Maverick Life

South Africa, Maverick Life

CCIFSA elective conference: Chaos, ‘bullying’ and ‘political agendas’

Allegations of corruption, political interference and a lack of transparency as well as death threats, walk-outs and boycotts formed the dramatic and sometimes chaotic backdrop to what should have been an historic consultative and elective conference for the newly-established Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA) in Bloemfontein this week. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Someone (it might have been Britain’s famous left-wing playwright David Hare) once said that there are four ways of making sense of the world; politics, religion, sport and the arts – and the first three are unreliable. The observation is true, of course, only in societies where artists are able to function independently, free from political interference, coercion or patronage and where creators are enabled to serve as mirrors and the conscience of the citizenry.

Artists have always navigated precarious, dangerous spaces and there are many who have found themselves in the gutters of history, co-opted – often out of financial necessity, sometimes through blind ideological allegiance, out of fear, and occasionally driven by ego – by wily politicians who understand the power of culture and the arts in shaping the hearts and minds of a nation.

It was Joseph Stalin who in 1932 told a gathering of renowned writers summoned to the home of Maxim Gorky that they were “engineers of the soul” with a role much more important than even tanks and guns. It was their duty, Stalin told the writers, to produce literature in service to the Soviet political project.

If you thought the Soviets made life difficult for artists, pause momentarily to ponder how capitalism too has compromised many at the altar of nebulous “markets” and “popular taste”. Writing on the commercial imperative of theatre, Hare opined: “When global capitalism fired up its engines, freed up its markets, kicked up a gear and assumed its historic destiny of infinitely enriching the rich, and further impoverishing the poor, then, for a while, culture stood on the kerb, like a vicar whose cassock had been splashed by a passing Maserati.”

So, it is somewhere between speaking to and providing relevance for their audiences – the citizens – while sidestepping the demands and potential coercion by politicians and being splashed by a passing Maserati – that artists must find space to be true to themselves and their creative compulsions. That is, of course, if this is what drives them to create in the first instance.

South Africa’s artistic community is notoriously divided, fractured and underfunded, and for years now there have been attempts at creating a coherent policy for this sector. For over 18 years the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage, adopted by Cabinet in 1996, has gone through various iterations.

It is important to revisit briefly key issues to do with the White Paper as this provides a backdrop and perhaps perspective to the chaotic scenes that bedeviled the first consultative and elective conference for the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA) which took place amid death threats, boycotts and walk-outs at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein this week.

Playwright and cultural activist Mike van Graan has written extensively on how the original paper was drafted in wide consultation with the arts, culture and heritage sector, but that the current version is “substantially flawed” and “confused”, has been created with little input “and appears to be the product of consultants who have very little understanding of and experience in the sector”.

The most fundamental problem with the White Paper, says Van Graan, is that it is premised not on a vision for the arts, culture and heritage sector but rather on a political imperative to: “[develop] the cultural and creative industries and [increase] their contribution to addressing the country’s triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality.” The Paper also suggests that the industry foster “social cohesion, enhance nation building and contribute to economic growth and development.”

While these were not ignoble goals, Van Graan has questioned whether these were the primary roles and function of the arts, culture and heritage sector and to what extent this sector could realistically contribute to such ideals. More importantly, he asks, should practitioners be obliged to do so “in exchange for state patronage?”

The revised White Paper is also ideologically confused. On the one hand it emphasises the constitutional right to freedom of expression, on the other hand it states that final approval for funding decisions will be vested in the minister and deputy minister of arts and culture. There can be no better invitation to self censorship and the curbing of freedom of expression than this flagrant disavowal of the principle of arm’s length funding advocated in the 1996 White Paper.”

The idea for CCIFSA was born after a 2009 meeting between President Jacob Zuma and members of the cultural and creative industries. Afterwards the Department of Arts and Culture formed two task teams which developed a framework for a federation that will represent 12 identified sectors and 45-sub sectors in the industry. The federation will eventually consist of several elected board members, including a president, and that will represent the creative community “at a governmental, economic and societal level”.

And of course CCIFSA is going to need a hefty budget which some estimate will be at least R150 million to set up, and a further R50 to R60 million a year to operate. It is a potentially nutritious feeding trough, which perhaps explains much of the “chaos” and the “political bullying” that exploded at what was meant to be a consultative conference involving the country’s creative practitioners.

Before the consultative and elective conference was due to kick off, Van Graan, who was scheduled to deliver a keynote address, announced on Facebook that he would be withdrawing.

There has been so much divisiveness, disorganisation and lack of transparency in the creation of CCIFSA, that it is difficult to see how it can play its role of unifying, organising and representing the sector.”

Van Graan alerted the community that the more pressing challenge was the revision of the White Paper. The Department of Arts and Culture had briefed the parliamentary portfolio committee and was in the process of “ticking the ‘consultation’ boxes in at least four of the country’s nine provinces.”

The creative sector itself though is largely uninformed about this document and its far-reaching implications, and has not begun to grapple with its flawed premises, poor logic, adverse implications for freedom of creative expression and its insidious linking of arts and culture with notions of national security! Rather than be bothering about a structure like CCIFSA (where form and structure appear to precede clarity of function), the creative sector needs to be far more concerned about a policy document that, if pushed through in its current form, will have a serious impact on our sector.”

It has been the task of an interim committee – appointed in February 2014, chaired by singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka and with a budget of R5 million – to consult with members of the sector in all nine provinces ahead of this week’s elective conference. But from the start CCIFSA (its logo coincidentally happens to be in ANC colours) has been beset with problems as industry members complained bitterly of a lack of transparency, poor communication and late invitations to consultative meetings.

But almost immediately, the conference in Bloemfontein was turned into a political spectacle as some delegates arrived, resplendent in ANC regalia and waving banners of preferred candidates for the powerful position of President. One such candidate was Eugene Mthethwa, former musician and Director of Trompies Entertainment (PTY) Ltd who took to the stage at some point as members of the interim committee lost control of the gathering.

Mthethwa’s outdated profile, on Who’s Who Southern Africa, describes him as “a top civil servant in President Jacob Zuma’s government” and “current” position is listed as “Acting Director, Presidential Stakeholder Relations, Government of South Africa”.

Ismail Mohammed, Director of the National Arts Festival, attended the first plenary and described what “could have been a major stride for the arts sector” as “a hotbed for agendas and petty politicking”.

On day one of the conference, the interim committee was so ill-equipped to facilitate the conference that the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, had to intervene several times to rescue the conference from being derailed.”

Mthethwa, he said, “showed his mettle when he listened to grievances from the floor, processed information and responded decisively each time affirming that it was up to the artists to take ownership of CCIFSA and to make it work.”

In his speech to those gathered, the minister acknowledged that there had been problems and complaints about tight deadlines and the lack of consultation.

But we all know that whatever the future of artists is going to be, it lies in the hands of artists themselves…It is either you are part of the problem or part of the solution. It is not up to government or any minister but to artists themselves to determine how CCIFSA will be structured, who will lead it or processes to be followed. We will play an oversight role.”

It was, he added, up to the various stakeholders in the cultural and creative industries “to define the vision that you desire to give birth to at this inaugural elective conference. We are not looking at you trying to please us as the government, but to work together as equal partners in our aim to uphold and promote a creative and cultural industry that is inclusive and participatory.”

And while the minister might have set out his department and government’s attitude and vision for CCIFSA, Ismail wrote that it was the delegates themselves – with such high stakes – who had been “devious” and who had “cheated”. There were also major flaws in how provincial lists had been constituted with each province allocated 60 delegates “on the stupid assumption that the creative and cultural industries are homogenously spread out through the country.”

Ismail added:

“Deviousness and cheating was quite evident in how the provincial lists were compiled. The Free State province was a stark example of how political lobbying and greed was engineered to undermine the conference. Two members of the interim committee who have been gunning for key positions mobilised their own supporters and hence the delegate list for the Free State exceeded the designated sixty participants. The only province that seemed to have got its house in order according to specifications provided was KZN.”

On the second day Ismail said the interim committee could not account for how it had spent its allocated R5 million, an issue that is crucial:

“In a sector where artists and arts organisations are constantly holding out the begging bowl, R5 million is not an amount to be sneezed at. The newly elected members of the Federation will be controlling far more than R5 million, so the reason for the conniving and backroom jockeying for positions on the new Board of CCIFSA committee becomes so much clearer, especially when the interim committee seems to have the balls to convene a general conference without putting the tabling of its audited financial statements on the agenda.”

Wits Theatre director, Gita Pather, had walked out of the conference after taking to the microphone to lambast the interim committee and saying that the conference was attempting “to legitimise its year long operations by convening a shabbily-structured conference flaunting several regulations of the Companies Act under which CCIFSA was registered.”

Pather later wrote on Facebook that she had found herself in many “difficult positions as an artist” but that her experience at the conference “was memorable in that for the first time, I watched naked avarice, greed, ignorance and arrogance come together in an arts event. Before we have argued, debated issues, locked horns, agreed to disagree, but never have [I] seen this kind of unmasked ambition posturing as a love for the arts. It was a political meeting …complete with opposing groups, fudged enrollment papers, people posing as others, revolutionary songs and political rhetoric that had no place there since it wasn’t a ‘comradely’ use of the word ‘comrade’ but a warning to toe the line.”

For now, those artists who are deeply dissatisfied with the turn of events at the CCIFSA conference are regrouping. Pather has announced that she is willing to spearhead a movement to address all the major issues and that the CCIFSA conference was merely a “symptom of a far more insidious move by government to control the arts.”

She added:

“The current draft of the White Paper needs to be opposed for a whole variety of reasons, and we need to find a way to do so quickly. We need to create a loose body that can coordinate communication, ensure documents are circulated and prepare for a larger gathering. We don’t need R5 million, just the will to act together and understand that we have reached a tipping point…what I saw yesterday made me understand that the tentacles of government are reaching into civil society and hijacking and appropriating discourse.

Our problems are not a corrupt interim committee gunning for power…there will always be sell-outs. Our problem is wresting back control of our own futures, our artistic practice and to craft our own vision for ourselves and the arts.” DM

Photo REUTERS/Mike Hutchings