R22 million flagpole – branding without substance

Sindile Vabaza is an aspiring economist and an avid writer who writes for the Free Market Foundation. 

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This article was first published on Biznews.com on 19 May 2022

R22 million flagpole – branding without substance
The Department of Sports, Arts and Culture is planning to install a flag that is more than 100 metres in height, at an eye-watering cost of R22 million. The Department announced this as part of its national monumental flag project. It said the flag would serve as a national landmark and tourist attraction. It is yet another example of tone deafness, wastefulness, laziness and hubris on the part of the government, to assume a flagpole will become a source of national pride and identity.
Symbols like flags engender loyalty and pride and common identity when there is substance behind them. In the bigger scheme of government spending R22 million is but a blip, and the only reason the government is receiving so much blowback is because this flagpole rings hollow and feels like an insult to the wider public. In reality, there is not much to be proud of in South Africa right now nor anything that really binds us to a common purpose or a positive direction.
For this flagpole to truly mean something and to live up to its billing as a source of national pride and common identity the government can do a couple of things to give it substance.
Competent local government
Mayor Chris Pappas of Umngeni Municipality is showing what a uniting and positive force competent and transparent governance, combined with effective communication, can be. Local government service delivery is where the power of government is most keenly felt, and cleaning up local municipalities and setting them in order and having a merit based hiring system will ensure that constantly nagging feelings of distaste for the government will become a non-issue. It will also help local businesses thrive and encourage investment into other parts of the country especially as remote workers search for cheaper but functioning locales.
Structural reforms
With all the jobs lost due to various lockdowns and the riots and floods in Kwazulu-Natal, the one thing everyone should agree on is that economic reforms that lead to job intensive economic growth are the country’s most important priority. This will taking decisive actions, such as following through on controlling and cutting the public sector wage bill, implementing labour reforms that will make it easier for SMEs to hire young unskilled people at an affordable rate, and cutting red tape and taxes that will allow business owners to invest more back into their businesses thus creating a virtuous cycle.   
The tourism sector especially was hit hard by the pandemic and resulting containment measures, yet it has good potential to contribute to the economy and future employment growth. Implementation of electronic visa programmes for emerging target markets and increasing the number of countries falling under the visa-waiver agreement will boost arrivals, while a reduction of red tape and regulatory burden for entrepreneurs and small enterprises will improve market access. Investments in transport and tourism infrastructure must be aligned to connect tourists to places. 
There has been some progress on structural reform, including the amending of the Electricity Regulation Act, which paves the way for private players to generate and sell electricity which will lessen our dependence on Eskom. Publishing a new critical skills list to attract foreign expertise into the country is another step in the right direction.
Education as a flagpole of the future
Prioritizing education and skills development is not just necessary for ensuring that more and more South Africans will have the skills to function in a modern economy, but it will also become a harbinger of future prosperity. Ensuring that there are good schools with committed teachers that are resourced properly in our under-served communities will encourage buy-in from parents who can possibly see a future where their children will do better than them. One way to do this is to initiate a school voucher system where private providers can offer competition to often poorly performing public schools and give parents choice about where their children are educated. 
Symbols of national pride and common identity only mean something when they correlate with a people’s lived experience that is largely positive. An example of this is the country-wide euphoria from townships to affluent suburbs when the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup and South Africans were united in waving flags and painting them on their faces. 
The everyday version of that is living in a country of opportunity, where you can earn an honest day’s living, put food on the table for your family, knowing your kids have a shot of making something of themselves if they apply themselves and work hard. It is living in a country where vast amounts of unearned wealth don’t go to rent-seeking and nefarious actors who prey on the public purse and the poor. It is living in a country where trash is picked up on time, where electricity and water rationing is not a feature of your lived experience and where competent people hired on merit run things.
In such a country, a 100-metre high, R22 million flagpole can make sense as a source of national pride and common identity because it will correlate with the lived experience of more and more South Africans.
As it stands now, it is just a colossal waste of money and a sign of the tone-deafness, hubris and utter laziness of the government.

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