A giant symbol of nationhood is finding its roots in the desert of the Karoo, which will soon put the South African flag on the map in a whole new way


On the desert floor just south of Graaff-Reinet a striking symbol of nationhood is being developed. Covering 66 hectares of Karoo desert floor—and made up of 2.5 million colourful succulents and a four megawatt solar power field—a superb representation of the South African flag is emerging.

When completed it will be the largest flag on the planet, the largest symbol of its kind ever created anywhere on earth. By the time it is finished it will be one of the few man-made creations visible from space. And it is located on an unyielding desert surface, within walking distance of the aptly-named Valley of Desolation.

To the people of the town (along with the millions of other South Africans who are celebrating Heritage month in September), the giant flag is much more than just a decoration. In an area starved of jobs, it is expected to create 740 new opportunities for employment in tourism and the production of clean energy. The Giant Flag vision has seized the minds of people everywhere. Over the last two years, contributions from all over the world have been pouring into the area as people seek to be part of the project.

“This is a new beginning for my people,” says Town Councillor Alfred Pannies. “This is a living thing that will give dignity to many of my people who are currently poor and unemployed.”

The place selected for the situation of the giant flag could not be more singular. The Camdeboo District has an indefinable magic that has played a part in the lives of many notable South Africans. Dawn over the Karoo or the brightness of midnight stars in the dry air can create moments that are never forgotten. Robert Sobukwe, members of the Rupert family, Andrew Murray, DF Malan, the internationally respected palaeontologist James Kitching and many others have been touched by the place and returned to it again and again.

The flag is positioned on a stretch of flat plain, relatively free of other vegetation. Only the colourful succulents of the region, of which the flag will consist, can be relied upon to grow and bloom through regular drought conditions. In time, visitors will be able to view the flag from many vantage points on the high ground surrounding it.

The local municipality consists of three towns and the pristine landscape between them, touched only by the gentle grazing of the region’s sheep. Graaff-Reinet (where the municipal offices are located) is a lovely rural centre, boasting more original Cape Dutch architecture than perhaps any other town in the county. Aberdeen, an important sheep farming centre has shown surprising entrepreneurial growth in recent years. But it is Nieu-Bethesda to the west that up to now has attracted most attention. A quaint hamlet situated in a truly picturesque valley, it has become internationally famous through the owl house created by Helen Martins and revealed to the world by Athol Fugard’s play, the Road to Mecca. Working compulsively, Martins made over 300 cement statues in her lifetime, most of them of owls. She also decorated the inner walls of her house with shimmering shards of broken glass. Today, it is a museum that is visited by thousands of people from across the globe every year.

Symbol of a nation

Throughout recorded history flags have been powerful patriotic symbols. People the world over have been inspired by their young men in uniform marching under and saluting the national flag. As nationalism grew during the 18th and 19th centuries, so patriotism grew with it and countries developed national flags to put their stamp on government buildings, to be held aloft at the head of armies, and to mark ownership of their naval fleet. People came to identify with the colours and designs of their flags as something that binds individuals together as members of one country.

The South African flag, created at the advent of democracy, is said to be the third most rec ognised flag on the planet, behind only those of the United States of America and the United Kingdom. South African children who have been born in the last 22 years have known no other flag and had no other claim on their loyalties.

It was not always so. A number of flags have flown over South Africa since union in 1910, and still more before that. Their effect was always divisive rather than unifying. The majority of South Africans felt no warmth or kinship to any of those flags. In the 1960s, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd declared, “When I speak about the nation then I am referring to the white people of South Africa.”

To this, Richard van der Ross, a prominent coloured leader and academic answered, “That means that no black or brown people can be expected to see Die Stem as their national anthem or the national flag as their flag.”

Before the Anglo-Boer war, the country’s two republics and two colonies each had had their own flags. At unification in 1910, the country’s national flag was the so-called Red Ensign that carried Britain’s Union Jack as a prominent part of the flag. It was hated by many. Afrikaners who had just been defeated by the British armies deeply resented having the victor’s flag forced on them. As for the vast majority who fell outside the Verwoerdian idea of what constitutes a South African, they had never felt any love for the alien symbols that, up until then, identified the nation.

The flag of 1928 reduced the British presence on the flag to a small block near the centre and included the flags of the two Boer republics. It had taken a debate of three years to come to the sort of compromise that made even that possible, the main issue being whether the English flag should be included. At the declaration of a republic in 1961 there was talk of a new flag, but more urgent and painful matters (including the Sharpeville massacre and the 1976 pupil revolt) diverted national attention away from it. Ultimately the flag lasted right through the apartheid years until democracy in 1994.

With democracy just a year away, a nationwide competition was held to find a flag that, for the first time, would be acceptable to all South Africans. The National Symbols Commission was given the task of selecting the best of some 7 000 designs.

Six were shortlisted, but none chosen. Eventually a design by Fred Brownell, the State Herald, was selected. The new flag was flown for the first time on 27 April 1994, the date of the first democratic general election.

A great deal of thought went into the design of the flag. The deliberate intention was to make all South Africans feel included. Six colours, more than most flags, are blended into one design, each with an apparent significance. Three of the colours, black, yellow and green are to be found in the branding of the African National Congress, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Pan Africanist Congress. At the time, those three parties were the most significant representatives of black South Africans. The other three colours, red, white and blue are drawn from the British and Dutch flags and so represent the white population.

However, it was not only the flag that had to change in 1994. Before 1957 Die Stem, sung only in Afrikaans (and holding special appeal mainly to white Afrikaners) and God Save the Queen (giving special honours to a foreign monarch) were the country’s joint national anthems.

At that point the National Party government excluded God Save the Queen as being a divisive influence. It never occurred to them that the same was true of Die Stem.

At the advent of democracy it was clear that it too had to give way to a more inclusive anthem. The result, like the flag, is part of the nation’s heritage. At first glance it is an astonishing meshing of cultures. It blends together part of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, a traditional struggle hymn, the start of Die Stem and a stanza of original English words. The final product is sung in five languages—Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English, shifting to a new key halfway through. Its creation is a staggering achievement.

South Africans of all races and cultures have seized upon our new national anthem and made it their own. It is sung heartily at sporting events, on national occasions and at other times. Together with the flag, it is a binding force in what is still a young democracy.

But it is the flag that has already played a part in the inauguration of every president since 1994 and has adorned battlefields in central Africa and elsewhere.

It is the flag that, without the histrionics of human speechmakers, provides a quiet, unifying presence that shows every South African that he or she is belongs here.

This is true of every representation of our flag, but none more so than the giant version on the Karoo veld. By the time the array of suc culents in the flag are blooming, South Africans will be able to see it clearly when we visit it from space via the satellite images of programmes like Google Map or on the roads round about.

“It is also of great practical benefit to us,” says Jimmy Joubert, CEO of the Camdeboo council, “and it is symbolic. It shows us that almost anything is possible if we set our minds to it.”

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