Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Keynote Address

Arts in South Africa under existential threat: ‘We have to imagine and remake our society’

Arts in South Africa under existential threat: ‘We have to imagine and remake our society’
Ballerina and choreographer Kitty Phetla at the Joburg Ballet studios on 24 May 2019. As we reflect on the state of the arts, we remember that we are integrally connected to the society that we reflect in our work, that shapes our creative consciousness, that provides our audiences. (Photo: Gallo Images/Sunday Times/Masi Losi)

We understand that we have a duty to help our fellow citizens make sense of this world, to interpret and reflect, to help our audiences to experience catharsis, to speak truth to power and somehow, somewhere, to find beauty, to affirm life. Even though we, too, are not well.

We are gathered here at the #STANDTOGETHER Arts Summit, 2021, in a time of crisis for the arts, for theatre and dance in particular.

Unlike other times in history, the existential threats do not emanate from the emergence of other entertainment forms such as radio, cinema, television and online platforms that could draw away audiences and pose an economic threat to theatre’s viability; rather, the threat is from an invisible virus, that impacts the very way we are gathered here: with masks, physically distanced, with limited numbers, our hands dipped in alcohol. Audiences – gatherings – are deemed to be the primary way to spread the virus.

The very existence of theatre and dance has been adversely impacted by the temporary and permanent closure of performance spaces, the cancellation of festivals, curfews and audience restrictions that severely limit income, the deaths of numerous theatre-makers, the reluctant but forced migration to more sustainable sectors of the economy. A recent production on the locked-down stages of the Baxter – without an audience – opened a theatre festival in Germany, raising questions about the very definition of theatre as the live encounter between performers and audiences.  

Global markets but no live local audience to feed off: is it… theatre?   

We have not begun to count the human toll in psychological, emotional and physical unwellness as a consequence of the loss of livelihoods, the absence of opportunities that define self-worth and dignity to creatives, and the loss of loved ones to the pandemic, to suicide, to premature death.

The Sustaining Theatre and Dance (STAND) Foundation’s research into the impact of Covid-19 on the theatre sector showed 46% of the sample has thought about leaving the sector.    

Yet, here we are.  

Many of us from organisations that have come into being because of the crisis in which we find ourselves. We have not seen this proliferation of arts organisations since 1994.  

For a sector that generally ranges between “nothing-will-ever-change” apathy and cynicism on the one hand, and on the other, self-censored co-option and silent acceptance of our lot for fear of alienating those who dish out funding to support our precarious existence, it has been heartening to see the levels of activism in the last year: petitions to get rid of the minister, protest actions outside Luthuli House, chaining of activists at institutions to demand royalties, taking government agencies to court (and winning), a lengthy occupation of the NAC offices that did much to highlight the incompetence, arrogance and ignorance of those in political authority.

1985: Another crisis, another country

Thirty-six years ago, in 1985, there was another crisis in our country that was another country then. The apartheid government declared a state of emergency to deal with rising resistance to its rule. Hundreds of organisations were banned, thousands of activists were detained and, in the political vacuum created, the arts became a shield behind which anti-apartheid activism continued to be rallied.  

“Culture as a weapon of struggle” was the mantra under which organisations such as the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), Performing Arts Workers Equity (PAWE), Association of Community Arts Centres (ACAC), Film and Allied Workers Organisation (FAWO), Dance Alliance, Musicians Union of SA (MUSA) developed, to organise and serve their respective sectors, to employ creative work in advancing the anti-apartheid struggle, and to advise on the implementation of the cultural boycott, one of an arsenal of strategies employed to coerce the apartheid regime to the negotiating table.

This was the background to the Towards a People’s Culture festival that was to take place in December 1986, with the state of emergency still in place; it would have been the first national, progressive arts festival, which, if it had taken place, may have changed the festival landscape in our country. (At that time, the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown was boycotted by progressive cultural activists as it was rooted in the celebration of English, in the arrival of the 1820 settlers and with the main programme populated by productions and artists supported by the apartheid cultural status quo).

Members of our organising committee were detained, and Festival ‘86 was subsequently banned by the security police who deemed it a threat to national security.

Soloist Brandon Philips rehearses with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra at Artscape in Cape Town on 17 September 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images/ER Lombard)

After the unbanning of a range of political parties in 1989 and the launch of negotiations for a new Constitution, COSAW, PAWE, ACAC, FAWO, etc came together to form and launch the National Arts Initiative.  

With the major legacies of apartheid to be dealt with at the negotiating table, it was likely that the arts would be ignored unless the sector organised itself, and advocated for its strategic interests. Most of these organisations had aligned themselves with the non-racial paradigm of the exiled ANC, but with the unbanning of these political structures, we adopted a non-partisan position, inviting black consciousness organisations into the initiative too.  

While there were common interests with the broader liberation movement in eliminating apartheid, it was likely that political formations that came to be part of a future government would not necessarily govern in the interests of the creative sector. It was thus necessary for the sector to organise itself independently rather than compromise the principle of freedom of expression for which they had fought hard, by alignment with any political entity.  

Needless to say, this position was not welcomed by the ANC’s Department of Arts and Culture which believed that the ANC was at the vanguard of political transformation and that all progressive entities should be subject to their leadership. 

The National Arts Initiative hosted the National Arts Policy Plenary, with more than 800 delegates representing the broadest range of arts and culture interests ever gathered till then, in the Wits Great Hall, in December 1992. Delegates committed themselves to two goals to be achieved within a year:

  1. To formulate post-apartheid arts policy recommendations based largely on our needs and the policies of countries that espoused democratic principles and,
  2. To launch a nationally representative structure to represent the arts and culture sector across geography, disciplines, ideological, cultural and other divides.

Launch of the National Arts Coalition

By December 1993, we had achieved both, launching the National Arts Coalition – the NAC before the NAC – with 80 organisations, and adopting 17 resolutions that, if implemented, would radically change the face and practice of the arts in our country.

The historic elections were held a few months later in April 1994, and there were mixed signs from the new government. On the one hand, this was the first time that there would be a ministry with Arts and Culture in its name; on the other hand, it was given to an IFP minister – Ben Ngubane – with Winnie Mandela as his deputy.

As a non-partisan, representative arts body, the National Arts Coalition was influential in the formulation of new policies. The ministry established the Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG) with 23 individuals nominated by the sector to solicit proposals for a new cultural dispensation; the chairperson of the Coalition, Andries Oliphant, was elected as the chairperson of ACTAG.  

The Coalition’s proposals influenced the ACTAG Report which in turn influenced the drafting of the first White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage, adopted by Cabinet in August 1996. (This process was incredibly consultative and took under two years, compared to the more narrow process of revising the White Paper, which has taken more than six years under the current minister).

Dancers during the final dress rehearsal for ‘Ballet and Beyond’ by Joburg Ballet at the Joburg Theatre on 8 April 2021. The company returned to the stage ane year and one month after its season was cut short by the Covid-19 lockdown. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Kim Ludbrook)

As apartheid had resourced and privileged the arts and heritage of a white minority, the first White Paper was premised on Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts.”

The former performing arts councils that we now know as the State Theatre, Artscape, the Playhouse and PACOFS, collectively consumed 46% of the total culture budget at the time. As the new government was unlikely to increase arts funding, subsidies to the councils were to be cut over three years allowing them to find other sources of funding, with the “saved” funding to be made available in a more democratic manner through the arm’s-length National Arts Council, a new entity where decisions about funding would be made by arts experts, not government, thereby supporting freedom of creative expression with public funds.

It was a euphoric time for the arts, when artists felt that they were heard, when their voices and ideas mattered. We disbanded the National Arts Coalition because, on the one hand, our policies were in place, some of our comrades were in the new Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, and because there were now nine provinces that had concurrent powers with the national government for arts and culture, so that many creatives began to organise themselves at provincial levels to access provincial funding – the need for a national structure dissipated.

There was no plain sailing but it was in 2000 that disaster struck when the State Theatre had to be shut down after losing millions of rands in a pyramid scheme that they hoped would help to maintain their companies. PACOFS lost millions in the same scheme, and numerous NGOs lost their funding from various sources.  

It was a year of crisis. And, in crises, artists organise. The annus horribilis of 2000 led to the emergence of the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA), and its visual arts equivalent, VANSA, which is still with us here today.

And so, here we are, two decades later, in another time of crisis.

It is not only the arts, but the whole country that is in crisis, with a ruling party that has torn itself apart as factions fight for control over the public purse, even as it has failed to meet the most basic demands of its citizens and electorate. As we reflect on the state of the arts, we remember that we are integrally connected to the society that we reflect in our work, that shapes our creative consciousness, that provides our audiences.

We live in a society that the World Bank described as the most unequal in the world. Busi Mavuso, CEO of Business Leadership SA, told a UCT webinar earlier this year that 10% of South Africans live in opulence and 35% are considered middle class, while most are consigned to abject poverty.  

We live in parallel worlds; those of us with resources are able to buy private education, private healthcare, even private security, while most are left to survive in the jungle of poverty.

The pandemic of inequality is unsustainable; it threatens us all, with the recent looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng being symptomatic of this gross imbalance in education, resources, basic necessities and social mobility opportunities.

Our official unemployment rate is 33% but if we include jobless people who have given up looking for work, it is nearly 44%.

Structural violence linked to inequality and poverty is a feature of most people’s lives. Nearly seven million South Africans go to bed hungry; an average of 7,500 children under five die of starvation annually. But we also have among the highest rates of interpersonal violence in the world. An average of 58 murders per day. The highest incidence of rape. Widespread gender-based violence and domestic abuse, with one in five women over 18 having experienced physical violence.  

After Russia, we have the highest rate of suicide by men. We’ve had the Marikana massacre. We’ve borne witness to the callousness of the Life Esidimeni deaths. Ours is a violent society.

We are not well. Nearly eight million people are living with HIV/Aids, with tuberculosis the leading cause of death. Eight children under five die of preventable diseases every hour.

And then there’s the pandemic of corruption. For three years we have heard testimony at the Zondo Commission of how billions of public funding rands have been stolen. Whistle-blowers who expose corruption have been assassinated. Corruption feeds the structural and interpersonal violence in our country.  

Local government elections are about to take place. The Auditor-General’s office revealed that only 27 municipalities – less than 10% of the 278 municipalities that are the key agencies in the delivery of services – achieved clean audits. Party positions have now become vehicles not to serve the people, but for self-enrichment – hence the rise in political killings. A SALGA report stated that 450 local councillors had been killed in the period 2000-2016. Recent reports tell of scores of candidates being killed by others within the same party who want their positions.  

What has become of us? 

Monike Cristina, a member of the Joburg Ballet Theatre dance troupe, performs during adjusted lockdown level 4 on 9 July 2021 in Sandton. (Photo: Gallo Images/Beeld/Deaan Vivier)

Afrobarometer Report’s recent survey found that two-thirds of South Africans have lost faith in elected leaders and would be prepared to give up elections if an authoritarian government could provide houses, jobs and safety from criminal violence. Our very democracy is under threat because of the violence that poverty and inequality wreak on the dignity and lives of most people, and because of the poor and corrupt political leadership that elections deliver.

This is the broad context in which we work as creatives, a context to which we are not immune. In fact, we understand that we have a duty to help our fellow citizens make sense of this world, to interpret and reflect, to help our audiences to experience catharsis, to speak truth to power and somehow, somewhere, to find beauty, to affirm life. Even though we, too, are not well.  

We have learned from the last two decades that: 

  1. The arm’s-length principle has been abandoned. The minister now appoints the chairpersons of publicly funded cultural institutions. We have seen the consequences of this at the Market Theatre, PACOFS, William Humphreys Art Gallery, Robben Island Museum, where ethical managers have been hounded out by boards intent on abusing the institution’s funds and enjoy political protection.
  2. Superficial demographic transformation of governance and management has not translated into the substantial transformation of the lives of most South Africans.  Transformation has been elitist rather than grassroots. For the sake of all our futures, and our work as creatives, we now need to harness the skills, resources, networks of everyone – irrespective of colour or history – to contribute to a socially just society. Transformation must be evaluated not by the gender and racial demographics of people in top positions, but rather by the difference it has made to the lives of ordinary people, especially those on the underside of history.
  3. To sustain real change we need sustainable organisations; we cannot be creating new organisations every time we have a new crisis.  Organisational sustainability requires sound governance and management, ethical leadership and the requisite financial resources to serve their members and society at large, and not the partisan or factional political interests of those in power.
  4. We need to and want to work with government in our mutual interests. We gave those in power the benefit of the doubt, a chance to rule and prove that they had our interests at heart.  We did not want to criticise and give racists ammunition to criticise a black government. We were scared of speaking our truths for fear of being labelled racists or sellouts or CIA agents, ostracised, denied access to public funding and opportunities. But recent history has shown that we have a deaf president, an ignorant minister, arrogant officials who do not understand the meaning of “public service”.
  5. Democracy is at stake. Freedom of expression is being sacrificed in the interests of the politically connected, the corrupt. Democracy is being made in the image of those who shout the loudest, occupy the public space, and abuse state resources for their selfish ends. To be a good citizen, an artist, requires great courage. Who would have thought that after apartheid’s censorship, bannings, detentions and jail terms, we would be experiencing suppression of thought, threats of physical injury and even assassinations?

This is the space we inhabit, in which we are called to make a difference, to be creative and resilient, empathetic and brave, conscious of the misery, but affirming dignity, life.

Twenty-six years ago, the 1995/96 national budget for arts and culture was less than R300-million. Today, it is nearly R3,8-billion. Of that, R343-million has been allocated to six theatres, and R13-million to community arts centres. It is not that we do not have funds; it is that the allocation of funds serves an elitist agenda.  

Imagine if…

Imagine if, instead of highly expensive, inappropriate infrastructure, we had one nationally subsidised performance venue per province, perhaps two in Gauteng given that a quarter of our population resides there? This would decentralise access and provide a national touring circuit to generate more income through productions.

Then imagine if we had 15 dance and 15 theatre companies, each with an average of 12 people in them – at least one theatre and dance company per province, each company receiving an annual subsidy of R3,5-million?  That would make 30 companies employing 360 creatives, technical and management personnel producing and taking theatre and dance around each province. Thirty companies would cost R105-million and would do more to affirm the right of everyone to have access to and enjoy the arts than spending more than three times that amount on urban infrastructure.  

Joburg Ballet’s Monike Cristina performs in the Leonardo Building in Sandton during adjusted lockdown level 4 on 9 July 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images/Beeld/Deaan Vivier)

Rather than excluding those with limited resources – more than half our population – what about providing each person, each family with a set of cultural vouchers annually that they can redeem at the movies, at museums, at theatres, at music shops and bookstores?  

We emphasise supply and limit this to those with disposable income, when we could and should be stimulating demand and improving the lives of all our people.

Covid-19 has brought into sharp relief the inequalities in our country. But these fundamental inequalities were part of the “old normal”.  We cannot move forward to the “new normal” by again normalising these divisions that tear and keep us apart. We have been given an opportunity to reflect, to re-imagine and re-make our society.

Let us use these three days to begin to make this happen from our perspective as creatives. DM/MC

This is the keynote address given by playwright Mike van Graan to the opening session of the STANDTogether Arts Summit, exploring the way forward for the arts and culture sector and currently taking place in Stellenbosch.


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