Petition against Monumental Flag: DSAC response; with Minister

Sports, Arts and Culture

09 September 2022
Chairperson: Ms B Dlulane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

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The Chairperson opened the virtual meeting by stating it was the first time as a Portfolio Committee that they had been asked to review a petition, as the Petitions Committee normally handled this. Members shared the sentiment and were also unclear on the Committee’s role in dealing with the submitted petition.

Mr T Mhlongo (DA) said he was not acting as a Member of the Committee, but as a representative of the 31 000 citizens of South Africa who had signed the petition against what they termed “the wasteful expenditure of the giant flag project.”

Many Members of the Committee felt the public backlash was largely due to a lack of understanding of how departmental policies and mandates worked. There was agreement that there needed to be efforts to educate the public about national departmental agendas. The sentiment of the Department was that the public outcry was largely because of how the media presented the project to the public. It was also unclear to Members what the petition wanted to achieve, as the project had been stopped. A Member asked why the petition had used such language as “stupidity” and “nonsense” to describe the project, and commented that it came across as a platform to insult the Minister and President.

Mr Mhlongo said that whether or not the project had been stopped was irrelevant, as R5 million had already been spent on the feasibility study, which had to be thoroughly investigated.

Members agreed to give a report to the Speaker, indicating that deliberations had taken place. They also requested the Department to give an update on the money spent thus far, and how the unspent money would be dealt with in the current budget period.
 

Meeting report

Petition to investigate commissioning of R22 million flag

Mr T Mhlongo (DA) briefed the Committee on his petition to investigate the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture commissioning a monumental South African flag at an estimated cost of R22 million.

He said the announcement of this project was followed by national outrage -- not only the media, but in the townships of South Africa.

The petition was a wake-up call to the government of South Africa that citizens deserved a caring government, which would put their practical needs above empty ideology. Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s statement that the flag would foster social cohesion was partly correct, but this was an empty ideology and communities had called for the cancellation of the flag project, saying it was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Public participation was important in the affairs of Parliament. The Constitution made provision to involve citizens in parliamentary processes where they could express their opposition to certain things. Citizens had signed the petition because the project was a vanity project which would drain the country’s fiscus. The petition said "no" to the R22million flag. The public was asking whether any scientific evidence suggested the erection of a monumental flag played a role in strengthening social cohesion.

The public love and respect the flag of South Africa. However, they petitioned that R22 million be used for other pressing needs in the country. The National Arts Council faced monumental challenges of poor governance, leadership, and corruption allegations. The public believed this flag project would move this Council further backwards. Many artists were struggling to feed their families and find jobs. Expenditure of this magnitude could help these artists get back on their feet.

South Africa was the most unequal society in the world. This money could be used on other projects, like housing, creating job opportunities in the arts sector, for Banyana Banyana, and other departments. The petition echoed a sentiment of “stop the corruption, stop the nonsense flag.”

Sport created social cohesion, not a flag.

Response by Department of Sport, Arts and Culture

Mr Vusumuzi Mkhize, Director-General, Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC), said there had been an idea of building a monumental flag, and in 2020 the Department had tested the idea by commissioning a feasibility study. The feasibility study indicated the project was feasible. The Department had then gone through the necessary processes of going to a technical working group in August 2021, and then to the Social Protection, Community and Human Development (SPCHD) cluster in September, where all those structures supported the project. The feasibility study report was then taken to Cabinet in February 2022, where it received favourable consideration. The Cabinet Committee approved the implementation of the feasibility study report on the flag project.

The South African monumental flag project had been conceived as one of the contributors to government’s persistent ambition for a united and socially cohesive South African society, as espoused in the 2012 National Strategy for Social Cohesion and the National Development Plan (NDP), particularly Chapter 15. It was considered an extension of the national portfolio of post-apartheid monuments and reconfiguring the heritage landscape.

The installation of the monumental flag and flagpole, with a height of 120m and the flag cloth being 10m by 15m, could potentially become a monument to democracy -- a symbol of citizens’ freedom, instead of the icons erected in public spaces. It would also become a tourist attraction and potential contributor to economic stimulation and job creation.

Mr Mkhize said it pained him to continue motivating for a project that had been put on hold. When the news of the project broke in May 2022, it attracted negative feedback from the public. The main backlash had been from the media, which influenced public opinion. There had been a general misunderstanding of this project, which resulted in the Minister issuing a directive for the project to be reviewed. After that, the President advised that the project should be discontinued. Since then, all activities towards the project have been stopped. The Department was now taking appropriate administrative procedures to formalise the decision to halt the project.

He said petitions were normally submitted to stop processes. However, in a situation like this, where a petition had been submitted after a process had been stopped, it was unclear what the motive was.

Minister's comments

Minister Nathi Mthethwa highlighted that there was nothing the Department had not said about this project. It had noted the outcry of the public, and both he and the President had responded accordingly. There was nothing new being brought to the table at this meeting.

As the administrator, it was up to the Committee to decide what to do about this petition. To the best of his knowledge, this matter had been dealt with and finalised.

Discussion

Mr M Zondi (ANC) said he was unclear what the people who wrote the petition wanted the Committee to do. He asked where the Committee stood on the matter, because it was a Portfolio Committee and there was a Petitions Committee. If the Minister was not prepared to address the Committee on the expenditure of the Department, then the Committee would have a problem. However, if the Minister was present, he should guide the Committee on the expenditure and submit the petition to the Petitions Committee.

Ms D Sibiya (ANC) said the Minister needed to guide the Committee on what was happening before they went into the details of the petition.

She requested that the list of the 31 000 signatories be circulated to Members to ascertain the validity of the petition and its signatories. If the list was produced, she asked how this petition should be dealt with, considering a Petition Committee dealt with such matters.

She was completely lost on what the petition meant when it stated, “stop the stupidity or rubbish.” She asked what exactly "stupid or rubbish" was. 

Ms R Adams (ANC) said she was worried about the petition and how it had been handled. She asked what constituted corruption in the way this process had been handled.

She said the flag promoted heritage and national identity. She asked how the Department should transform symbols of colonialism and apartheid monuments in the country’s spatial landscape without using the flag, which was a symbol of the country’s diversity and heritage.

She also wanted to know why the petition used such language as “stupidity” and “nonsense.”

Ms V Malomane (ANC) agreed that it would be difficult to deal with the petition, because it sounded like the signatories were calling on the Committee to investigate the Minister's commissioning of the flag construction. It was difficult to investigate, because the Committee had deliberated and agreed on the matter.

Upon the announcement of the flag, there had been responses from communities that the money should be used for other “more important” things. Every department was allocated an annual budget for its activities. Unspent monies were not transferred to other departments to add to their budgets. If this money was not used, it would not be used to build reconstruction and development programme (RDP) houses, because it was for sports, arts and culture. The public needed to be educated that different departments had different mandates.

She added that the Committee could listen to the petition today, but it could not respond because it needed to get a clear direction from the Minister.

She had read the letter from the Auditor-General to the Chairperson, which indicated no irregularities arising from the advertisement regarding the project. Maybe the Committee needed to ask the Department to seek further clarity, and possibly put the project on hold until the issues were resolved, knowing it would affect their spending for the year.

Mr D Joseph (DA) commented that when the flag project was first discussed in the Committee, parties were already opposed to it, so he believes the public outcry was brought back to the Committee as a Portfolio Committee which had previously looked into the matter. He had personally written a letter to the Speaker after the outcry, asking whether Cabinet would discuss the matter further, given the Minister’s own views after the public outcry. He asked the Department to clarify the meaning of the statement by the Minister and the President after the public outcry.

He agreed with Ms Malomane that the public needed to be educated about how government budget allocation was done, as a lack of understanding sometimes led to confusion.

He expressed relief that the Committee had received letters from the Auditor-General confirming that the due diligence process for the flag project had been above board.

He asked whether further investigation needed to be done on the project and, if so, who the legal advisors would propose should do the investigation between the Department, the Committee and the National Assembly.

The Department needed to give an update on whether or not the project was on hold and its legal status.

He said departments had a budget adjustment process within the annual budget framework called the medium-term budget policy statement (MTBPS). If there was an opportunity, the Department should look at a project where there was a need, where the flag project money could be channelled to curb under-expenditure in the current period. This would also indicate that the government had listened to the public outcry, and was not ignoring them.

Mr Mhlongo asked if he could comment as a Member.

The Chairperson said that because he had presented, he would be given a chance at the end to make his comments, and then respond to questions raised.

Mr Mhlongo was still adamant that he needed to make his remarks.

The Chairperson requested that the Minister address the Committee prior to his requested departure time, and said Mr Mhlongo could follow after that.

Mr Mhlongo commented that the presentation from the Department had been a waste of time, as it had made that presentation to the Committee before. According to the Committee's procedures, it was incorrect for the Department to use the same presentation they had previously, without first circulating it to the Members before the meeting.

The Chairperson responded that the Department was using their previously seen presentation as material for responding to some of the questions and statements made regarding the petition.

She commented that after Cabinet had approved the project and the Department was ready to start implementing, the project had been stopped due to the outcry from the communities. She was asking herself about the purpose of looking further into the petition on a project that had been stopped. She suggested that the report from the Committee should state that it would suggest to the Cabinet and the President that maybe a public hearing should be opened, where the Department could engage with the citizens who did not want the project.

Ms Malomane asked why the petition had no accompanying signatures. Some participants had contact numbers and addresses, but others were missing. She would like to be corrected if her thinking was incorrect, that these were important details that should accompany the petition.

Ms Sibiya also agreed that there should be public participation on this project, because it seemed the public thought government was playing games and wasting money by erecting a monumental flag. Government should develop programmes which emphasise the importance of symbols, and create national awareness of the mandate of the Department.

Mr Joseph said it was important for the Committee to reflect on the lessons that could be taken from this whole process. One of the lessons was that the public needed to be consulted on mega projects.

From listening to the Minister and the Director-General, it seemed to him that government had heard the public opinion and the project had been stopped.

Mr Zondi commented that describing the project as "stupidity" sounded like an insult to the Department and the Minister, as it meant that they had been investigating stupidity throughout this period. He also asked for clarity on whether the advertisement had involved maladministration, as the project had been stopped. He added that this would probably be addressed by the AG when they presented on the matter.

He commented that the Speaker should not have asked the Portfolio Committee to investigate the petition, as there was a Petitions Committee who dealt with the matter.

Ms Dlulane asked what Cabinet had said to the Department about this project when it had presented the feasibility study to them.

Responses to matters raised in discussion

Committee Secretary

Ms Zoleka Kula, Committee Secretary, stated that according to Rule 350 of the National Assembly, the Speaker could refer a petition to a Committee where a responsible Member could brief the Committee, and the Committee was expected to deliberate on the briefing by the Member. This was to be followed by the Committee writing a report on the briefing and tabling that report in the National Assembly.

Mr Mhlongo

Mr Mhlongo responded that firstly and most importantly, the petitioners did not want the flag. Secondly, they said that the flag's commissioning must be investigated.

He said that the Committee Secretary had circulated copies of the signatures, and Ms Malomane should also get them from the Secretary. He clarified that despite online petitions being permitted, petitioners had gone the extra mile of submitting a hard copy of signatures to Parliament.

On the definition of “stupidity,” he said it meant the project did not make sense, and that it was unacceptable behaviour.

He said social cohesion was a concept including values and principles which aimed to ensure citizens were treated without discrimination, were on an equal footing and had access to fundamental socio-economic rights. Sport was what created social cohesion, and the money should be spent there.

The flag did not promote access to economic rights. The focus on social cohesion must ensure marginalised citizens became economically advantaged, and the flag would not do that.

He asked whether scientific evidence was that the erection of a monumental flag would bring social cohesion.

He said that the Committee was performing oversight on the Minister, and the Minister could therefore not tell the Committee what to do. Instead, the Committee must hand the process back to the Minister after deliberating on the petition at today’s meeting.

Mr Mhlongo asked whether Parliament recognised the Batho Pele principles, because the project was already underway, with R5 million having been spent on the feasibility study before the project was on hold. This was the reason petitioners wanted it investigated, because money had been spent.

Director-General

Mr Mkhize responded that Cabinet had approved the project. When matters had gone public and there was an outcry, the Minister had sat with the Department to review it. A few days after that, the President called for the project to be stopped.

The Chairperson asked whether the way forward was to draft a report and send it to the Speaker, indicating that deliberations on the petition had taken place, the view of the AG had also been considered, and the Department had attended the meeting to inform the Committee that the project had been stopped.

Mr Mhlongo disagreed with the Chairperson, stating that whether or not the project had stopped was irrelevant, as R5 million had already been spent, and this had to be thoroughly investigated. This motion was on behalf of the Democratic Alliance.

Mr Joseph said what Mr Mhlongo wanted this investigation to establish was what had happened to the money that had been spent, and the money that had been planned for it. The Department needed to look into this aspect. A consideration would be an MTBPS adjustment for the unspent money.

Closing remarks

Members agreed to inform the Speaker that deliberations had taken place, and that the Committee had requested the Department to come back and report on its concluding processes of the project, which would include investigating the already spent funds, and how the unspent funds would be dealt with.

Minutes of the previous meeting were adopted.

The meeting was adjourned.


 

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