giant Flag will be something to be proud of, not just because the colours of democracy will be seen from space, but because in the face of desolation South Africans have spent time creating something that contributes to a more equal, more sustainable future. DM

Main photo by Threefold.

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