Opinionista Mike van Graan 25 February 2019

SA arts and culture is in a shambles, ill-served by an incompetent minister and department

If ever there was an indication of just how elitist and out of touch the ruling party is with its electorate, it was Minister Tito Mboweni ending his maiden Budget speech with a pledge to ‘consider proposals for a new national theatre, a new national museum… a national orchestra and ballet troupe’.

If Finance Minister Tito Mboweni had read Vote 37: Arts and Culture of Budget 2019, which he tabled in Parliament that day, he would know that in the next financial year, the government will already be spending a total of R348-million — including more than R75-million on capital works — at the five nationally subsidised theatres.

Four of these theatres have been inherited from the apartheid era and are located in the bigger cities (Pretoria, Cape Town, Mangaung and Durban), while two — the Market Theatre and the State Theatre — are in Gauteng, the country’s wealthiest province, which is also served by a number of municipal theatres.

There is no need for a “new national theatre” which will simply be yet another vanity project, built at huge expense, to serve an elite, when the real need — in terms of cultural infrastructure — is for multifunctional arts centres (that would include venues capable of hosting professional theatre productions) spread across the country to deliver on the ANC’s Freedom Charter promise that “The doors of learning and culture shall be open”.

Notwithstanding an initial White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage that 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” — for the first 25 years of our democratic work-in-progress, the doors of culture have been open primarily to those who live in the major urban centres, who are “blessed” with disposable income and who have their own transport or can afford Uber rides.

In the 2018/19 Budget, R13-million was set aside for the establishment of the Polokwane Performing Arts Centre; in 2019, there is no allocation for this centre. When the Cape province was splintered into three, the Eastern Cape inherited two theatres from the former Cape Performing Arts Board — the PE Opera House and the Guild Theatre in East London, but while Artscape (also a former Capab theatre) continues to receive a national subsidy (the highest of the subsidised theatres), the Eastern Cape theatres have simply been excluded. The poorest provinces — Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West and Northern Cape — simply do not have nationally subsidised theatre infrastructure, thereby not only perpetuating, but exacerbating, the inequalities of the apartheid era, and making a mockery of the ruling party’s commitment to “transformation”.

As for a new national museum, the 2019/20 Budget already allocates nearly two thirds of the Arts and Culture Department’s R4.617-billion allocation to heritage and cultural preservation, including a number of museums created post-1994 such as Robben Island Museum and Freedom Park (the latter built at a cost of billions as a “presidential legacy project” during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency). The country is already littered with monuments, street names and buildings that celebrate Struggle heroes who are probably turning in their graves at what has been done in their name by their thieving comrades. It would be far more empowering to have living museums that are shaped and “owned” by local communities, through which they may tell and celebrate their stories.

Rather than the knee-jerk, simplistic post-1994 reaction against “Eurocentric art forms”, there is certainly room for ballet and orchestral music within the gamut of South African cultural experience, but why should these forms be privileged again with subsidised “troupes” — as they were under apartheid’s rulers — when a publicly funded contemporary dance company and theatre company in all nine provinces would do far more to improve the quality of people’s lives by providing access to excellent theatre and dance that speaks to their realities?

Subsidised theatres — or better still, multifunctional arts centres — in every province would also provide a touring circuit both for these subsidised companies, as well as for independent performing arts companies, which are currently limited, at best, to “tour” their work to Gauteng, Cape Town and perhaps a festival or two.

These kinds of proposals have been made to the Department of Arts and Culture, which surely holds the record for reviewing its primary policy document — the 1996 White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage — over the longest period of time, presently at more than five years, and still there is no finality on the document.

It is the department’s sheer incompetence and negligence that has had many in the arts, culture and heritage sector groan at the mere suggestion that it be the possible custodian of a new national theatre and a new museum when so many institutions under its watch are in a shambles.

At the end of January, the department issued a self-congratulatory media release in which it praised itself and the minister for “successfully cleaning house” in their reporting entities.

The release states that the department “does not believe in the masking of difficulties, where administration and institutional governance — or the lack and absence thereof in either, occur. In this regard, Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Director-General Vusumuzi Mkhize and the department’s senior officials have spent the past months addressing areas of grave concern including maladministration, corrupt activities and the disintegration of governance in entities”.

There then follows a litany of department-funded institutions where it has, allegedly, successfully cleaned house”, including the country’s two major public funding agencies — the National Film and Video Foundation and the National Arts Council — and the South African Heritage Agency, Robben Island Museum and the Market Theatre, all significant cultural institutions (and they are not the only ones where “house cleaning” needs to happen).

The department’s media release ends thus:

Lastly, it is important to note that when whistle-blowers and individuals report worrisome matters to the (department) — these are taken seriously. This is apparent in how swiftly Minister Nathi Mthethwa and the (department) have acted in the past months, by relentlessly and with great commitment tackling all issues of concern and without hesitation, instituting processes to rectify these.”

This propaganda is laughable, particularly when, in the case of the Market Theatre, current and previous managements had warned the department against an individual who had abused the theatre for personal gain, and yet the minister proceeded not only to re-appoint him to the council in April 2018, but to re-appoint him as the chairperson of the council, which contributed in no small measure to the current crisis at the country’s most iconic theatre.

The department would not have had to “clean house” at the Market Theatre had it not refused to listen to whistle-blowers, and then created the conditions to turn the house upside down in the first place!

But then, the Department of Arts and Culture and the minister, in particular, are not inclined to listen to the sector, to the many who actually do the work, and whose efforts contribute to the “soft power” of which Tito Mboweni spoke, largely despite, rather than because of, the department. The department created a top-down structure — the Creative and Cultural Industries Federation of South Africa — to “unify the sector”. Launched at a chaotic conference four years ago, it has earned little, if any, credibility since. Yet the department is in the process of facilitating the next national elective conference of its sweetheart “representative” organisation, when it has done absolutely nothing to warrant its continued existence.

The Venice Biennale, one of the most prestigious international visual arts events where a country’s image may be enhanced or laundered depending on one’s perspective, opens in May, and yet, less than three months before the opening, the department has still not announced the curator/s for South Africa’s pavilion, let alone the artists who are to participate.

Contrary to what many in the culture sector and the arts-supporting public believe, there is significant public funding for the arts, far more than for sport, for example.

The talent in our country in all genres is absolutely astounding. If only we had a mildly competent department, a minister who listened to her/his stakeholders and a government that actually believed in and acted in the interests of the people it served, the national, regional and international impact of South African artists and their creative work would be far greater than the current “renown” of which Mboweni spoke.

Like an abused spouse, the arts and culture sector keeps hoping that the department and responsible minister would see the error of their ways and genuinely change. The forthcoming elections and subsequent ministerial appointments offer yet another such opportunity for self-abusing, expectant hope.

Whether it will be a new — or simply another false — dawn, is, as they say, anyone’s guess. I, for one, shan’t be holding my breath. DM

Mike van Graan is the President of the African Cultural Policy Network and an award-winning playwright. He is currently based at the University of Pretoria, having been commissioned to write a play on the Sustainable Development Goals. He served as a “Special Adviser” to the first Minister responsible for arts and culture after 1994, when he – Ben Ngubane – was still considered one of the good guys.

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