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Minister Mthethwa, we will always push back against politicians who are not accountable

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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.

In his response to my article which was critical of the Department of Arts and Culture and its political head (Daily Maverick 24 February 2019), the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, responded in a manner to which we have become accustomed from our elected politicians who generally hate being held accountable.

Nathi Mthethwa seeks to discredit the messenger through innuendo, misinformation and outright lies, goes off on a tangent to deflect from the substantive criticism which he completely ignores and slaps himself on the back for even deigning to respond since he is so important and has so much else to do, rather than be accountable as he is required to be.

Mthethwa dismisses my criticism as “attention-seeking”, as “disingenuous” as the ministry faced a crisis to do with PACT/State Theatre funding when I served as a “special adviser” so how could I be critical of his department now (in truth, I stopped being a “special adviser” four years before the issues to which he refers to, occurred) and believes that I am “upset” because he has a greater pool of experts to counsel him and I am no longer “the only authoritative voice in the sector” (a description which neither I nor anyone else has accorded me).

The minister shamelessly lies when he declares that I approached him to form an advisory body that would include me, and from which he would be expected to take instructions, and to which he would report. “It is apparent that my refusal to report and be accountable to him and his advisory body instead of the public that has placed this government in power, remains a sore point.”

I challenge the minister to produce the correspondence, the document or the email in which I make this proposal. If he cannot do so within three days, then I call on the honourable minister to do the honourable thing and resign. For clearly, he would not be fit to be a minister.

But let’s get to the substance of my criticism and the minister’s lack of response.

The starting point of my article was Tito Mboweni’s announcement in his Budget speech that consideration is being given to a new national theatre and a new national museum. I questioned why we needed a new national museum stating that “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”.

The minister justifies the large expenditure on heritage infrastructure by listing a large number of museums, monuments, heritage sites funded by the department. This exactly underscores my point which was not to question the allocations to heritage, but rather, in the light of such existing expenditure, what is the rationale for a new national museum?

And, if the department was correcting historical imbalances in the distribution of heritage infrastructure (a necessary project given our history), why – as per my article – were they not doing the same for performing arts infrastructure? “The people” in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape have been asking for nationally-subsidised performing arts spaces in their provinces too but the DAC has ignored them consistently for 25 years and continues to spend huge amounts of public funds in the most wealthy city centres.

How is this consistent with substantive transformation? With “opening the doors of culture”? On this, the minister was completely silent. As he was in providing any rationale for a “new national theatre”, advising me rather “not (to) attempt to portray (myself) as the sole custodian of knowledge and institutional memory of how the department ought to be run to the extent of questioning my colleague, Mr Tito Mboweni’s budgetary pledge to this department”. If he were in touch with the performing arts sector, rather than with the praise singers and those dependent on his patronage with whom he surrounds himself, he would know that there is a widespread rejection of Mboweni’s proposals.

The Minister also did not respond to the criticism about the “negligence and incompetence” of his department in the matter of the Venice Biennial. Subsequent to my article (not because of it, I dare say), the DAC announced the curators and participating artists for this prestigious international event, but this was less than three months before the opening, when the DAC knew that it would happen two years after the last one, and when they knew their budget allocations three years in advance.

Neither did the Minister respond to criticism of his top-down foisting of CCIFSA as a “representative body” on the creative and cultural industries. His Department is persisting with plans for the next elective conference of CCIFSA, four years after its chaotic launch and an intervening period in which many of its leaders have left, and when it has done nothing to warrant its ongoing existence, let alone consumption of public funds.

The Minister also did not say a word about the length of time it has taken – the whole of his tenure and of some of that of the previous minister – to revise the White Paper on Arts and Culture. Mthethwa ends his article thus “were Mr Van Graan to be honest, he would realise that the department in its current form is supremely better than the one he boasts of having played a ‘special adviser’ in”. Actually, I didn’t boast – it was a line in the short bio which the Daily Maverick requests to provide some context for the writers of the opinion pieces they publish. To compare a nascent department (1994-96) with a budget for arts and culture under R400-million with a 25-year-old department whose budget is now more than 11 times that amount, is just plain silly. But I can tell the minister that the Department then did extensive consultations, devised and had Cabinet adopt a brand new White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage in two-and-a-half years, whereas his “supremely better” department has taken more than five years to revise it. And. Is. Still. Not. Done.

Minister Mthethwa was also silent about my criticism regarding his re-appointment of an individual as the Chairperson of the Council of the Market Theatre, knowing full well that there had been complaints of how this individual had abused Market Theatre – and thus public – funds for his own political and personal ends. The resultant crisis with the Chair trying to get rid of senior management by fomenting charges of racism – among other things – against them, led to the DAC having to appoint a forensic investigation, after which the DAC terminated the services of the Chairperson of the Council. Some staff and management still face charges and they and the Market have suffered serious reputational damage, but rather than concede that they got it wrong by re-appointing the chair and most of the council, the DAC and Minister applaud themselves in a media release for “having cleaned house”.

The hypocrisy is astounding, and then the Minister bemoans my article as one that arises out of envy (of other “experts” in the sector who enjoy his ear), and so I choose to make a noise that results in reputational harm to the department and to him. Shame. As if I could do any more reputational damage than the DAC and Minister have done for themselves. Like when he appointed the National Arts Council and some of us sent a letter advising him that it had been done illegally. And so he had to terminate the services of the Council and do it all over again.

Over the weekend, I was at a rally that demanded justice for Vernie Petersen, a former Director General/Commissioner at the Department of Correctional Services who had refused (according to Antonio Agrizzi) to have anything to do with the Bosasa group of companies. Bosasa then orchestrated a campaign, paying off politicians, Petersen’s colleagues, senior management in the DCS to undermine and intimidate Petersen, with the aim of having him engage Bosasa. Petersen was eventually removed from his position and died at the young age of 52, with some at the rally looking back self-critically, as they had not sufficiently supported, cared for and taken seriously those who had sought to do the right thing.

With the evidence emerging at the Zondo Commission of the numerous acts of treason committed by the ruling party, and the defence of and complicity in this by many current cabinet ministers, citizens are coming forward to say that they didn’t feel they could raise their voices for fear of losing their status, their jobs, even their lives. As a result, our Constitution has been compromised, our country has been sold out, bodies designed to protect our democracy and our citizenry have been hollowed out and many have become poorer, more destitute and more hopeless.

So, whatever the minister may think, or however much he tries to dismiss and belittle legitimate questions and attempts to hold him and his department accountable, he should know that at least some of us will continue to occupy the public space and push back against politicians like him, who wish to create democracy in their self-serving image. DM

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