Maverick Citizen

MAVERICK CITIZEN: OP-ED

Heritage Day 2019: Let us honour the struggling creative artists in SA

Maishe Maponya (Photo: Thom Pierce)

September, which is declared Heritage Month in South Africa, follows immediately on the heels of Women’s Month in August. In 2019, Heritage Month comes after the most painful Women’s Month since the dawn of democracy.

In August, South Africa saw more chilling murders and rape of women by men, with most victims known to the perpetrators of these heinous societal criminal acts. Students at various education institutions have gone on protest to call on educational institutions to do something to weed out the known offenders. True, some of the offenders on campuses are said to be lecturers known to students, yet they continue to walk the spaces as if nothing is wrong with men who are sick in their heads – men who imagine that women are there for them to claim and have as they wish.

We carry on as if nothing is wrong in our injured society. Yes, our society is injured on many fronts.

Pondering about all the above and the publicity surrounding the murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana — Nokuthula Zwane a reporter with the Sunday World described “a dark, menacing cloud hovers over South Africa” – there have been calls for business to join in the fight against gender-based violence and femicide. One of my scriptwriting classes at the University of Witwatersrand had to be abandoned midway, a fortnight ago, because students were so affected by the actual goings-on campus.

The 2019 Women’s Month seems to have been raining abuse upon abuse that the acts and its effects spilled into Heritage Month. President Cyril Ramaphosa also joined the fray by calling for the harshest sentence for those who commit crimes against women and children. The calls for justice to take its course has been amplified.

So, what is there to write about Heritage Month, 2019? A sense of vulnerability hangs in the air. To celebrate this month, I pause to pay tribute to the innumerable veteran artists who by no choice of their own have become vulnerable.

Who are the vulnerable artists you may ask? It is those who came before us, are still alive and have contributed to the creative industries and no longer derive a living and income from their practice – making art. The vulnerable artists are those that no longer contribute to the industry due to their age or face the challenges of life.

They are another “the missing middle” in an industry whose heritage has also made South Africa what it is today. The missing middle is those creatives who have fallen ill and cannot afford treatment or belong to no structures at all. Some of them are withering away and will die with no sense of hope. This, while with each Heritage Month that has come and gone, politicians have ascended podiums to talk the language of the arts, promoting culture and heritage.

Some of them are over 65 years of age but have not been identified or do not qualify for the status of being considered as “living legends”.

This Heritage Month, I also want to talk about the Living Legends Legacy Trust (LLLT), an entity which many practitioners young and old know very little about. It consists of not more than 20 so-called legends who stand to benefit from its existence. How it came to be and what criteria was used to make that declaration, only the Minister of Arts and Culture knows. What is also surprising, is that only a few of the members of this prestigious and exclusive entity know how it came about.

I am reliably told that to qualify one has to be 70 and above. Exactly how that is determined and how one “joins” remains a mystery. There are three things that strike one in Google-searching this entity:

  1. It reveals that it was founded in 2015 with a budget allocation or R20-million by Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, with a vision that would include a “programme of lectures on various topics and Master classes and/or incubator programmes” by the legends themselves;
  2. The high-profile names; and
  3. That Welcome Msomi, a member of the executive committee, was in court for the alleged theft of R8-million from the bank account.

The selective nature with which the powers that be (government) have treated practitioners in the industry and organisations/formations has been counter-productive since the dawn of democracy. I know of several vulnerable veterans of the arts who are just about 65 years old on wheelchairs; I think for example of Selaelo Maredi, who lives in a shack in Alex; of Walter Chakela, who suffered a stroke four years ago and whose wheelchair is sorely in need of attention; and Molefe Pheto.

These veterans have never been asked how they survive or been taken into the programs of the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture for support because they have not been declared “legends”.

Could compassionate legends – members of this Trust — not have found it compelling to provide at least proper working wheelchairs for these veterans? During this Heritage Month, the Living Legends Legacy should be challenged that it cannot be operated like it is a body to churn out favours for a few “selected” individuals that the minister wants to bestow some patronage upon. I have seen a few artists, true legends in their right, who qualify to be declared legends by South Africa.

So, this Heritage Month let us spare a thought for all of the forgotten vulnerable and fragile creative industries’ “missing-middle” legends.

This Heritage Month is no different from all the others that have been held, with national or provincial government occupying centre stage and upstaging many community initiatives. There will be a carnival of performances at the Union Buildings to celebrate Heritage Month on the 24 September 2019.

This Heritage Month, should have been used to clear the cobwebs that contribute to the negative image of the perceptions about the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture. During this Heritage Month, a structure such as the Cultural and Creative Industry Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA) should have been reviewed and shut down. What have they achieved and why must they continue to be apportioned favours by the Minister? Some artists have even been engaged in tussles to get appointed on to CCIFSA, to eat, I may add. Exactly what is the function of this exclusive entity or the LLLT?

Before the idea of “Heritage Month” was born, the arts in South Africa were vibrant. Many community-based groups throughout the country and independent arts and culture groups found ways of exchanging programs and cross-fertilisation. These were also made possible by international support by Overseas Development Agencies such as SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency), until government got them to enter into bilateral agreements with them.

With this bilateral it meant the funding could no longer go directly to the organisations but would be diverted to government which would wield the power to disburse as they wish. Thus the proverbial “wings” of the vibrant community projects were “clipped”. As in censorship, Big Brother would determine willy-nilly who gets what and when. Big Brother had its own criteria based on whether they like what you were saying/doing or not.

Government took to usurping the national calendar holidays as a platform for self-praise and political posturing under the cloak of “national” events. If truly these were national events, paid for by the state, shouldn’t they have included other political parties on the podiums to reflect the national agenda of building a one nation and the ever elusive “social cohesion”?

It is good to have national events to encourage a sense of nationhood. It would be better though, to have had several cultural activities taking place throughout the country without being stymied by this one national or provincial event into which large amounts of money are being channelled. They see it as like “biting the hand that feeds you”. “The system never goes to war against itself.” – so says Saths Cooper.

Several independent arts and culture groupings who were making valuable contributions in communities funded by international structures have since died or stopped making the arts. Because these were independent of and sometimes critical of what was going on in the country, some wise minister deemed it fit to stifle those voices by proclaiming and approaching those international entities to funnel resources and funding through the department. As a result the grouping and individuals now had to go to government to beg for resources. The international funders are unhappy and have either withdrawn the valuable role they have been playing over the years.

So, as we face another year of lost opportunity, capture and co-option of the arts, we should pause and ask ourselves whether when Heritage Month 2020 dawns, a day will come when party politics shall cease to steer and dictate to practitioners of the arts what vibrant art is, in order to please the powers that be. MC

Maishe Maponya is a playwright and poet who began writing in 1975. His plays include The Cry (1975), Peace and Forgive (1977), The Hungry Earth (written and produced 1979, pub 1981, 1984), Umongikazi: The Nurse (The Nurse) (1982), Dirty Work (1984, pub 1995), Gangsters (perf 1984, pub 1986), Busang Meropa (1986) and Return the Drum. His latest collection of poetry, Truth Be Told – Da’s Kak in Die Land, was published by Themba books in 2017. Watch Maponya perform his poem The Party here. He remains an activist.

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