POLITICISATION OUTRAGE OP-ED
Suppressing the arts – patronage, mismanagement and censorship in the cultural sector
Cultural workers say there are genuine fears of intimidation, threats of violence, silencing and withdrawal of funds if they speak out against the mismanagement of arts funding agencies and other publicly funded organisations.
Artists and other cultural workers are deeply concerned about the politicisation of boards and leadership in their sector and its impact on their ability to do their work and the sector’s ability to grow.
A report released this week by the Campaign for Free Expression (CFE), The State of Free Expression in the South African Cultural Sector: An Investigation, has highlighted how the Cultural Institutions Act of 1998 has given the minister of sports, arts and culture overarching power in selecting board members and chairpersons of arts funding agencies.
This is of great concern to cultural workers because the minister himself – as well as the ministers who have preceded him – have had little knowledge of the arts.
Culture workers said an environment has been created where many board members and chairpersons are appointed not because of merit, skill or knowledge, but through their proximity to and agreeability towards the minister. This has affected the sector as the needs of cultural workers have been neglected for the sake of power and money.
This has set the stage for decision-making over funding to be influenced by bias rather than through the lens of maintaining and encouraging growth and sustainability in the sector.
In 2020, the government introduced the Presidential Economic Stimulus Programme (PESP) fund through the National Arts Council (NAC). It was established during the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak to encourage economic growth in the arts and culture sector.
But what was meant to create financial security for many cultural workers and arts organisations during a tumultuous time became a maladministration saga embroiled in power dynamics and bad-faith practices. There were cries of outrage from cultural workers as the NAC was exposed for maladministration of the more than R300-million in PESP funds.
Read more in Daily Maverick: The National Arts Council of South Africa has become a secretive little shop of horrors
There were a significant number of successful applications to the PESP fund that benefited existing NAC board members (which created a conflict of interest), successful applications from the same individuals under multiple organisation names, as well as successful applications from deregistered organisations or organisations in the process of deregistering.
In March 2021, cultural workers conducted a two-month sit-in to protest against mismanagement and maladministration in the NAC. This resulted in an independent investigation in which senior officials were found to have mismanaged funds.
The sit-in and news of the NAC’s mishandlings raised further questions regarding the politicisation of boards in arts funding agencies and the subsequent impact it has had on the state of free expression in the cultural sector.
In the CFE report, cultural workers lament that the politicisation of boards and the lack of strategic leadership have created an atmosphere that breeds censorship. Respondents in the CFE research said there were genuine fears of intimidation, threats of violence, silencing and withdrawal of funds if they chose to speak out against the lack of transparency and mismanagement of arts funding agencies and other publicly funded organisations.
According to cultural workers, censorship is not limited to issues of arts funding agencies but also affects artists’ work. Cultural workers who create provocative work that challenges the political or social status quo also face censure and discrimination by conservative leadership which often leads to self-censorship – where workers fear a backlash if they produce politically disruptive art.
In the CFE report, the matter of self-censorship arose regarding the impact it has on artists, their work and the sector.
Respondents said the sector loses out on important opportunities of social and political commentary that might inspire or disrupt the stagnant social and political structures in the country by silencing themselves and by minimising the impact of their work.
Read more in Daily Maverick: While millionaires and politicians fiddle, South African art and culture burns
The practice and exercise of free expression is crucial for cultural workers and our greater society. Cultural workers in this country have historically disrupted the political status quo and should continue to do so, to challenge the issues of politicisation, maladministration and censorship in the arts and culture sector.
In challenging the wrongdoings of arts funding agencies and the Arts and Culture Department as well as continuing to create safe, expressive spaces where they can share knowledge, strategies, lessons opportunities and experiences, cultural workers can work towards a future where there is a large shift in the sustainability and growth of the sector.
Go to www.freeexpression.org to read more on the state of free expression in the South African cultural sector. DM
Thokozani Mbwana is a researcher-writer and poet working in human rights. Their interests lie in LGBTIQ+ rights, free expression, transitional justice and ethical research practices. They serve as Project Manager at the Campaign for Free Expression, a non-profit advocacy organisation that defends and expands the right of all to express themselves.