South Africa


How South Africa can embrace its history rather than disgrace it with a R22m massive flag pole

How South Africa can embrace its history rather than disgrace it with a R22m massive flag pole
A South African flag in front of Lion’s Head, Cape Town. (Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma)

It certainly would be a very good thing to take the R22-million being set aside for that flag pole and, instead, put it to use in maintaining a number of nationally important historic sites now being left to decay. This could create a climate such that South Africans could thoughtfully engage with their complex history, rather than simply scratch their heads over the embarrassing silliness of a giant flag pole. 

The real history of America’s Mt Rushmore can spur thinking about whether a giant flag pole is the right way to nurture national pride. But we can also employ the devices of Jonathan Swift’s famous social critique, A Modest Proposal, to debate how history might be addressed.

If you are a film buff – and especially if you love Alfred Hitchcock’s films, or actors Cary Grant, James Mason, and Eva Marie Saint – you undoubtedly remember the climactic scene in North by Northwest. Grant and Marie Saint’s characters must scramble down the giant face of Thomas Jefferson on Mt Rushmore in South Dakota to escape the intentions of some very bad people. 

Mt Rushmore, despite being roughly in the middle of exactly nowhere, with its four 20m-tall heads of Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln carved into the face of that mountain, nevertheless became a tourist magnet after it was completed in 1941 by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, with his son in wrapping up the finishing touches after the famous artist died.

Borglum’s creation took some 14 years to complete and it needed the efforts of some 400 workers during the life of the project. The mountain continues to be visited by millions, the image is instantly recognisable globally, but the work has not been without controversy. 

Borglum had, earlier, worked on another giant sculptural frieze, that one carved onto the side of Stone Mountain in the southern state of Georgia, depicting Confederate military heroes. What remains less well known about the earlier project is that it was significantly underwritten by contributions (and thus had paid some of Borglum’s own artist fees) from Ku Klux Klan members. 

Moreover, Mt Rushmore itself had been part of the sacred landscape of the Lakota Native American people, a site that had been stealthily detached from their treaty lands following reports that the area known as the Black Hills was a gold mining country. As National Geographic magazine explained the backstory, “Before it became known as Mount Rushmore, the Lakota called this granite formation Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain. It was a place for prayer and devotion for the native people of the Great Plains, explains Donovin Sprague, head of the history department at Sheridan College in Wyoming and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The mountain’s location in the Black Hills was also significant.

“‘It’s the centre of the universe of our people,” Sprague says. For Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho communities, the region was not only spiritually important, it was also where tribes gathered food and plants they used in building and medicine.

The busts of US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln tower over the Black Hills at Mount Rushmore National Monument on 2 July 2020 near Keystone, South Dakota. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

“In the late 1800s, Euro-American settlers began pushing into the Black Hills, igniting a war with the indigenous population. The US government signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, giving the Lakota exclusive use of the Black Hills. Within a decade, however, gold was discovered in the region and, in 1877, the US broke the treaty and took over the land.” Inevitable, perhaps, given the times and the avarice of people.

In recent years, there have also been some quixotic public campaigns to add an additional face on the mountainside, including, most improbably that of Donald Trump. As National Geographic noted, “Forces began campaigning to add faces to Mount Rushmore while the monument was still under construction. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported an unsuccessful 1936 proposal to put women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony on the rock. The idea that the memorial could somehow evolve would live on, with political partisans over the years suggesting adding John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. More recently, Trump has repeatedly crowed that he should be on the list.”

There is, of course, no Lakota figure on the side of that mountain.

Such controversies over the history of the Mt Rushmore monument’s construction history came to mind when it was disclosed the South African government is planning to erect a ginormous, 100-metre tall flag pole and flag somewhere in the country, ostensibly to encourage national cohesion and, simultaneously, to create a didactic tourist destination. As satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys used to say when describing some eye-wateringly bizarre decision by the old apartheid regime, “I’m not making this up, you know.” 

Now leaving aside the question of whether there is a tourist on the planet who would spend money on travel to South Africa and accommodations to stand at the base of a tall, spindly phallic symbol, er, flag pole, there is the awkward question of why this thing should be done in the first place to the tune of a reported R22-million (including R5-million for a feasibility study to do the obviously necessary planning, research, site selection, dinners and foreign study trips to look at other nations’ flagpoles). Surely there are other, better things for the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture to spend the taxpayers’ increasingly hard-to-come-by money on than a really tall flag pole somewhere so that somebody can take that selfie and then move on to do more normal things tourists usually do in South Africa.

The sea-facing facade of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. Perhaps the right solution is to forget entirely about the idea of erecting a giant flag pole, and instead go really big on the national cohesion, site-specific front instead. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jacques Stander)

Having said all this, perhaps the right solution is to forget entirely about the idea of erecting a giant flag pole, and instead go really big on the national cohesion, site-specific front instead. Go the whole hog on some overinflated monumentalism in order to attract tourists to take in some new, gargantuan monstrosity. Taking a leaf from the American experience with Mt Rushmore and tweaking it just a bit – a little drum roll here, please – now is the time to propose something much more brazen. There is one absolutely perfect place to do this. That, of course, would be on the sea-facing facade of Table Mountain.

The back part of the mountain already has a formation called the Twelve Apostles. Now that may be good enough for part of the mountain, but there is still that whole northern face that remains unblemished by anything other than the cable car pylons and the viewing station on the top of the mountain, both of which almost completely blend into the look of the mountain, as seen from its base. 

Just imagine the excitement as workers begin this massive task, carving gigantic busts into the side of the mountain. There will be tours of the work being done. There will be a continuing online streaming view of the progress and a virtual reality depiction of what it will look like eventually. There will be employment opportunities galore. It is easy to imagine that the rock that is carved away could be sold to help defray some of the costs of the work. (After all, small rocks from Robben Island can be purchased by tourists who visit the island. This writer was gifted one of those some years ago, nicely framed and with a certificate of authenticity attached on the back of the frame.)

Of course, there is the question of who should be represented on the face of the mountain. South Africa’s history is so replete with larger than life personalities that the designers and sculptors would be spoiled for choice about who to depict. Undoubtedly, if a national vote were taken, Nelson Mandela would be the first name to be immortalised on the side of “Hoerikwaggo”, or the “Mountain of the Sea”, its original name, but there certainly should be others flanking him. In addressing such a question, the country could engage in a real conversation about national cohesion by discussing who should be among the additional representations on that rock. This shouldn’t be lightly undertaken – once a face is carved into the rock, it is not as if it could easily be altered on the basis of changing political tides.

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So, should a roster of possible names even notionally include someone like JG Strydom (yes, the man whose giant bronze bust once crashed through the piazza of the Pretoria State Theatre and on into the underground parking of the building) and others of that evil political ilk? Or, should the discussion include Cecil Rhodes and Lord Alfred Milner? They did have a hand in shaping the formation of South Africa, after all. Or what about Jan Smuts? But then, what about Krotoa and Autshumao, Helen Suzman, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe, or Jean Sinclair? Could that massive granite representational work possibly include a likeness of a political figure like Jacob Zuma? But then there are also figures such as Walter and Albertina Sisulu, OR and Adelaide Tambo, Hintsa, Dingaan, Shaka, Cetshwayo, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and Ahmed Kathrada to be considered for memorialisation for their historical roles. And what about “The Arch?” Or FW de Klerk? So far, at least, this list of names does not even include cultural giants, major educators, or towering media figures from the past several hundred years. Shouldn’t their contributions also receive a share of the glory?  

This is already a list of names that would cover the full side of the mountain from top to bottom if they were all included. In fact, just deciding which ones should truly be memorialised in this way would generate a vociferous debate about the nature of South Africa’s past and how to interpret it and the roles individuals played in it. And that doesn’t even include the uproar over the effective destruction of an amazing natural wonder right in the midst of a major city. 

The work could be under 24-hour illumination once it is under way. The resulting discussion would absolutely be vastly more entertaining – and possibly educational – than whether anybody wants to have their photograph taken in front of the base of a big flag pole. 

Of course, this effort would be costly (even more than the proposed flag pole), but it could be financed by crowdfunding and some matching funding by a local oligarch or two with more money than taste, and maybe a modest surtax on tobacco or alcohol – or even as part of the national lottery. Envision a website where you cast your vote for your favourite names for payment of a few rands per head and the discussion that would provoke. 

The debate over who must be so immortalised  – and why – and the resulting furore coming out of that could be one way to make history more interesting than it is now for young people. Perhaps, too, the campaign could be designed to entice people to leave a share of their estate as a bequest to the project? It is, after all, going to take many years to complete it, given the way such things usually happen. 

To do this properly, of course, there would have to be a competition for the design itself. That inevitably means there would need to be an artistic selection committee, along with financial, geologic, environmental, and history research oversight committees, and, naturally, a clutch of national chairs and co-chairs. And of course, too, the project leaders would have to do research trips around the world to study similar projects and how they were carried out. We could name the whole thing the Ozymandis Project in honour of that famous figure in a poem well-known to (and dreaded by) students for two centuries, just so long as the project isn’t eventually covered by the shifting sands of history as well.

Of course, the whole idea of a massive flag pole as some kind of social engineering project should be put aside for the ridiculous notion that it is. And just as obviously, the idea of thoroughly defacing Table Mountain should be buried as well. But this idea comes in the tradition of political satire perfected by Jonathan Swift. Back in the the 18th century, he had written a devastating critique of British agricultural policies as well as the plight of Irish children in a famous pamphlet, A Modest Proposal, turning literary satire into a rapier-sharp political criticism. 

But it certainly would be a very good thing to take that R22-million being set aside for that flag pole and, instead, put it to use in maintaining a number of nationally important historic sites now being left to decay. This could create a climate such that South Africans could thoughtfully engage with their complex history, rather than simply scratch their heads over the embarrassing silliness of a giant flag pole. 

If that seems too complicated, then just grant the funds as a year’s worth of support to a dozen local theatre companies now teetering on the edge of permanent closure because of their inability to earn any revenue during the past two years of Covid restrictions.

Either way, such a programme would be more in the service of building a sense of national cohesion than the erection of a giant flag pole suitable for selfie photographs. DM


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