Maverick Citizen

CULTURE CRISIS: OP-ED

An artist’s response to Nathi Mthethwa’s alternative facts

The Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa during the launch of Heritage Month 2020 at Ditsong Cultural Museum on September 07, 2020 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Frennie Shivambu)

Nathi Mthethwa is known as the minister of condolences for the number of messages of condolence that he issues. Yet, on his watch, many creatives have lost significant income, and with that their emotional, psychological and physical well-being has been compromised.

Nathi Mthethwa, Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, emboldened by a stone-deaf President’s utter indifference to the creative sector that has increasingly called for Mthethwa to be sacked, has decided to go on the offensive and present his alternative reality as ‘fact’.

Earlier this year, the minister tweeted that “theatre is alive and well” when in truth, many theatres were shut, festivals that created and distributed theatre were cancelled, audiences were severely restricted by curfews and Covid-19 protocols, and thousands of practitioners had lost significant income.  

Once again, he has shown how out of touch and empathy-deficient he is.

In a virtual “For the Record” media engagement on 5 August (and in an op-ed here), he stated, “Based on facts that are publicly available and verifiable, we are today stating it unequivocally that statements and allegations suggesting the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC) has been unresponsiveness (sic) and uncaring are not backed by fact”.

Then, in an article in City Press on 8 August, Mthethwa dismisses this sentiment — that DSAC has been uncaring — as a “fairytale” perpetuated by “those who know the facts, yet pretend otherwise”.  

In the opening paragraphs of his City Press article, Mthethwa tells of an experience early in his tenure when he was told by a ‘leading voice’ in the arts sector that notwithstanding his or his department’s support for artists, he should expect those very artists to complain of a lack of support the next day.  

This article will offer a few facts that show how ignorant the minister is, and how necessary it is — for the sake of the country’s creative sector — for him to be replaced.  

As proof of DSAC’s care and responsiveness, the minister has made much of the R642.9-million that the DSAC has made available to 63,343 beneficiaries within the ‘creative and sport industry’ over the last 16 months. To the minister who earns R2.4-million per year, these amounts are impressive and he claims that “…this cannot be counted as a small feat”.  

For the record, Minister, using your own figures, the average amount allocated per beneficiary would be just over R10,000 over a 16-month period, less than R650 per month. 

The minister divides the beneficiaries into two groups: 20,719 who received relief funding and 42,624 beneficiaries of the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme (Pesp). Among those who received relief funding are 8,434 beneficiaries of the Solidarity Fund who collectively received R5.9-million, an average of R699 per beneficiary. They account for 40% of this group. On 3 August 2020, the minister announced that DSAC had received 10,000 vouchers worth R700 each from the Solidarity Fund for food or cash, a total of R7-million. If R5.9-million of this amount was allocated, what happened to the other R1.1-million worth of vouchers?

While the minister seeks to bedazzle us with large numbers, the actual amounts allocated are small, relative not only to what creatives could expect to earn in 16 months even in the gig economy with its irregular income opportunities, but to what they actually need to cover their basic costs (rent, food, medical aid, data, school fees, etc).

The second phase of relief funding covered the three-month period from September to November 2020 and was set at a rate of R2,200 per month “using the rationale of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) rate structure of R95-R100 per day”. For three months, this amounted to a total of R6,600 paid as a once-off payment per beneficiary, bearing in mind that those who received funding during the first phase (up to R20,000 each), could not apply for relief funding in the second phase.  

Leroy Mokgatle during the South African ballet championships on February 24, 2016 at Artscape Theatre in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / City Press / Lerato Maduna)

(It is unclear why the DSAC decided to use the EPWP rate for determining the second wave amount payable to artists, given that the EPWP is essentially an initiative to provide job opportunities for the unemployed, as opposed to the flat rate of up to R20,000 per applicant as applied in the first wave).

Those fortunate to receive funding in the first phase had to make those amounts last for months, till they could apply for Pesp funding, while the 683 successful applicants in the second phase, received a total of R6,600 each.  R2,200 per month is certainly better than nothing and is more than a R700 food voucher, but by no means can it be considered sufficient to provide support for an individual — let alone her/his family — over an extended period of 16 months when most opportunities for them to generate income have been shut down by Covid-19 regulations. 

Within a 16-month period, the total number of 20,719 beneficiaries of relief funding (organisations and individuals, creatives and athletes) received a total of R17.6 million or an average of R8,234 per beneficiary.

The minister who is remunerated at R200,000 per month cannot understand why those creatives who may be beneficiaries of public funding today, may complain the next day. Perhaps he should be prevented from earning his salary for 16 months, apply for up to R20,000 in the first three months, and if he’s lucky enough to get it, try to survive on that for the next 13 months.  

Maybe then he’ll gain some insight?

Public funding for patronage

While public funding in a democratic dispensation should promote freedom of expression, whether such expression is critical of the current regime or not, Mthethwa seeks to achieve exactly the opposite: to silence criticism.  Mthethwa uses public funding for patronage purposes, to create a chorus of praise singers and sweetheart organisations that support and defend him. 

The criteria for accessing initial relief funding, the identification of beneficiaries and the mechanism through which the relief fund was to be managed were finalised in consultation with Sascoc (for sport) and the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA) (for arts and culture). Yet, the CCIFSA — a creation of Mthethwa — has no track record, no significant membership and no credibility within the creative sector.  Mthethwa implies that by receiving public funding — no matter how inadequate the amount — creatives should be grateful and shut up.

Two-thirds of the total number of beneficiaries tabulated by the minister — 42,624 — are those who were allocated funding from the Pesp. Of these, 26,124 (60% of the total) are listed as jobs created or retained by the National Arts Council with a total of R251.2-million allocated to date. Quite simply, contrary to Mthethwa’s assertion that his figures are “based on facts that are publicly available and verifiable” there is no proof that anywhere close to this number of jobs were created or retained.  

The projections of beneficiaries in the case of the National Arts Council (NAC) were related far more to a formula that they chose to use, rather than an actual headcount.  In the midst of the Pesp funding cycle that was to end on 31 March 2021, Mthethwa appointed a new Council with effect from 1 January this year.  The previous Council had agreed on a formula of R16,000 per job retention and R25,000 per new job opportunity, for a projected total of 17,000 retained and new job opportunities, all of which were to be achieved within a three-month period, from 1 January to 31 March 2021.  

However, the previous Council had over-allocated the available budget (and this is now the subject of a forensic investigation) so that the new Council, without any induction, with extremely limited experience, suspended its CEO and CFO, unilaterally changed contracts agreed to by the previous Council, and decided on a new formula of R10,895 per “job opportunity”.   

At their media conference of 24 February 2021, the new Council announced that they had created 21,249 jobs within less than two months and claimed it as a massive achievement for the NAC. As per the Theatre and Dance Alliance’s Report into the mismanagement of the Pesp funding by the NAC, what the NAC failed to say was that:

  • The 21,249 jobs were created in theory, based on their new formula rather than an actual number of job opportunities created;
  • By then, the NAC had paid out less than R40-million to successful applicants so that by that date, this projected number of job opportunities had definitely not been created; and
  • Many of the applications had outlined the number of jobs they would retain or create based on their respective figures so that the NAC’s subsequent unilateral allocation of a sum per ‘job opportunity’ — R3,631.66 per month for three months —  may very well have changed the number of actual jobs retained or job opportunities created.

Furthermore, applications for Pesp funding were made in October 2020 during lockdown alert level 1, but the funding was allocated and was to be used largely during lockdown alert level 3 (29 Dec to 28 February 2021) when theatres, festivals and other cultural platforms were largely shut.

Consequently, the NAC’s projected number of jobs has simply not been tested in practice nor audited so that the minister’s claim of ‘verifiable’ facts is more a thumbsuck than a ‘fact’.

In short, an interrogation of the figures provided by the minister will reveal more in the way of smoke and mirrors than substantial support for those who make their livelihoods within the sector.

Minister of Arts, Sports and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa receives an update report from the Ministerial Advisory Team (Mat) on efforts to address the plight of the creative industry on June 17, 2021 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

The impact of Covid on the arts and culture ecosystem 

But this is only a small part of what is wrong with the minister’s ‘Record’.  The major problem is that he clearly has little understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on the broader arts and culture ecosystem.

Mthethwa lists examples of Pesp beneficiaries like the Baxter Theatre Centre. What he fails to mention is that while the Pesp funding may have helped retain jobs of Baxter Theatre employees, the Baxter has been unable to present work for months, thereby denying many creatives the opportunity to earn an income.  

He does not mention that an equally important theatre that has presented numerous excellent South African plays and provided income for hundreds of performers and co-workers for nearly a decade — the Fugard Theatre — has been shut permanently. As have at least two other theatre spaces in Cape Town. Many other theatres around the country have remained dark for more than 12 months, robbing many of their income.

He lists the National Arts Festival as a Pesp beneficiary but fails to mention that the country’s largest festival in terms of programming had to take the NAC to court to get them to pay what the NAC had originally agreed to award the Festival. This is the second year that the Festival has had to offer a primarily virtual platform for creatives, with extremely limited income deriving from this platform.  

The Cape Town City Ballet (CTCB) is listed as another beneficiary, but it is unlikely that the minister is aware that the CTCB had to retrench a number of its dancers. Nor would he be aware — or care — that in the midst of a ballet season offered by the company at Artscape, one of the theatres funded by DSAC, audiences were reduced from 250 to 100 when the country was shifted to a stricter alert level to arrest the spread of the coronavirus. This impacted adversely on the company’s box-office earnings on which it is dependent to sustain itself.

What the minister clearly fails to understand is that the broader creative ecosystem is at risk.

Festivals, a key platform for commissioning and distributing work, and for generating income for artists, will have been cancelled for at least two editions by the end of this year.  

In a shopping mall, depending on floor space, different numbers are allowed in retail outlets with a supermarket permitting scores of customers while a smaller sunglass outlet may have fewer than five. In the case of multi-venue theatre complexes, however, a 1,300-seater is currently permitted a maximum of 50 attendees, just as a 150-seater is limited to the same arbitrary number.  

Not only does this curtail sustainable productions but it is ludicrous that the minister — who has the power to determine regulations for cultural spaces during this time — is out of touch with international best-practice that allows for theatres to open safely in accordance with Covid-19 protocols but that also takes account of their actual capacity in terms of such protocols.

That the sector believes the minister and the department to be uncaring and unresponsive is not only related to the lack of funding; or the relatively small amounts of funding allocated and which are to last over an extended period of time; or that decisions and the actual awarding of the funding take months during which the well-being of creatives and their organisations is increasingly compromised; or that the hoops through which practitioners have to jump to apply for funding are onerous; it is their apparent lack of understanding and concern for the ecosystem as a whole that is frustrating. Rather than sprinkling small amounts of funding like Father Christmas, more strategic funding — and visionary policy — interventions would not only help to sustain the core ecosystem but contribute to income-generating opportunities and affirm the dignity of creatives as opposed to them simply receiving one-off paltry handouts. 

The SA Cultural Observatory (Saco) — a creation of DSAC to provide information and research to inform policy decisions — has undertaken various studies into the impact of the pandemic on the creative sector. An initial study published in May last year already projected a R53-billion loss to the sector and a reduction in SA’s GDP by almost R100-billion. With the lockdowns lasting far longer than anticipated then, the losses must be significantly greater.

2021 has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. From the above figures, it is clear that the creative sector itself is unsustainable which would severely limit its potential contribution to broader human, social and economic development.  

Being responsible for sport too, the minister is on record that the demographics of our Olympic Team do not represent the country’s demographics. But then, at cricket’s Social Justice and Nation-building hearing, the minister conceded that the government has not done enough to develop sport at school level, which is impacting adversely on transformation within the sport. In a country as unequal as ours, it is inevitably those with resources, with access to superior coaching and training facilities, who have sound and safe platforms and opportunities to grow, to fail, and to grow more who will achieve.  

The same is true for the arts.

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the arts sector, not only in financial terms but in broader existential terms. A SACO report into the music industry revealed that 90% of the live music industry lost income due to the pandemic and more than half of the respondents in the survey were not optimistic about the future of the industry. This resonates with the research of the Sustaining Theatre and Dance (STAND) Foundation that found close to half the respondents being pessimistic about the future and considering leaving the theatre sector in order simply to have an income.

In addition, scores of the country’s finest creatives have been lost to the pandemic in the last 16 months, with numerous musicians, theatre-makers, dancers and others succumbing to the virus.  

Inequality

Nathi Mthethwa is known as the minister of condolences for the number of messages of condolence that he issues. I wonder if he is satisfied that the demographics of those creatives who have died are a better reflection of the demographics of the country? This, too, is a reflection of the broader inequalities within our society, but also within the creative sector. Many creatives do not have medical aid and even those who do, when income declines, medical aid is one of the ‘luxuries’ which is removed from their basket of basic goods.

Covid-19 has emphasised DSAC’s policy failures, including the absence of a social welfare net for the country’s creatives.

Talking of inequality, the third phase of Covid-19 relief funding accounts for 6,518 beneficiaries, 2,870 of them in Gauteng (44% of the total). While Gauteng hosts 25% of the population, it is allocated more than seven other provinces combined (excluding the Western Cape) in relief funding. This inequality points to the concentration of creative sector infrastructure, resources and skills in Gauteng. Rather than address or correct the inequalities inherited from the past, DSAC has — in its policies and funding — perpetuated and in fact, exacerbated these inequalities.  

The primary sector supported in the third phase of relief funding is the performance and celebration sector with 3,957 beneficiaries or 60% of the total, pointing to the number of people who seek to make their livelihoods within this sector.

After 27 years of being in power, DSAC continues to fund largely inappropriate and unnecessarily expensive infrastructure — the State Theatre, Playhouse, Pacofs and Artscape, and since June this year, the Mandela Bay Theatre Complex — inherited from the apartheid era while completely failing to support access to infrastructure to create, distribute and enjoy the arts in the country’s less-resourced provinces.

A general view of The Fugard Theatre on March 17, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. The theatre announced its permanent closure partly due to the adverse effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Gallo Images/Misha Jordaan)

These issues have been raised with the Department and various ministers over decades and they have fallen on deaf ears.  Yet, the minister wonders why the creative sector — not just a few individuals who get others riled up as he implies — believes that he and his department do not care, are unresponsive and arrogant in their dealings with the sector.

For the record, as we approach the ninth anniversary of the Marikana massacre in which 34 miners were shot dead by the police for whom Mthethwa was politically responsible, more than 100 creatives and co-workers have lost their lives to the pandemic on his watch. Many, many more have lost significant income, and with that their emotional, psychological and physical well-being has been compromised.

When Mthethwa engages publicly and tries to justify himself and his department with hollow numbers and attempts to undermine and dismiss the legitimate frustrations, cynicism and anger within the creative sector, then he simply reinforces the belief that he is not fit for his job.  

The creative sector needs and deserves better. DM/MC

Mike van Graan is a member of the Executive Committee of Theatre and Dance Alliance (TADA), a representative structure for the dance and theatre sector created by those in the sector, to promote and defend their interests.

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