What now for arts and culture in SA? – Future Africa at UP hosts public forum on the state of the arts

Posted on June 04, 2019

As South Africa awaited President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of his new Cabinet, a rousing discussion at the May public forum at the Future Africa campus explored the way forward for the Department of Arts and Culture. Artist-in-residence Mike van Graan facilitated a discussion on the topic ‘Post-election: What now for the Arts and Culture sector; what should be the priorities of a new minister responsible for arts, culture and heritage?’

Four panellists with extensive provincial and national experience in the arts – Zwai Mgijima (Eastern Cape), Bongi Dhlomo (Gauteng), Mashupe Phala (Limpopo) and Thami Mbongo – interrogated the issue. Mgijima recounted the difficulties he’d had trying to make a living for 29 years as a theatre practitioner in the Eastern Cape, which, he says, has been neglected by the national government. He cited the example of veteran Eastern Cape actress Nomhle Nkonyeni, who, a week after she’d received the Order of Ikhamanga in silver from President Ramaphosa, announced that she was not going to vote because government had made empty promises to performers for 25 years.

Asked why he writes such sad plays rather than ones that celebrate South Africa’s democracy, Mgijima replied: “Because there are still so many sad stories to tell. I wish the dreams we had in 1994 would come back.” “I’m still involved in the sector because I want a better society for my grandchild, who will be 30 years old in 25 years’ time,” said visual artist and art administrator Dhlomo – which is ironic, considering that many such as her were involved in the struggle against apartheid to create a better society for their children, and after 25 years of democracy, these same dreams are being deferred to the next generation. Dhlomo used the Gauteng Legislature’s art collection as a metaphor for the state of the arts in SA. In 1994, she was part of a panel commissioned to buy art for the legislature; this year, she has been called in to help restore the collection, which has been “vandalised”. With rising unemployment, Dhlomo wants government to create a system in which the employment of artists can be monitored; she also advocated for a thorough evaluation of what the Department of Arts and Culture has actually achieved in 25 years.

According to writer and director Phala, Limpopo is the only province that does not have a theatre – and not one has been built since 1994. “I would simply like government to create an enabling environment for artists to be able to do their work,” he said. “There should be bilateral agreements with other departments and other tiers of government so that artists are commissioned to stage school set-works, to educate communities about a range of themes using their creative skills and for visual artists to have their works bought for the hotel industry.” In the same way that government departments allocate Wednesday afternoons for interdepartmental sports in Limpopo, Phala would like government to support culture days, with civil servants encouraged to engage in arts activities. He also had harsh words for the Arts and Culture sector itself, which had been absent from policy discussions regarding the plan for the long-term development of municipalities: “Even taxi drivers had input in the Integrated Development Plan in Limpopo,” Phala said, “but not the Arts and Culture sector.” TV actor Mbongo announced that he was agitating for change as a member of the EFF.

He supported the call of civil society activists for a knowledgeable person to be appointed as minister of the department*, and stressed the importance of more creatives asking uncomfortable questions. He also expressed the need for the sector to be united to clear up the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa’s “mess”, and to use it as a vehicle to improve the sector. “There needs to be a commission of inquiry to investigate nepotism and corruption in the sector,” Mbongo added, “a review of the Cultural Institutions Act, and a skills audit in national and provincial departments as well as in publicly funded institutions, because we are being led by fools.”

The discussion with the audience was wide-ranging, given the many themes that were raised, though it centred on issues such as the regulation of the sector to protect artists from exploitation; disunity within the sector; the divide-and-rule tactics employed by government; and the Department of Arts and Culture’s tendency to pursue political imperatives rather than seeking to fulfil an artistic or cultural vision.

* The panel discussion took place before the announcement of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet. On 29 May, Ramaphosa announced that Nathi Mthethwa will continue as Minister of a newly merged Department of Sport, Arts and Culture. Mthethwa has been Arts and Culture Minister since 2014. 

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