South Africa

Cactus flag: What if South Africa was a plant?

By Kevin Bloom 23 September 2016

A South African flag made out of cacti and succulents – the size of 66 football fields, and visible from space – is being built on the outskirts of Graaff-Reinet. Called the Giant Flag, it invites us to revisit the ground of our misplaced patriotic impulse. But can it inspire a more useful metaphor for our current national crisis than “state capture”? By KEVIN BLOOM.

People who enjoy waving flags don’t deserve to have one.”

That’s Banksy, the world’s “most wanted” graffiti artist, from his collection Wall & Piece – and sure, while the tone smacks of the anti-nationalist venom of Europe’s contemporary anarchist Left, the message isn’t anything new.

Albert Einstein, who may have been a leftist but was certainly no anarchist, said pretty much the same thing when he called nationalism an “infantile thing… the measles of mankind”.

Ditto Oscar Wilde, for whom patriotism was “the virtue of the vicious”, and Friedrich Nietzche, for whom madness was “rare in individuals” but for “groups, parties, peoples, and ages” was the norm.

Then there was Arthur Schopenauer, who perceived in the nationalist impulse a mirror-glass vomit bucket for existential and psychic dread:

Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.”

In late state-capture South Africa, where do we even begin? With our national dignity going the way of our national institutions, can patriotism offer us compensation for anything? Do we have any faults or follies for which a fingernail (let alone a tooth) would be an acceptable sacrificial loss? In other words, could we reimburse ourselves for our own inferiorities by appealing to something that may be less real than our inferiorities?

If we sit with them long enough, such questions eventually start to assume a transcendent quality. Like Zen koans, they take us out of our minds to a place where pure awareness watches arbitrary, fleeting thought. Our opinions fall away, our beliefs fall away, our certainties fall away – and just like that, the South African flag simply is. If Banksy said that people who enjoy waving flags don’t deserve to have one, does that then mean that people who don’t enjoy it do?

And so welcome back to the six-coloured South African flag that emerged from Roelf Meyer’s fishing trip with Cyril Ramaphosa in ‘93, the flag of Nelson Mandela ’94 and Rugby World Cup ‘95, the flag built on eternal words and principles – truth, reconciliation, forgiveness – that turned out in the end to be hollow and heartbreaking lies. In late state-capture South Africa, this flag will be made out of plants.

It’s true. Two-and-a-half million cacti and succulents are about to be planted on 66ha of flag-shaped land just outside the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet. The project is called “The Giant Flag”, it is featured as one of CNN’s “10 Ideas to Change the World”, and it will be viewable from space.

Confused? Consider these facts from a more familiar orbit. The Eastern Cape Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform has provided a grant of R5-million, half of which the Giant Flag’s controlling trust has already received. The Lottery Foundation has funded the production of a series of 60-second videos, sponsored and broadcast by DStv. The flag’s black triangle will be comprised of solar panels that make up a 4 megawatt field – and PowerX, South Africa’s only independently licensed renewable energy exchange, has just signed off on a 20-year power purchase agreement at extremely favourable rates.

Video: Jimmy Joubert, General Manager of the Giant Flag Trust

Still confused? It’s likely that your puzzlement is now expressed in the question why? Below then, for your deliberation, are just three of the possible answers:

  • The planting and solar development phase will provide employment for as many as 700 locals, with a detailed plan for up-skilling and more permanent “green collar” jobs in the future.
  • The succulents will reintroduce nutrients to the soil and sequester upwards of 200 tons of carbon every year.
  • The “adopt a plant” crowd-funding option, starting at R100 per plant, is expected to help boost tourism to the area by as much as 25%.

Yes, it’s a little unbelievable. Maybe even a little unreal. But with 8.2km of road demarcating the perimeter and internal lines already laid, it might be time to start considering the symbolic properties of our new flag.

First, a truth, attributed to science, that was taught to us at school: photosynthesis is the process by which plants use the energy from the sun to produce the “fuel” used by all living things.

Second, another truth, attributed to the 14th century Sufi poet Hafiz, that was not taught to us at school: “Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me.’”

Point being, had these teachings been delivered to us in tandem, we might by now have hit upon a more useful metaphor for our current political crisis than “state capture”. Given an education system thus enlightened, perhaps “pathogenic” would have become our allegorical starting point – in the sense that a pathogen, driven by the blind instinct that it can make a great living off the host, mounts an invasion along every pathway it perceives.

Instead of the zero-sum discourse of “theft”, “rights” and “entitlement”, based on the conceptual error that somebody or something is owed, South Africa could be talking the language of “hygiene”, “balance” and “immunisation”, and so at least be in with a shout of dodging the next inevitable invasion.

We can only dream, right? Thing is, out in Graaff-Reinet, a group of dreamers is ripping the time-bound guts out of our political discourse for us.

This project is massive, really and truly massive,” says Anton Bouwer, owner of the local nursery that’s been contracted to plant the flag’s colours. “It’s a living flag, and it’s a growing flag, and it will be around for thousands of years, like the pyramids.”

Which, so long as the sun continues to shine (for free) upon the earth, will remain more than just theory – the chlorophyll in the leaves of the flag’s 2.5-million cacti and succulents will absorb the sun’s light energy; carbon dioxide will react with the plants’ water to create glucose; the glucose will be used for respiration or converted into starch and stored; the plants will propagate and the cycle will begin anew.

In the year 7016 AD, if all goes according to plan, an archeological crew will visit the Karoo and mistake the vegetal edifice for the work of an advanced civilisation. They’ll discern a national flag in the pattern, and compare it with all the other non-botanical flags of the era, and conclude that this culture was an exception. Three of the plant species in the configuration were not indigenous to the area, they’ll discover, a detail symbolic of the fact that these people loved outsiders.

Ferocactus stainesii, the flag’s red, otherwise known as the fire barrel cactus, spoke of their melting-pot ethos; agave potatorum, the flag’s blue, a plant of rare and astonishing symmetry, spoke of their cherished political harmony; and echinocactus grusonii, the flag’s yellow, also called the “golden ball”, spoke of their divine and childlike innocence.

As for the green, this was where the culture’s selfless generosity really came into its own. Portulacaria afra, also known as porkbush, spekboom, iNtelezi, isiDondwane, isAmbilane, iNdibili, isiCococo and iGqwanitsha, was the only indigenous plant in the configuration, and was famous at the time for its incredible ability to sequestrate carbon. These people were saying, by choosing a carbon sponge as the local variant, that they had self-actualised as a nation and now were looking to the fate of humanity.

Anyway, back in 2016, September 24 is still Heritage Day in South Africa – a day when “South Africans across the spectrum are encouraged to celebrate their culture and the diversity of their beliefs and traditions, in the wider context of a nation that belongs to all its people”. Whatever niceties the politicians spin, however much lipstick is smeared over the grinning porcine face of nationhood, it’s unlikely that the values will mean as much as they do in Graaff-Reinet.

A classic house in the Camdeboo style has just been rented to function as the Giant Flag’s headquarters, and Jimmy Joubert has resigned as chief financial officer of the former Camdeboo municipality (now incorporating Baviaans and Ikwezi as the Dr Beyers Naudé municipality) to take up a position as the inaugural general manager. An ANC man, Joubert sat for a few years on the project’s board of trustees with local DA councillor and mayoral candidate Samantha Jankovichits mission was one of the few things on which they could agree.

The clichés we have in this country, those things are fleeting,” said Guy Lieberman, the Giant Flag’s founder, when I spoke to him during the project’s “first launch” in October 2014. “But the thing about our national flag is that it’s not fleeting.” While that was true enough, what wasn’t obvious was that he’d make it to the “second launch”, the milestone to celebrate the receipt of enough public funding to demarcate the flag’s lines and finally establish an administrative HQ in town.

So it is going to happen, the only project of its kind on earth. Question remains: if Banksy came to visit, would he say we deserved it? DM

Photo: Giant Flag satellite image

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