It’s a windy day in mid-September and a thick band of dust encircles northern Johannesburg. Perfect weather for flag-flying and Gauteng’s biggest is billowing at Flag Craft International, which exports flags to half of Africa.
Owner Tony Hampson-Tindale is amused by a question about South Africa’s tallest flagpole at the Donkin Reserve in Port Elizabeth, which stands at 45 meters, nearly 20 meters taller than his.
“They’re at sea level. Johannesburg is 1,753 meters above sea level so ours is higher!”
Heights are important to 66-year old Hampson-Tindale. He’s conquered the Seven Summits and in a few weeks is heading back to the Himalayas to climb Ama Dablam in eastern Nepal.
In 2010, he planted the flags of his native New Zealand and adoptive South Africa atop Everest and at the age of six was inspired when Edmund Hillary first did it; but to him flags are less about passion and more about business. He’s owned Flag Craft since 1984 and exports flags, windsocks and poles to 34 countries, mainly in Africa and the Middle East.
Clients include the African Union, to whom Hampson-Tindale has been supplying flags since OAU days. There are flags for conferences, bosberaads and political parties, not to mention windsocks for airports across the continent. Wind, sun and pollution are enemies of the flag: causing them to become brittle and fray. In blustery or smoggy areas, flags need replacing every six months.
On the factory floor, production staff are squeegeeing dye across screens, replicating onto woven polyester the familiar light blue, black and white of the Botswana flag – part of a big government order. Although workers here still do the silkscreen printing by hand, there’s little creativity about this job, says Hampson-Tindale.
“We are robots. We are given a specification by a country or a company and we do exactly that.”
Seamstress Roselia Sakong has been working here for 14 years, cutting, measuring and sewing flags destined to fly solemnly at military parades, be draped sadly over coffins, or waved enthusiastically at sports matches.
She says she has only one small desk flag stuck into a pot plant at home, but sewed the giant flag that flies outside her work. It’s her pride and joy.
“When I come to work by taxi from Soweto, I often point to it and tell people I made that.”
Among the company’s proudest moments was supplying thousands of flags for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration.
But Hampson-Tindale is not convinced all flag money is well spent. North Korea has the world’s third tallest flagpole at 160 meters, while the flag itself weighs 260 kilograms.
“Some governments will spend millions on flags even if their population is starving.”
Vexillologist Bruce Berry sees flags as the soul of a nation. Every morning, he raises a flag in his Johannesburg garden. One day it may be the fleur-de-lis of the flag of Quebec; the next, the red, yellow and green Ghanaian flag with its black star. There’s not much about flags Berry doesn’t know.
“Ghana was the first African country to adopt its own flag, apart from Ethiopia, which was never colonized.”
On his wife’s birthday, he flies the flag of her native Kenya. The Bendera ya Kenya is one of his favorites. There’s no mistaking the center shield and it’s a pleasing deviation from the red, black and green pan-Africanist colors.
As a child growing up in what was then Rhodesia, Berry says he was fixated with flags, but most people found his obsession curious.
When he was 10, he persuaded his father to buy him a pole, a base and a pulley and began flying flags in their garden: the old South African flag on his mother’s birthday, the Union Jack on his father’s and if they had house guests, he’d find an appropriate flag.
“We were the talk of Bulawayo,” says his sister Angela. “Every time anyone went overseas he’d ask whomever it was to bring him a flag. Eventually he had so many he had to store them in suitcases because there was no wall space left in his bedroom and my mother refused to let him hang them all over the house.”
In 1973, at the age of 12, Berry was relieved to read an article entitled: Flag-Wavers On The Increase.
“That’s when I first realized there was a name for people like me,” Berry says. “Vexillologists: ‘vexillum’ is Latin for standard and ‘ology’, the science of.”
Seventeen years later, Berry helped establish the Southern African Vexillological Association (SAVA).
One of SAVA’s first tasks was to help design a new national flag for South Africa. The primary theme had to be convergence and unification. The actual design was done by the state herald, Fred Brownell. Berry was part of the technical team.
“Usually the fewer colors in a flag the better. But this was a distinctive design because it had six primary colors. It was basically a compromise flag, with black, green and gold elements of the ANC, PAC and Inkatha [Freedom Party] and the red, white and blue of our colonial heritage.”
As the sun sets over Johannesburg, Berry respectfully lowers the flag of St David: a yellow cross on a black field. It’s been flying to honor his son, David, whose birthday it is.
“Flags are symbols of communication; they evoke emotions, be it a red cross, a swastika, or your national flag at half-mast… There’s no international law that says flags must be used, yet every country in the world has at least one. That is the power of flags.”