The right-wing Flemish government announced in 2020 that it intended to cut funds to cultural projects by 60%.
Now, South African cultural creators of all shapes and sizes may sigh at the thought of a government subsidy for the arts at all, but there we have it.
Belgium is a small country, the cockpit of Europe, so to speak, with about 12-million Flemish- and French-speaking citizens. It is roughly the size of the Kruger National Park. Yet, in a country this small, where English is not the mother tongue, so many artists and creators have established a world presence.
In design, couture, dance, film, theatre and literature, the Belgians are all over flying their flag.
Take Ivo van Hove, known as the “titan” of contemporary theatre. He’s a Belgian cultural export who directs works all over the globe, from ballet and theatre to opera.
Then there is the Antwerp-based fashion iconoclast Walter Van Beirendonck, whose designs are snapped up by flush celebrities all over the universe.
Let me name-drop, if I must. My dear friend Tom Lanoye, much-lauded literary bad boy, colossal theatre maker, writer of poetry and brave polemicist, has been translated into several European languages. English, too, and even Afrikaans.
It was Lanoye who alerted Jan Jambon, the Flemish minister who oversees culture among his portfolios, to the value of its soft-power influence and how it can be a showcase for so much more than fleeting politics ever will.
In this instance, the subsidy that some artists received allowed them the space and time needed to create, and they went on to reach national and international platforms. When they achieved success, they spread their ideas and creations across the globe.
One Englishman who did that successfully was William Shakespeare.
What’s that got to do with Trevor?
Trevor Noah is one of South Africa’s most successful cultural exports. The man made it to hosting the iconic The Daily Show. If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. New York, New York.
Noah came, saw, conquered, all without a single cent of subsidy.
He’s big in India, big in South Africa, big wherever he goes. He is that good. That cosmopolitan.
While Nelson Mandela absorbed much of the South African spotlight during his remarkable lifetime, it was our cultural exports which fixed the world’s eyes and ears on our hearts, minds and troubles.
From the musicals King Kong, Sarafina and Ipi Tombi (no matter how problematic) to John Kani, Athol Fugard, Pieter-Dirk Uys, David Kramer, Taliep Petersen, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ray Phiri, Bakithi Kumalo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Johnny Clegg, Pretty Yende, the Ndlovu Youth Choir, Wouter Kellerman — these are some of the artists who helped established a cultural footprint for South Africa across the world.
Of course, the other great ambassadors for the country are our sporting heroes, with the Springboks leading the pack. Captain Siya Kolisi’s playing for the country’s glory has endeared him and this team to all. Also think of Caster Semenya, Banyana Banyana… they all capture something about our spirit.
Read more in Daily Maverick: We won! Springboks’ joy as they beat All-Blacks in Rugby World Cup final
Much of the response to the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) advertisement featuring Noah has been about the alleged cost of the exercise. No one really knows, but the R33-million price tag for Noah has been denied by TBCSA chief executive Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa.
That sideshow apart, Noah’s promotional clip for South Africa went viral soon after its release on 10 November to a generally warm response all around. Getting him to agree to act as the “face” encouraging tourists to visit the country was a no-brainer.
The short promo is aimed at foreigners, tourists — people with money who mostly want to know about the five-star hotels, malls, restaurants, golf and wildlife. It’s beautifully edited and directed, with shots of the country’s spectacular wealth, both geographical and actual.
One assumes much of the cost went into the filming and production of the advertisement. There are sweeping drone shots of great scenery and landscapes, some cities — Cape Town features but not Joburg or Pretoria, sorry, though only South Africans will pick that up.
“When are you coming to experience it for yourself?” Noah invites the masses out there who have money to blow and currency exchange rates that should make their mouths drool.
Culture is stronger than politics
The US has been the biggest exporter of culture — and, generally speaking, it’s been mass, junk culture — to the rest of the globe for so long that some have begun to even think and act like Americans.
Beamed to devices everywhere are American action movies, crime series, dystopian sci-fi visions, gaming series, B-grade reality series and talk shows, as well as a few limelight-hogging, ignorant, lying presidential incumbents.
While other US exports might be arriving in containers in shipyards over the world, it is the culture of America, its essence and its soul, that has seared itself into our consciousnesses. American television and culture feed the fear and violence that grip so many caught in series bingeing.
Leave a device set to a US channel for long enough and you will hear a perpetual and recurring soundtrack of shrieking, gunshots, women screaming, sirens, cars screeching and cops yelling.
Culture is a weapon, and often a very blunt one considering how generations have been dumbed down by what pours out of the streaming pipeline.
A statement by Nazi poet laureate Hanns Johst in a play titled Schlageter – “when I hear of culture, I reach for my gun”, often attributed to propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels — is a mark of the enduring strength of culture.
For Johst, culture should not be valued for its own sake but in service only to ideology. Marxists believed the same.
Whether Pretoria-born Elon Musk could be considered a cultural export is another discussion. He is certainly one of our most successful economic migrants. Not really a people’s person, Musk would probably opt to do a promo for Mars, and for free at that.
For now, well done to the TBCSA for leveraging Trevor Noah’s unique and far-reaching popularity and charisma. As they used to say and probably still say in the L’Oreal ads, “because we’re worth it”. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.