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OP-ED

The rise and fall of South African cultural policy: The lessons we learnt from Australia (and then forgot)

The rise and fall of South African cultural policy: The lessons we learnt from Australia (and then forgot)
Illustrative image | Sources: Greg Marinovich / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Flickr / Flowcomm | Dean Hutton / Bloomberg via Getty Images | City Press / Herman Verwey | EPA-EFE / NIC BOTHMA

In the early 1990s, South Africa adopted key aspects of Australia’s ‘Creative Nation’ cultural policy and the outward-looking ideas were what underpinned the successive Mandela and Mbeki presidencies. But it became inward-looking when one faction within the ANC chose the path of corruption, State Capture and national impoverishment.

Read all about it: How to Steal a City, War Party, The President’s Keepers, The Shadow State, The Bosasa Billions and Enemy of the People are just some recent book titles. The seamless integration of criminal and political interests described by these books are complemented by hit squads and KGB tactics.

The ANC’s cadre deployment of party members to top jobs has inextricably entwined the ruling party, state-owned enterprises and criminality through patronage networks. The hollowed-out criminal justice system compounds the problem as does police inaction. And, assassination (both by reputation and the murder) of honest officials closing in on institutional corruption is rife.

While the killing fields predominate, analysis simultaneously needs to focus on the softer aspects of life and explain how pluralistic South African cultural policy fell off the tracks after 2015. Critiques of policy studies tend to concentrate on neoliberal creep into instruments and governance. They bemoan the commodification of art, culture and heritage as a means for elite-centric developments.

South Africa during the 1990s was brash and hopeful, fast-tracking instant “new class” wealth. Australia, from whence 1990s cultural policy was drawn, was in contrast peaceful and less brash (other than some of its test cricketers). Australian citizens had the luxury of time and job security to imagine their futures and how culture, policy and politics cohere.

In Australia, the academy was considered a branch of government for the purposes of cultural policy research. But, unlike Australia, the South African state has never been neutral. The new nation remains fragmented in any symbolic, social, linguistic or cultural sense. Our recently sophisticated dialectical cultural theory has become subject to sloganeering and the systematic destruction of civic and educational amenities.

In contrast, Australia’s digital-aware Creative Nation (1994), stressed that “Culture creates wealth”, contributes to innovation, and enables adaptation to new economic imperatives. In South Africa, however, culture signifies division, even in the face of policy to the contrary.

South Africa in 2021 has yet to enter the “information age”, with digital migration still on the horizon. It has remained inward-looking, despite Nelson Mandela’s outward-lookingness. Outward-looking in the 1990s was indicated in licensing pirated software, adherence to copyright, and integrating with international regulatory institutions. Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance strategy affirmed our outward-looking sense of self. But by 2020, victimological memories of the past predominated, rather than in addressing systemic poverty, fostering economic and investment opportunities, internationalisation and Pan-Africanism.

Creative Nation changed the way Australians located themselves in the world. They broadened the concept of culture to reframing cultural industries in both symbolic and economic terms. In South Africa, however, discussion about “culture” was impeded in unworkable sectarian and path-dependent racialised politics. On the one hand, (African) “culture” must be historically preserved, fixed and rooted. Thus, gender relations and human rights often remain regressive; while on the other, “Western culture” must “Fall” (#RhodesMustFall). The serious decolonialisation of curriculums emerged from this moment, driven by a selective reading of Frantz Fanon. Fallism removes the grounds of dialecticism and thereby mutes Fanon’s trenchant critique of the new corrupt elites that replace the old ones.

The Australian debates informed the reconciliatory South African outward-looking policy work for the newly emerging state during the mid-1990s. This framework was however felled in 2017 when a new White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage re-emphasised victimhood and inward-lookingness. Cultural policy studies were thereby also felled along with the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, soon to be followed by monuments across the country, and at Oxford University in England.

During the 1990s the racially integrated idea of the Rainbow Nation was emerging. Easier access to Africa and European, Australian, Latin American and American intellectual production from the mid-1980s assured us that policy research would, in the main, be applied towards the democratisation of our emerging society.

Mandela’s outward-lookingness had cautioned against both “white domination” and “black domination”. Our acceptance of Australian cultural scholarship, then, was that its democratising application of governmentality provided a sensible basis for post-apartheid cultural planning. Crucial, for the moment at least, was our suspension, if only temporarily, of the antagonistic academic relationship with the state.

South Africa’s old values and beliefs derive from British institutions and trading norms, associational relations and the like. Initially, these norms and the benefits associated with them were limited to only a particular group. Much of the anti-apartheid struggle was about extending these norms and values and the associated institutions of education to everyone. After normalisation, other sets of values and beliefs were promulgated.

South Africans needed overnight to turn from habits of critique and principled opposition to the state towards policy development for the state. Cultural policy studies provided ways of doing this. But the opportunistic cadre imperative was to plunder resources from the state. Moving from struggle to planning, from resistance to social reconstruction, and from destruction of infrastructure to valuing civil assets, remains a problem.

South Africa is quite unlike Australia; here the impoverished majority live within an entirely different set of ontologies, imagined histories and political, cultural, language and class experiences. Community is brought into existence by policy, but such policy failed to get popular traction as the state was considered a source of wealth extraction by the tenderpreneurs.

This parasite class fraction inserted itself as political, financial and racial brokers between commercial entities and politicians, rather than acting as a means towards fair redistribution and development. Policy actions opened the door to dealers of state-sourced capital in allocating tenders to entities that had been constituted purely to enable personal and party theft on scandalous scales. Patronage, not principled policy, is the means by which the increasingly factious ANC retains the support of its core voting constituency.

The different Australian experience was thus instructive in that interaction with the state did not during the 1990s result in an inevitable moral conflict for the individuals involved. If not actually benign, the state was at least seen to be morally and ethically neutral. Humanist intellectual criticism can be carried out from within the environs of an ethically secure academic tradition.

Stability has never characterised South Africa. What had to be found was a critical rhetoric of affirmation, almost impossible in a highly unequal society. Australian policy studies tend to be subsumed in a greatly enlightened form of administrative research that supports democratic developments rather than corrupt and oppressive hegemonies.

Pluralistic South African media policy has negotiated the recurrent neo-Stalinist tendencies of the early 1990s. Government can only deal with what has already been legislated and instituted, while politics is that human quality that carries the permanent possibility of beginning something new. South Africans could explore different research relationships precisely because the previous ones were not based on any criterion of neutral government.

How, in this kind of utterly stressed and politically allocative environment, can policy work draw on a critical tradition that stresses the public nature of phenomena? Government in South Africa is not concretely a different phenomenon from politics/party and the connected opportunists who tactically manoeuvre through both spheres. This means that to govern something is to regulate a known and predictable process, which is the guiding metaphor of the concept of society. And, beyond the state is warlordism where the new Gucci Marxists sound more like Mobutu Sese Seko (Congo), Hendrik Verwoerd (South Africa) and Idi Amin (Uganda), though they resourcefully claim allegiance to Steve Biko and Fanon.

Politics is the art of the unexpected, the active realm in which the human capacity for starting and beginning is exercised. Mandela promoted the unexpected: reconciliation, inclusivity and compassion. He replaced debilitating path dependencies with new public habits, and he searched for new outward-looking ideas.

The 1990s new and outward-looking ideas were what underpinned the successive Mandela and Mbeki presidencies, inexplicably squandered by Zuma to the point of a virulent xenophobia, race-baiting and the very destruction of capital. The new is necessarily unexpected.

In the “new” South African case, unexpected was the state’s initial adoption of Australian pluralistic cultural policy ideas. But regressive path dependencies overrode the outward-looking, in response to changing ruling political and angry populist currents that led from the end of the first decade of 2010 to a seesawing of the relationship between citizen/academic, critic and bureaucrat. For sections of the new parasite class, the state is merely the ready conduit to immediate class mobility expressed in garish conspicuous consumption. The impoverished majority are left to fend for themselves.

South Africans still have to appreciate the nature of the triad and how citizen relates to bureaucrat, how bureaucrat relates to state, how state relates to good governance, and how good governance relates to economic and political stability and the reduction of inequality.

South Africa’s old values and beliefs derive from British institutions and trading norms, associational relations and the like. Initially, these norms and the benefits associated with them were limited to only a particular group. Much of the anti-apartheid struggle was about extending these norms and values and the associated institutions of education to everyone. After normalisation, other sets of values and beliefs were promulgated. These are no longer based on the old values, which are seen to be now racialised and “white”. These new beliefs promote “indigenous and African ways”. But, actually, they resemble what is happening in Latin America – political parasites capturing the polity and using it as a vehicle of personal exchange in all markets.

Revolutions characterising South African history ensured that for each newly ascendant group to maintain control, that a certain amount of authoritarian behaviour, the capturing of the polity and state, became ends in themselves. The spoils of victory and redistributing them to their clients is part of that process. Following the Anglo-Boer War and during apartheid, the National Party painstakingly rebuilt devastated Afrikaner wealth stolen by British imperialists. The Party built a set of enduring physical and institutional infrastructures that served this particular fraction of capital.

There is value in stepping back to enable a broader overview of the fault lines, working, as it were, “outside in” rather than “inside out” to illuminate South African configurations as a microcosm of broader international trends. In recognising ways in which specific South African problems are commonly shared global problems, they are indeed rooted in its apartheid history and post-apartheid agreements. But they are also connected with, and inflected by, global political, economic and social orderings that intersect with, and shape the contours and possibilities of its national settlements. Exceptionalism cannot explain everything.

The nascent ANC policy was outward-looking when liberation and an inclusive society was on the horizon during the 1990s, but became inward-looking when one faction within the ANC chose the path of corruption, State Capture and national impoverishment. In representational terms, it was the monuments and universities that paid the symbolic price of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student countermovements from 2016 on.

These movements themselves narrowed the target of their ire, not at state looting by ANC cadres, but against legitimate capital and embattled national institutions trying to work in terms of global best practice. The problem is that these were seen to be represented by Rhodes and European colonialists. Contemporary business and but six million individuals of a population of 59 million were paying the taxes and broker middleman fees redistributed to a tiny new elite of black consumptive capitalists via the extractive practice of BEE-linked tenderpreneurship.

A South African Creative Nation has yet to germinate. On paper (i.e. in the media), at least, the crooks are being held accountable in the public sphere, the media and the Zondo Commission, if not in the actual courts, though the tide began to turn in November 2020. The tribal/national “ur” constructions of the self as self-righteous previously disadvantaged looters claiming “It’s now our turn” (as a 1994 ANC election poster expressed it), can only be replaced at some stage by appropriate policy utility.

That’s when the new dawn will emerge. DM

Keyan Tomaselli is Distinguished Professor, University of Johannesburg. He is author of “Contemporary Campus Life: Transformation, Manic Managerialism and Academentia” (HSRC Press, 2021). This article is summarised from his just-published article, “Australian cultural policy studies, South African exceptionalism” in Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies (Australia).

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