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Heritage, arts and culture sector devastated by Nathi Mthethwa’s funding refusal


Nicholas Wolpe is the founder and CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust.

Liliesleaf and so many other heritage, arts and culture institutions are in deep distress; some have already succumbed, while others are on life support, so fragile that their existence hangs by the finest of threads.

After the Covid pandemic forced closure for just over a year, Liliesleaf officially reopened its doors again at the beginning of June 2021. Excited employees beamed with relief to be back at their jobs, and the pleasure of meeting up with co-workers as they brought the buildings and site, standing silent and in darkness, back to life with light, human warmth and activity. The hope of soon welcoming visitors would signal a return to some form of normality.

But this reopening did not come about by chance and may be short-lived: Liliesleaf had embarked on a tireless crowdfunding campaign that had seen concerned South Africans, already cash-strapped by the impact of the pandemic, donate their hard-earned money towards keeping this iconic institution alive. This, with generous donations from some corporates, amounted to R2.5-million and provided some relief, allowing for the reopening and the payment of salaries. 

But alas, the situation is not sustainable: by the end of this month the funds will have run out, throwing Liliesleaf back into a state of limbo. 

While the sector has been shut down for more than a year as one of the measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, artists, performers, musicians, museums and sites of memory have been cut off from their primary source of making a living. 

The sit-in at the National Arts Council, covered extensively by the media, voiced outrage that the emergency funding of R300-million, allocated by the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme to provide disaster relief for artists, did not reach the designated recipients. To date, Minister Mthethwa and the National Arts Council seem incapable of accurately accounting for where it was spent

Despite the anger and desperation expressed by the sector, Mthethwa has remained mute, other than to express condolences for the passing of artists and other professionals in the sector. It’s why he has been dubbed the “Minister of Condolences”.

The result is that Liliesleaf and so many other heritage, arts and culture institutions are in deep distress; some have already succumbed while others are on life support, their existence hanging by the finest of threads. This is the predictable outcome of a lamentable lack of leadership and a disjointed, contradictory hierarchy of policies that has governed the funding of the culture, arts and heritage sector since the advent of democracy. 

When challenged, the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC) attempts to justify its inertia by claiming it is hamstrung by legislation that requires National Treasury approval. Ironically, however, the National Treasury has told Liliesleaf that apart from the funds allocated to declared cultural institutions under the Cultural Institutions Act, it merely provides the department with its requested funding according to the budget submitted, and as such does not prescribe or dictate how it should disburse or allocate those funds. 

The situation for Liliesleaf is further compounded by virtue of it being an independently run cultural institution that falls outside the funding channels foreseen for state-owned and declared cultural institutions. This was spelt out clearly in a letter addressed to Liliesleaf on 25 June 2020 by DSAC director-general, Vusumuzi Mkhize:

“The Department will only be able to provide operational funding to the Liliesleaf Trust if the institution is declared as a Cultural Institution in terms of the Cultural Institutions Act.”

However, this is where the arbitrary nature of funding becomes evident: Liliesleaf has in the past received funding from DSAC — between February 2002 and December 2010, and again between January 2011 and April 2015. However, since 2015 no further funding has been granted. The fact that funding has in the past been approved proves that the minister can fund Liliesleaf and other such institutions should he choose to apply his discretion

Yet, despite repeated requests, he has refused to do so. This is in conflict with the Cultural Promotion Act which  states that its objective is:

“To provide for the preservation, development, fostering and extension of culture in the Republic by planning, organising, coordinating and providing facilities for the utilisation of leisure and for non-formal education…”

The act confers on the minister powers to:

“…establish, launch or finance any organisation or project whose objectives are likely to have an impact throughout the country.”

Taking what is stipulated above, the minister and director-general’s insistence that Liliesleaf cannot be funded is not supported by the law. It also begs the question as to why the minister does not invoke the provisions of the act to provide relief for the entire sector?

Accordingly, the Liliesleaf Trust has called on the minister and his department to act immediately and apply the provisions of the Cultural Promotion Act and provide the much-needed sustainable funding stream necessary to support Liliesleaf and all other artists, performers, culture professionals and institutions facing the same desperate situation and plight. DM/MC


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