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Things are rotten in the state of South Africa’s arts: We need policy – and a minister – with vision

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Mike da Silva is a writer, director, performer and theatre-maker whose works have been performed at arts festivals across South Africa, including the Hilton Arts Festival and the National Arts Festival. His passion for the arts has led him to politics and arts policy development and he is currently a PR Councillor for the Democratic Alliance in the City of Ekurhuleni.

Despite being a potentially enormous tourism drawcard, South Africa’s arts sector is one that has been neglected, mismanaged, and abused by successive South African governments.

I recently came into possession of a rose bush, unbeknownst to me, these plants do not like to be moved around, and need to be transplanted at specific times of the year. In my reckless naïveté, I did the opposite of what those in the know would have, and the plant very nearly died. Thankfully, I happen to know people who happen to know a thing or two about roses, and with our combined efforts we were able to bring the plant back from the edge of its mortal coil.

This anecdote serves as a nice metaphor for the most essential criticism that I have about the government of this country; with the exception of a few individuals, the people running things do not know what they’re doing and do not care enough to learn.

Sunday 27 March 2022 marked World Theatre Day, and so my thoughts turned to one individual who could do more to rely on the experts within his field, and the scandals that rocked the arts industry last year. For context, the minister in question is Nathi Mthethwa, the events were brought to light by what he tweeted on 15 January 2021:

 “South African theatre is alive and well with performing arts institutions of the Departments of Sport, Arts and Culture, such as @artscapetheatre, @markettheatre, @PACOSF3, @DurbanPlayhouse, @sastatetheatre and, @windybrowtheatr offering an array of indigenous drama and dance etc”.

Only he knows the direct intent behind the message — perhaps in his out-of-touch mind, he believed he was lending support to the venerable artists who keep those institutions alive. Alternatively, this could have been a weak attempt at flexing, proudly claiming ownership over the near-comatose sector lying on the floor in front of him. His intent, in either case, is irrelevant, the minister came across as condescending, insensitive, and out of touch.

The tweet did not fall into a void. Instead, it elicited a response from an entire industry, including the former CEO of the Market Theatre, Ismail Mahomed, whose poignant open letter captured the deep hurt that the minister’s tweet had inflicted upon the theatre sector. To quote but one of many points to take away from Mahomed’s letter:

“When a fellow actor can beg for assistance because he is going to be evicted from his home because the lockdown has deprived him of earning a living and he is unable to pay his rent, that theatre is not alive and well.”

Colloquially put, things are not okay. Theatrically stated, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” And it is rotten indeed. The end of Mahomed’s letter reminds us of two atrocities, tying our current crisis and the attitude of the current minister towards his constituents together in the form of apartheid Minister of Police Jimmy Kruger’s infamous statement about Steve Biko’s death, “it leaves me cold.” Ouch.

To be compared with one’s oppressor in this way had to hit a nerve with the minister — yet to date, there has been no apology, no introspection. He simply deleted the tweet and moved on. As if to say, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” 

Unfortunately for the minister, this time it will not work. The illusion he is trying to create is that of the active civil servant, the benevolent wizard who will grant your heart’s desire if you but ask. It takes a simple interrogation of his 15 January tweet to see that this is not true. The minister’s priority in this tweet is clear — promoting the state-led theatres.

That is all very well — but what of the litany of private theatres whose doors have been permanently shut because of the lockdown regulations? They are certainly not alive and well.

And this brings me to my point. The minister believes that the theatre is alive and well because he is disconnected from any theatre that is not under his direct authority. His attitude is similar to that of a lot of people around the world. The role of the arts in society (for them) is not as a valid form of work, of self-expression, of human-to-human experience, of capturing the imagination. The role of arts in society (for them) is as an ideological lapdog, a sycophant, and an agenda pusher. Any art that does not tick the boxes is not art, it is a nuisance.

This explains why, despite being a potentially enormous tourism drawcard, South Africa’s arts sector is one that has been neglected, mismanaged, and abused by successive South African governments.

As Mahomed’s letter pointed out, the very lifeforce of this sector, the people working in it, have been left to starve while the state carries on in absolute obliviousness.

As we move past the two-year anniversary of the National State of Disaster, I am compelled to point out however that our treatment during the pandemic did not come as a surprise, for as artists, we are used to it.  This is because the unspoken truth of the matter is that the individuals being put forward to lead the arts sector of this government have failed time and time again because they aren’t committed to the sector’s success.

If they were, we would be having a different conversation entirely, minister and officials would have spent their time during lockdown visibly fighting tooth and nail for the reopening of the sector (within sense, of course), the experts who know and understand this industry would be listened to with great intent, and artists would not be facing the adversity they currently are.

A year on from the tweet, which had artists heaving and lobbying for the removal of Mthethwa as the Minister of Arts and Culture, sees very little change in the lived experiences of artists. Despite the severe allegations of corruption that took place at the National Arts Council (NAC), and in the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC) on a regular basis, very little has been done to turn the tide.

The prevailing attitude towards artists can be seen once more in the draft  of the National Theatre and Dance Policy, which states that its categorical aim is to nurture and celebrate theatre and dance. However, a closer look at the statement reveals a hostile attitude towards the creative industry, and thus, towards any artist who relies on their trade to make a living: “… policy that foregrounds or preferences the creative and cultural industries… will in effect continue to marginalise the poor”.

There is a point to be made that arts and culture have value propositions that supersede economic gains. However, one can’t help but retort that arts and culture alone do not put food in the bellies of artists. And while we should indeed seek to create a society in which every person has access to cultural goods, we cannot create that society at the continued expense of artists.

For all the pompousness that this document espouses, there is an equal amount of professional gobbledygook that amounts to the grand strategy of the policy being to build audiences and feed artists through state-run theatre competitions for children.

Herein lies the rub — once more the artist is reliant on the state funding apparatus for their meal ticket, all the while, the years of professional training that they put into their craft is good enough for children’s entertainment (don’t get me wrong it is vitally important), but not for a fully-fledged career in theatre or dance. Although arts training is a critical sector, it cannot be the end goal for everyone getting an education in the arts.

A policy with vision, not to be grandiose, would be one that unleashes the true market potential of South Africa’s creative sector, removes the barriers to entry (such as a lack of access to networks), cuts red tape (so that artists can start formal businesses), and incentivises the founding and flourishing of South Africa’s very own Broadway (not without its challenges).

It is disappointing but not surprising that the proposed policy amounts to so little, because the department is run by a man who has shown time and time again that he has an utter disdain for the arts. All of South Africa’s artists deserve better than this, and that is what makes the removal of Nathi Mthethwa from the Cabinet such a necessity. DM

 

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  • I couldn’t agree more. The question is how do we rid ourselves of this … – I want to say useless idiot but I know if I do, this comment won’t be placed – … so let’s say, Nemesis of the arts? When an entire sector has occupied the DSAC offices for weeks in protest of corruption and several petitions have been sent to Ramaphosa demanding he fires Mthethwa? When every single story that appears about the arts lampoons the minister? Obviously he is not such a useless idiot after all. He clearly has his uses, apart from changing names, issuing condolences and congratulations and tweeting sweet nothings that make the blood boil, that is.
    This government is not interested in a National imaginary, that abstract thing that makes us who we are. Culture must be controlled, not let free. Especially now, when the governing party is balancing on a knifes edge, peering down at oblivion. Enter Mthethwa, aka Nemesis…
    So let’s be proactive. Let’s occupy the theatres and museums. Let no musician play at a government function, no matter what they pay. Let’s fire Mthethwa ourselves, and appoint the minister that we know will do what is needed… Mr Da Silva, are you up for the job? Ishmael Mohammed? Mike van Graan? Sibongile Mngoma?

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