South Africa

Missive to Emmanuel Nkosinathi ‘Nathi’ Mthethwa – new Minister of Arts and Culture

By J Brooks Spector 4 June 2014

In this letter, we offer some unsolicited advice to the new Minister of Arts and Culture. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

Dear Nathi (may we call you Nathi?),

First of all we want to congratulate you on your new assignment in the cabinet as Minister for Arts and Culture. All of us in this sector hope you will find it to be an intellectually challenging, thoroughly absorbing position, and one that gives you great personal satisfaction and a feeling of real professional accomplishment.

We must say, however, that from the moment your appointment was announced, it was very sad to see a whole range of commentators and politicians suggest that you were given your new position because of difficulties in your previous position as Minister of Police. But, rather than having to deal with the public acrimony that came out of those moments where the actions of some public order forces led to the deaths of protestors, nothing like that is likely to be part of your new assignment – unless things get truly out of hand at a really controversial art exhibition or dance performance. In fact, we suspect your new position will be a much more interesting and rewarding one than the previous one ever was.

The arts and cultural sector matters to those involved in it, of course, but it also matters a great deal to the nation. For one thing, it is one of the key ways a sense of South African-ness for South Africans is created or constructed. And it is also one of the key ways foreigners come to know the country – beyond its exports like gold or diamonds.

Remember, for a moment, just how important culture was in the struggle against apartheid and you will understand what we meant. Great dramas like “The Island”, inspiring performers like Miriam Makeba, and the writings of people like Nadine Gordimer or Es’kia Mphahlele were critical in informing people around the world about the realities of the country’s condition.

More recently, a musical group like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, artist William Kentridge, or the people from the Handspring Puppet Theatre have all continued to build a major international reputation for South Africa’s cultural world And just in purely economic terms, the country’s arts and culture sector represents a significant contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product – and could do much more, were its financial stability more certain.

In some of your recent interviews, you have explained that although you do not come from the arts and culture sector, you do like music a great deal. While that is wonderful to hear and we all hope you continue to enjoy the country’s extensive musical world, we also hope you will be keen to explore the many varied aspects of South Africa’s vibrant cultural universe – including contemporary and classic dance, popular, classical and operatic music, theatre, and art. And we all hope this will mean that you will be a frequent visitor to performances beyond obligatory attendance at some of the launches of those big official projects, the ones with all those useful but ritualised political meanings attached.

We hope you will enjoy the many regular theatre programmes around the country, the exciting dance recitals in experimental venues, and even those art exhibitions of controversial, “in your face” art by artists who hope they can succeed in shocking viewers. The arts community desperately wants to see you as their champion and defender, especially when they produce works that may be seen as difficult, challenging or complex, works that may force people to react strongly to their new and provocative ways of thinking. The arts community really wants to embrace a government champion who will fight for them – especially when they offer critical or difficult things to say about their country and its people.

But besides a more general message of support, there are important, tangible things you can do to help support and nurture the arts in South Africa. If you were to accept these challenges, many of these would put your undoubted bureaucratic skills and contacts across government to a real test for the benefit of both the artistic community and for the nation as a whole.

First of all, there is the matter of health care and retirement for professionals in this sector. Many in the community are actually too poor, or their incomes are so erratic, such that they are simply unable to join an established medical scheme on their own. And yet, as one veteran actor/director reminded us just the other day, more than many professions, besides their skills and training, a performer’s work almost totally depends on their physical health – their ability to perform in the often-gruelling business of appearing night after night in the best possible physical condition. A successful effort that led to the creation of a medical insurance plan that professionals in the arts could join would greatly improve their productivity – and substantially prolong the careers of many of them as well.

Similarly, too, a dedicated effort to create a modest but sustainable retirement plan, one that acknowledges the fact that the monthly incomes of many artists and performers (and hence their ability to pay routine, regular contributions easily) often vary greatly, would be a huge benefit to many in the sector. Such a plan would help lessen the likelihood of finding out that some of the country’s greatest performers continue to struggle, just to make ends meet in their final years. And it would also give heart to other performers still in the prime of their careers that they will have some modest income support to look forward to – after their active days are over.

While there have been many serious efforts over the years to create the kinds of standardised contracts for the industry that protect both the rights of employers and those of employees, until now, not everyone has come on board and is supportive of such efforts. One problem, of course, is that most performers are not attorneys, let alone labour and contract law specialists, and they cannot always afford such services to help them. Often they are so eager to work at the craft they love that they are prepared to sign contracts regardless of the stipulations in them.

Many entertainment contractors are both fair and reasonable employers, but not everyone may be that and financial mistakes do happen. As a result, a departmental effort to help create industry-wide standards for all typical contractual documents could go a long way towards protecting the unwary, the naïve, the new in the business – and those who are just more concerned with their work than the legal language at the bottom of the contract.

Of course one of the other ways you could be an enormous help for the sector, despite your relative unfamiliarity with much of it, would be to put your considerable abilities and energies into building programmatically important bridges between your department and other cabinet-level departments. For example, one easy win would be a close relationship with Home Affairs to ensure there is consistent decision-making on the way theatres and impresarios contract foreign performers and troupes so that they can always arrange the relevant visas efficiently and easily.

Another easy win could come from a stronger relationship with DIRCO to guide more consistent support for South African performers and artists in their overseas forays – both in terms of any individual tours and for participation in the many different cultural festivals that take place around the world from Australia to Scotland – and across the African continent. This could be a real win-win for both departments – and the nation as a whole – given the growing importance of soft power as a legitimate, powerful tool in diplomacy.

Similarly, a major plus would be a strong, durable relationship with Basic Education. While there is already a cultural arts curriculum that is part of the national curriculum process, far too many schools in this country do not have qualified teachers for such subjects, or cannot afford to fund a program from a school’s individual resources. And yet the audiences – and practitioners – of the future must inevitably come from among today’s students.

Finding common ground with Basic Education to systematically build up arts teaching in all of the country’s schools can contribute massively to a sense of national cohesion as well as the education of the students. An innovative program to provide grants for the nation’s schools to bring in specialist practitioners in the arts in residence for dedicated enrichment programs as well as real teaching could be one way to start. Ensuring that the arts curriculum is actually taught effectively by relevant specialist teachers in every school could be another. And providing funds to make certain every South African child gets to attend at least a few performances a year of live music, theatre or dance – whether they go to the performers or the performers come to them – would be crucial in developing the aesthetic sides of the country’s students.

Some might argue that such a student benefit is too hard to accomplish, although some countries already manage to find a way to fund discounted tickets for every student inside their borders, despite the costs. To witness the look on the faces of young students who have seen a live theatre production or dance work for the first time is to see faces light up with astonishment and wonder as the students begin to imagine a world where something wonderful is possible for them as well.

Now, closer to your own department, there are, of course, many creative challenges that could become exciting bureaucratic efforts with real, tangible results that would redound to your great credit. A fact of key importance is that one of your department’s most important functions is to help fund the arts sector, not to direct the content of the country’s artistic and cultural output. In that sense, the department is something like a banker for many routine cultural programs such as the operating grants to museums and cultural institutions like theatres.

But, in terms of specific activities where you could make a special mark, for one, there is a need to build more effective coordination in the ways the National Arts Council, the Lottery Distribution Trust and the department’s own discretionary funds efforts are all put in the service of the arts and culture sector more effectively and more efficiently.  Your department could also begin to work out how best it could build sustainability – and greater cooperation – into the management of the country’s various orchestras, ballet companies and opera groups.

While it will never be possible for such groups to be entirely self-sustaining without increasing ticket costs to stratospheric levels that would price audiences right out of attending such programs, long-term planning and greater financial stability can help. But this still is unlikely to happen if each group believes it must fight for its place in the sun and grab as much support as it can get from national, provincial and local funding – often in competition with and perhaps at the expense of the others.

In theatre, especially, real energy must go into bringing all of the country’s public – and maybe even some of its private – theatres into closer more cooperative relationships so that successful dramatic productions routinely get to tour the country. In addition, some serious thought and planning could go into creating ways where such works are nurtured from the beginning, with the idea that they will tour, so that their management, sets and direction are designed for touring. Some of this actually used to happen back in the bad old days, and so it should certainly happen in our time again, especially with the growing popularity of cultural and arts festivals throughout this country.

Your predecessor was strongly interested in creating a national skills academy in the arts. This was a laudable goal in one sense, but perhaps it stemmed more from a desire to leave a tangible mark on the arts and culture scene than something that really needed to be done right now. Actually, there are already many university programs in the arts, a wide variety of local and NGO initiatives – including projects that have been running successfully for years such as the Market Theatre’s Laboratory and Photo Workshop, or the nearby Artist Proof Studios. In addition, there are three national high schools for the arts as well as a number of private colleges that focus on practical training in the arts. What there is less of is financial stability and long-term security for many of these programs. Similarly missing is much thoroughgoing coordination between these many programs – and active, on-going, routine ways graduates can enter the professions they hope will be a part of their adult lives. These are where your department can be really influential in building bridges between all these institutions – and from these various training spots onto real work.

And speaking of real work, we understand that helping generate real work – not just those semi-mythical “work opportunities” is a crucial goal of your cabinet and your tenure in office. That is just as it should be. But, it is easy to forget the arts and culture sector can be a great generator of real jobs with real futures – as long as the sector’s institutions survive.

And, interestingly, by contrast to jobs in hard-core manufacturing, arts and culture jobs can be very cost effective. With some estimates that manufacturing jobs often require cash injections of over a million rand per job, the arts, with lower start up costs and less expensive overheads for each job can be real winners for the country’s employment prospects. But this will only be true if arts organisations can, themselves, survive.

And that brings us to a final point. No matter how you juggle the budget, your department will really never have enough money to pay for everything worth doing. In many countries, however, key provisions of the tax system are set up to encourage real interest on the part of corporations and individuals to financially support the arts.

By making such contributions tax deductible for the would-be giver (thereby lowering their gross income and thus their ultimate tax burden), the tax system encourages participation in funding such activities. And that helps build long-term, sustainable relationships between donors and recipients to the betterment of both. Of course would-be recipients have to prove their bona fides of course, but such a process quickly becomes routine for everyone. While this might be a hard hill to climb in today’s revenue-hungry environment, the long-term benefits to the arts, to the giver – and to the nation – would be hard to over-estimate.

Who knows, maybe you would even be able to charm the finance minister and the relevant portfolio committees into seeing it your way. Oh, and by the way, while you are at this tough assignment, perhaps you can also convince them to eliminate that appalling VAT on books. We clearly need a country that reads, and one of the best ways to help that would be to make books and periodicals less expensive for people, and not more so.

There, we’ve given you a gargantuan agenda that could easily take many years to achieve in full. But, if you even achieve half of this, your monument will be a more vibrant, more financially secure, more all-encompassing arts and culture sector for South Africa – just as long as you resist the temptation to dictate the content of the country’s arts and culture scene as some of your more hapless predecessors had been wont to consider doing.

Feel free to call us if you want more information on these ideas – or others. There’s so much still to do!

Respectfully, J. Brooks Spector. DM

Photo: Nathi Mthethwa (Greg Nicolson)

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