/ 11 May 2024

Flag burning and treasonous obsessions in the face of real problems

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African National Congress (ANC) president and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa looks on during a door-to-door campaign in Ekurhuleni on March 10, 2024 ahead of the South African general elections scheduled for May 29, 2024. (Photo by OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT / AFP)

If you weren’t aware, although I am pretty sure every South African now is, the Democratic Alliance recently released an election advert with a computer generated version of the South African flag burning. A truly unmemorable 30 second clip.

The only thing remarkable about the advertisement was the decision to use the monotonous droning voice talking over the visuals. Anyone who didn’t fall asleep during the advert would have forgotten about it in a matter of hours. But now they won’t.

Why, you ask? Well, let’s turn to a quote from Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Grey, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” And that is exactly what President Cyril Ramaphosa did. 

By expressing his outrage at what he called the destruction of a “sacred, sacred article in the life of our country” he ensured that anyone who hadn’t seen the offending message would certainly go and watch it on YouTube to find out what all the fuss was about. So well done. 

Of course, this comes off the back of statements by Sports, Arts and Culture Minister Zizi Kodwa, who got his knickers in a twist over the advert and said he would take legal action — the same minister who is being investigated for corruption by the National Prosecuting Authority.

And why did this underwhelming piece of visual electioneering require a response from these two lions of South Africa’s integrity? Well, apparently it is treasonous. That is correct, to burn a “symbol of our unity” (even a computer generated image) is the problem South African unity faces. 

It isn’t the R830  million spent on the Zondo state capture commission to combat corruption that has not seen a single successful prosecution. It isn’t even the R500  billion of Covid relief funds that disappeared, a virus that took more than 100  000 South Africans’ lives. 

It isn’t the collapse of Eskom because of the required “tastes” to the corrupt that need to be paid out of its budget, or the deteriorating water infrastructure that leaves us without water for days at a time. 

It isn’t our collapsing rail, road and port infrastructure, and it isn’t the collapse of the South African Post Office that recently announced the retrenchment of more than 5 000 employees, an organisation tasked with unifying South Africa by ensuring we can communicate with one another.

No, it is a stupid computer generated flag.

Even that wouldn’t be so offensive if the failures of every ANC administration didn’t stand out so obviously for everyone to see.

Minister for Basic Education Angie Motshekga has presided over the collapse of our literacy and numeracy rates. 

Education economist Nic Spaull noted, in his 2023 Background Report for the 2030 Reading Panel, that 60% of learners leaving grade one didn’t know the letters of the alphabet and 82% of grade four learners are unable to read for meaning in any language. That is a direct theft of the future of our youth. That is treason.

Or perhaps we should look to the startling performance of our Police Minister, Bheki Cele, whose department report, Police Recorded Crime Statistics Republic of South Africa, which makes use of only reported crimes, noted that in the 92 days from October to December 2023, 7  710 South Africans were murdered. 

That is 83 people killed every day. In that same period 14  325 South Africans were raped or sexually assaulted — 156 a day. That is treason. The fact that either of these sorry excuses for ministers remain in the cabinet is a treason against the people of South Africa.

So please Mr President, the next time you want to talk about unity remember that we are unified in our ignorance because your administration destroyed our education system and crippled the future prosperity of our children. 

The next time you want to talk about treason, remember the lives snatched away and the security shattered by your administration’s failure to stop (or even control) crime. 

The next time you want to point the finger, remove the beam from your eye before pointing out the splinter in someone else’s. And please Mr President, spare me your symbolic outrage.

Douglas White is the head of subscriptions and circulation for the Mail & Guardian.