South African arts – we need a policy and a minister…


I recently came into possession of a rose bush, unbeknownst to me these plants do not like to be moved and need to be transplanted at specific times of the year. In my reckless naivety, I did the opposite of what connoisseurs would do, and the plant almost died. Luckily, I happen to know people who know a thing or two about roses, and through our combined efforts, we were able to bring the plant back from the edge of its death husk.

This anecdote serves as a beautiful metaphor for the most essential criticism I have of the government of this country; except for a few individuals, the people running things don’t know what they’re doing and don’t care enough to learn.

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

“South African theater is alive and well with performing arts institutions from the Departments of Sports, Arts and Culture such as @artscapetheatre, @markettheatre, @PACOSF3, @DurbanPlayhouse, @sastatetheatre and @windybrowtheater providing a range of indigenous theater and dance etc”.

Only he knows the direct intent behind the message – perhaps in his disconnected mind he believed he was supporting the venerable artists who keep these institutions alive. Alternatively, it could have been a weak bending attempt, proudly claiming ownership of the nearly 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 vacuum. Instead, it elicited a response from an entire industry, including former Market Theater CEO Ismail Mahomed, whose poignant open letter captured the deep wound the minister’s tweet had inflicted on the theater sector. To cite just one of the many takeaways from Muhammad’s letter:

“When a fellow actor can ask for help because he is going to be evicted from his home because the confinement has deprived him of earning a living and he is unable to pay his rent, this theater is not alive and well.”

In colloquial terms, things are not going well. Theatrically said, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. And it’s really rotten. The end of Mahomed’s letter reminds us of two atrocities, linking our current crisis and the current minister’s attitude to his constituents in the form of apartheid police minister Jimmy Kruger’s infamous statement about the death by Steve Biko, “it leaves me cold”. Ouch.

To be compared to his oppressor in this way must have touched a nerve with the Minister – yet to date there has been no apology, no soul-searching. 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 tries to create is that of the active servant, the benevolent wizard who will fulfill your heart’s desire if you ask. All it takes is a simple interrogation of his January 15 tweet to see that’s not true. The minister’s priority in this tweet is clear: to promote state-run theatres.

That’s great – but what about the litany of private theaters whose doors have been permanently closed due to lockdown rules? They are certainly not alive and healthy.

And that brings me to my point. The Minister believes that the theater is alive and well because it is disconnected from any theater that is not under its direct authority. His attitude is similar to that of many people around the world. The role of the arts in society (for them) is not a valid form of work, of self-expression, of human-to-human experience, of capturing the imagination. The role of the arts in society (for them) is that of an ideological lapdog, a sycophant and an agenda pusher. Any art that doesn’t tick the boxes isn’t art, it’s a nuisance.

This explains why, despite being a potentially huge tourism asset, 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 lifeblood of this sector, the people who work in it, have been left to decay while the state continues in utter obliviousness.

As we pass the second anniversary of the national state of disaster, I am compelled to point out, however, that our treatment during the pandemic has come as no surprise, because as artists we are used to it. This is because the unspoken truth is that those proposed to lead this government’s arts sector have failed time and time again because they are not committed to the sector’s success.

If they were, we’d be having an entirely different conversation, the minister and civil servants would have spent their time during lockdown visibly fighting tooth and nail for the reopening of the sector (in the sense, of course), the pundits who know and understand this industry would be listened to with great intent, and artists would not face the adversity they are currently experiencing.

A year on from the tweet, which had attracted artists and pushed for Mthethwa’s removal as arts and culture minister, sees very little change in the lived experiences of artists. Despite the serious allegations of corruption that have taken place at the National Arts Council (NAC) and the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) on a regular basis, very little has been done to reverse the trend.

The dominant attitude towards artists is once again reflected in the draft National Theater and Dance Policy, which stipulates that its categorical goal is to nurture and celebrate theater and dance. However, a closer look at the statement reveals a hostile attitude towards the creative industry, and therefore towards any artist who relies on their craft for a living: “… policy that promotes or privileges the creative and cultural industries… will indeed continue to marginalize the poor”.

It must be emphasized that arts and culture have value propositions that outweigh economic gains. However, one cannot help retorting that arts and culture are not enough to feed the belly 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 pomp this document espouses, there is an equal amount of professional gibberish that amounts to saying that the grand strategy of politics is to build audiences and nurture artists through children’s theater competitions run by the government. ‘State.

Therein lies the rub – once again the artist is dependent on the state funding apparatus for his meal ticket, while the years of professional training he puts into his craft are enough good for children’s entertainment (make no mistake is vitally important), but not for a full fledged career in acting or dance. Although arts training is an essential sector, it cannot be the ultimate goal for all who receive an arts education.

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

It is disappointing but not surprising that there is so little policy on offer, as the department is headed by a man who has shown time and again that he has complete disregard for the arts. All South African artists deserve better than this, and that is what makes the removal of Nathi Mthethwa from Cabinet so necessary. DM


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