Defend Truth


Making arts and theatre accessible to the masses, not just the elites


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.

Government-funded support for arts and culture, and especially for theatre, is heavily skewed in favour of South Africa’s major urban areas and of the country’s elites. Surely the time has come to revisit this policy and make the arts accessible to all?

The arts and theatre have always been for elites,” is the stock response – mostly from elites – to the criticism that public policy and funding for theatre in South Africa in the last 25 years have generally served elites. The fact that these elites have a more “multi-racial” – or at some state-subsidised theatres, even predominantly black – character than before 1994, does not detract from the fact that the primary beneficiaries of publicly-funded theatre – access to infrastructure, production funding and to theatre itself – are suburban elites in just five of the country’s larger cities.

While those with disposable income are more likely to buy literature and art, attend cinema, theatre, opera and dance performances and pay to download music, the question is: what is the role of public funding for theatre in a country as polarised by inequality and poverty as ours? Should it perpetuate and exacerbate those divides (as I believe it has done during the first quarter-of-a-century of our democracy-in-progress) or should it “open the doors of culture” as per the ruling party’s historic Freedom Charter?

The White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage adopted in 1996 as the country’s first post-apartheid cultural policy 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…” As with many rights enshrined in our Constitution, it is always those with superior resources who are best able to exercise and enjoy these rights, because they can afford to buy private education, private health care, private security, although the rights to education, health care and security are rights that everyone has in theory. Those with resources are also more able to exercise freedom of creative expression and to enjoy the arts of their choice.

In a society where 55% of the population is considered “poor”, with an official unemployment rate of 27% and with the top 10% earning 60% of national income, the role of public funding and policy for the arts generally and for theatre in particular must surely be to enable the majority of the country’s citizens to exercise their right “to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts/theatre”.

Citizens are no less human because they are poor, and so should not be excluded from realising the rights and freedoms afforded to them by the Constitution and international protocols to which our government has assented. Neither do they only require their physical needs – for food, clothing and shelter – to be catered as if they do not have emotional, psychological, spiritual and intellectual dimensions, or if they do, that these should be met only after their physical requirements have been addressed.

The arts – including theatre – are only elitist when public policy makes it so with an emphasis on the “creative and cultural industries” that require markets with disposable income, and so excludes most citizens who expect, hope and vote for better, longer, rounded lives.

There are other models, that – yes – would require state subsidy, but then, this year, the five publicly-subsidised theatres will receive a total of nearly R350-million for operational and capital expenditure from the national purse, as well as additional amounts from the budgets of the provinces and cities in which they are located. Two of these nationally-subsidised theatres – the State Theatre and the Market Theatre – are located in Gauteng, while the country’s less-resourced provinces – Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West – do not have a theatre subsidised by the Department of Arts and Culture. In 2017/18, the top 15 executives in these five theatres collectively earned nearly R22-million in salaries and bonuses, for an average annual income of over R1,4-million each (not inconsistent with the top salaries paid to executives in publicly-funded cultural institutions, but highly skewed in terms of the average earnings within the theatre sector).

The five theatres located in Cape Town, Mangaung, Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg at best serve the people of those cities, which would account for less than a third of the country’s population. More than 90% of the public resources available for theatre then, serves 30% of our citizens; this is a structural and policy problem that has to change if we are serious about substantive transformation (where the lives and quality of life of the majority of citizens are improved in real terms) rather than persist with superficial, demographic transformation (where only the colour of elites that benefit from public funds has changed).

Artistic directors at publicly-funded institutions are able to earn additional amounts when they write, adapt or direct a play or musical, earn royalties when these productions run and are able to make decisions about their works touring locally and internationally, mostly with the support of public funds. Independent theatre-makers, on the other hand, have to stand in line at the National Arts Council for a possible annual grant that is unlikely to cover the production costs of even one work.

Public policy and funding practice with regard to theatre not only perpetuates structural inequalities inherited from our apartheid past, but in fact exacerbates them.

Recently, an international foundation funded five theatre productions that creatively interpreted the work of investigative journalists. The forms that each production took were quite different, ranging from a game show and a Greek chorus-type production, to duologues and participatory theatre premised on the work of Augusto Boal. No-one had to buy a ticket to see these works, neither did they have to pay for travel costs to a far-away theatre; these creative works were taken to people in taxi ranks, schools, community halls, makeshift township venues, university residences and the like. While dealing with social issues of importance to their audience, these works did not compromise on their entertainment and aesthetic values.

There should be at least one nationally-subsidised theatre or multi-functional arts space in each province to create a national circuit for theatre companies to tour their work, generate income and take excellent productions beyond the Cape Town, Johannesburg/Pretoria and National Arts Festival axis. But in addition to infrastructure, each province should have at least one subsidised theatre company of eight to 12 members whose brief will be four-fold: create new works that speak to the lived experience of the people in the province; stage classic and contemporary South African plays to bring these iconic works to local audiences; creatively present setworks annually to assist learners studying literature, and work with secondary schools in the province to produce plays for an annual schools’ play festival both to encourage participation in the art form and to build new audiences.

Resident playwrights and directors would be attached to subsidised companies and infrastructure for fixed terms, and with a brief that would include creating opportunities for new entrants into the industry.

The equivalent of the remuneration for the 15 top executives in publicly-funded theatres would cover nine companies (one per province) of 10 members each, earning the current average South African salary of R21,190 per month (according to Stats SA’s 2018 4th quarter Quarterly Employment Survey).

The principle could be applied to dance and music companies too, with an emphasis on supporting creative production and distribution, rather than only on infrastructure. Infrastructure, of course, is important but as with the investigative journalist project mentioned above, plays can be created and adapted for performance in existing infrastructure. The Voorkamerfees in Darling takes place in the houses of people, particularly in the township areas, with punters buying tickets for a tour of three different houses, with completely different performances taking place in each.

Frustrated with the lack of delivery from any tier of government, energetic theatre-makers like Mandisi Sindo built a “Shack Theatre” in Khayelitsha, which has evolved with the support of various theatres and film companies into a vibrant centre, providing access to classes in the performing arts as well as to theatre, dance and music for the local community.

During Lula’s presidency in Brazil, these kinds of community-initiated cultural projects were strongly encouraged and supported with hundreds of “points of culture” throughout the country receiving government support to enable citizens “to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts”.

At his February budget speech, Tito Mboweni indicated that there was thinking about a new national theatre and a new national museum, more emphasis on supply-side, vanity projects, rather than creating and supporting demand. Less-resourced families could be given a pack of annual vouchers that would encourage them to see theatre, movies and dance, attend museums and galleries and thus have their emotional, psychological and intellectual dimensions stimulated and catered for.

With the Department of Arts and Culture budget of R4,6-billion this year, projected to be R4,8-billion next year and more than R5-billion the year after, there IS money for the arts and culture sector (and this is besides funding from other tiers of government, private-sector sponsorship, international donors and the National Lotteries Commission). There IS phenomenal talent, and citizens throughout the country, no matter their income, have a right to experience and have their lives bettered by having access to the excellent theatre, dance, music and other art forms.

All that is required now is vision, political will and a real commitment from the government to work with credible civil society structures in making this happen. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.