Opinionista Tony Lankester 8 March 2021

Get Sibongile Mngoma back on stage — and sort out the National Arts Council funding shambles

Until the arts funding crisis under Covid-19 hit, the National Arts Council was the last bastion of sensible, ethical and fair funding of the arts in South Africa. It has taken a single pot of money, an administrative shambles and an ill-advised (and possibly illegal) response from the council to dismantle that reputation in a few short weeks.

Sibongile Mngoma should be on stage, under lights, singing. Anyone who has heard the current torchbearer of South Africa’s first family of song would agree: it’s where she’s at her best.

Instead, though, she is locked down with a group of artists in the National Arts Council’s (NAC’s) boardroom in Johannesburg, sleeping on the floor, eating from delivered takeaway containers and channelling the triple whip of her name, reputation and talent into protesting against the treatment of artists at the hand of South Africa’s funding agencies.

A household name, sleeping on the floor for a week. Angry, exhausted, frustrated and saddened. How did it come to this?

The NAC funding debacle is well documented and anyone in the sector will have an opinion about what went wrong, how it could have been avoided, who is to blame. In short, R300-million allocated to the arts by the President’s Economic Stimulus Programme, and given to the NAC to disburse, was predictably oversubscribed and hundreds of signed contracts now can’t be honoured as the council scrambles to spread the money further.

The well of compassion and ubuntu has been poisoned though, with the confirmation by the acting CEO last week that companies in which some council members have a financial stake and direct interest in the process are getting funded.

This blurs the lines even further and makes a mockery of the pious appeals of the council to artists’ sense of the greater good. Opinions vary on what should happen next. The NAC almost certainly won’t survive this, buried under the weight of adverse Auditor-General findings and legal action. And its individual council members will find themselves personally liable for misspent funds.

Don’t shed a tear for that, though. Do so for the fact that, until this crisis, the NAC was the last bastion of sensible, ethical and fair funding of the arts in South Africa. It has taken a single pot of money, an administrative shambles and an ill-advised (and possibly illegal) response from the council to dismantle that reputation in a few short weeks.

But one thing is true: the current crisis was inevitable. It was always going to happen that, at some point, years of dysfunction, cronyism and lack of leadership in the arts sector would lead to a crisis of mammoth proportions. It was just a matter of time. So no one is, or should be, surprised.

That it happened in the wake of the Covid-inflicted jobs crisis, when any funding should be a welcome relief to artists in an already embattled sector now facing months on end with no prospect of or opportunity to work, just adds to the tragedy.

Step back from the current crisis for a moment and consider what R300-million is doing, and what it could do, if it were allocated within some sort of grander plan.

At the moment the allocations are being done on the basis of “for every job you create we’ll give you R10,895”, without any thought to what that job might be, or consideration that some jobs are sustainable, while some last only a day or two.

For those of you crunching the numbers, it is also likely to be a below-minimum-wage deal for artists and technical professionals; they will be asked to donate their time in exchange for a modest sum. It’s a box-ticking exercise of the worst kind, designed to meet a largely meaningless target, satisfy a poorly thought through job creation plan, and create soundbites. But it achieves nothing, except to encourage short-termism in the sector, helping artists pay a few bills today with no thought about the debit orders due in a few weeks.

So what could R300-million do? Imagine a scenario where the council said: we will give 75 organisations R4-million each — with the proviso that it needs to be spent in a way that results in exponential revenue streams for the sector. A simple precondition that could play out in multiple ways (and a quick caveat: these ideas are just off the top of my head, the named institutions are used as illustrative examples, I have no idea if the projects I describe are viable or of interest to them).

  • With a grant, the Market Theatre (or Baxter or Pacofs) could create a fully kitted-out recording facility, giving artists free space to come in, rehearse, film and edit their work, capitalising on the current global hunger for online, streamed entertainment, through which they could generate ticket sales and further income;
  • The Steve Biko Centre could create a full-time company of actors to rehearse and tour plays to schools across the Eastern Cape to inspire, uplift and educate the next generation;
  • Mandisi Sindo could take a grant and develop his Shack Theatre concept into a national franchise, creating vibrant spaces in communities across the country for artists to perform, audiences to gather, stories to be told;
  • Cape Town Opera could commission and mount a single, large-scale production that tours for a year, providing regular income to performers, designers, musicians, writers and technicians;
  • The State Theatre could create a comedy or jazz showcase event that runs for a month in each province over a year with high-profile names but including local talent, workshops and audience experiences at every stop;
  • The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative could cover its overheads for a year or two, focusing its energies on reaching deeper into the dance community on a national basis, making a difference in the lives of thousands;
  • The National Arts Festival could build, promote and populate with amazing content its online vFringe offering, taking South African performance to the world (earning dollars, pounds, yen and euros for artists); or
  • The Grahamstown Foundation could partner with Rhodes’ International Library of African Music and create a physical museum of music in the Monument, attracting scholars, tourists and artists from around the world.

And on, and on, and on. Above are just eight ideas. Imagine 75 projects of scale, each employing hundreds of artists not just for a week or two, but creating platforms that resonate and ripple throughout the year, contributing to a national cultural movement that will finally be taken seriously by the accountants and auditors at Treasury. And using the existing network of arts institutions — where the passion, the integrity and the skills currently lie — as drivers of the change.

Every rand of every grant should result in artists being able to earn a hundred rand in the next year. Multiply that by 300 million, and the notion of exponential investment begins to make sense. Looking at the original call for proposals, that certainly seemed to be the intent all those months ago, sadly lost now.

Isn’t that better than the NAC acting as a charity, dropping crumbs into the waiting hands of artists?

And, importantly, it sends another message from the sector: we will apply business sense to the money we are given. We will invest it wisely and not encourage an undignified feeding frenzy that simply perpetuates the cycle of poverty. That, in turn, will result in similar investment from others: international donors, corporates and foundations who trust that their money will be well spent. That R300-million investment suddenly becomes the catalyst for double, triple that.

As it stands, the current unseemly scramble for scraps engenders zero confidence in the sector’s leadership, and no one is going to be putting their hands in their pockets any time soon.

What it needs is a single powerful vision. Is it too much to ask at a time when it is only those with vision that will be able to navigate into a world living with Covid-19 and its aftermath?

For starters, though, someone with the power to fix this should get in a car, drive down to the NAC and meet with Mngoma to let her know how the situation is going to be resolved so that she and her colleagues who have been patiently waiting for a couple of pieces of information, can finally go home.

And hopefully we will have the opportunity to see Sibongile Mngoma back on stage, where the nation needs her most. We’ll all be richer for it. DM

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