Flags in schools: déjà flew?
When the Department of Arts & Culture tabled their budget in Parliament last week, it was announced that it would be spending R34 million to ensure that there was a South African flag in every school, and to teach citizens how to sing the national anthem. While this was widely reported as a new development, the 'Flag In Every School' project appears to have been running for the last nine years - with millions seemingly budgeted.
"We are quite aware that our youth don't know the history of this country, especially how it came about that we got freedom," deputy Arts and Culture Minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi said last week. "Now we have got these flags but they cannot analyse the colours, it is just something that is beautiful… Every school should fly the South African flag and we have identified that we are going to install 22,193 flags around the country."
It was this aspect of the Arts and Culture budget that received the greatest amount of media attention. Sapa quoted Mabudafhasi as saying "the campaign had started last month when flags were handed to a primary school and a training college in Kimberley".
But the project has actually been running for almost a decade already, apparently with not terribly much to show for itself thus far.
Back in 2005, the Department of Arts and Culture announced the launch of a "Flag in Every school" project in collaboration with the Department of Basic Education. A newspaper report at the time quoted erstwhile Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan as describing the initiative as "a phased-in project that would require buy-in from both provincial government and the private sector, as the procurement of flags and flag poles is an expensive undertaking".
Jordan added that an amount of R10,2 million had been budgeted for the project during the 2005/2006 financial year.
In September 2005, the project was officially launched at a primary school in Mitchell's Plain by Jordan and his Education counterpart Naledi Pandor. Pandor described the supplying of flags to schools as "crucial", while Jordan cautioned against misinterpreting the initiative as a propaganda project. The departments said that they aimed to supply "all 29,000 schools" across the country with a free flag over the next four years.
Fast-forward three years, however, and the project appears nowhere near complete - to say the least. A Treasury breakdown of the Arts and Culture budget for 2008 includes a table for 'Number of flags distributed to schools'. 2004 to 2005 is marked with a dash. In 2005/06, the number of flags distributed is recorded as one. In 2006/07, another dash. Then a sudden leap: in 2007/08, 2,000 flags were reportedly distributed. The table projects another 14,000 flags to be distributed over 2008/2009, 6,000 over 2009/2010, and 4,000 over 2010/2011. Those targets were evidently not met.
In November 2009, then Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana told a Ministers and Members of Executive Councils Meeting that the department "ha[d] continued its work to improve awareness, knowledge and understanding of national symbols…through ongoing work with the flag in every school campaign". A year later, riding the wave of World Cup patriotism, Xingwana said while launching Heritage Month 2010 that the department "will continue to distribute flags at schools throughout the country".
In 2011, the Flag in Every School project had apparently reached the conclusion of its "second phase", with the department aiming to install "as many as 3,000 flags and flag poles in 3,000 schools". In the third phase, the department wanted the public to help cough up for flags: "South African citizens and institutions are encouraged to pledge a flag or a flag pole or both to a school or schools of their choice which do not already have flags". That project phase would install a further 6,000 flags, and R6 million had been set aside for it.
In May 2013, delivering his Budget Vote speech, Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile made passing reference to "our flag in every school campaign", though his speech for the previous two years had omitted mention of it. A company called NF Branding lists as one of the successes of its 2013 product catalogue its involvement in the "Flag in every School Project 2013/2012".
By November 2013, the department had reached "phase four" of the project. Advertising the tender for "service providers for installation of flags and flagpoles in every school project", the department said it was looking for suppliers who will "distribute and install a total of 5,000 flags and flagpoles in selected schools in the nine provinces over a two-year contract".
New Department of Arts and Culture spokesperson Sandile Memela denies that progress over the last nine years seems to have been slow, despite the millions apparently budgeted at various stages. "Great strides have been made in achieving the intended goal of flying flags high in schools," Memela told the Daily Maverick over email on Sunday. Memela says that 7,000 flags have been installed to date, because "in all these previous phases the budget could only manage the limited stipulated numbers."
That's all about to change, since the new brooms at the department seem determined to deliver a flurry of flags this year. Memela says that "all 22,000 schools" will be "covered by the end of the financial year".
It's unclear why government seems to have decided to make the flag project such a budgetary priority now, after being content to let it move at a glacial pace for the last decade. The decision seems to fit part of a wider rhetoric around the need for improved "patriotism" levels in South Africa recently, as seen also in ANC MP Lindiwe Maseko's call to the SABC to broadcast the national anthem twice a day, and SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng's desire for "patriotic journalism".
The millions budgeted to outfit schools with flags will likely cause some mutterings due to the number of South African schools which are missing more than a flag and a flagpole. Equal Education reported last year that 3,544 schools had no electricity, 913 no toilets and 2,703 had no fencing.
"Real patriotism, not to mention arts and culture, would mean equipping schools with libraries filled with books about South African, African and international art, literature and history," Equal Education deputy general secretary Doron Isaacs suggested to the Daily Maverick on Sunday.
"The flag should be the cherry on top, once adequate school infrastructure is in place. It is almost an insult to the flag, not to mention the teachers and learners, to make a song and dance about erecting it over many of our crumbling schools."
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.