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Writers blocked: Programme scrapped after funding is withdrawn

Thalia Randall

With only two weeks until the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, part of its iconic sister programme has been gagged, writes Thalia Randall.

Author Thando Mquolozana said the decision by the National Arts Council showed that it

The National Authors Programme, one of the most significant events in the Wordfest line-up, has been cancelled.

Chris Mann, Wordfest convenor and honorary professor of poetry at Rhodes University said the programme had been scrapped because the anticipated funding from the National Arts Council (NAC) had not been received.

Mann discovered on Friday, June 1, that the government-mandated council had not allocated Wordfest the R250 000 it received in previous years.

The Wordfest committee, which spent the last nine months working on the 2012 programme, had already invited about 70 authors to participate in the event when they heard the news.
 
Mann said his biggest concern was not about the NAC’s decision to withhold funds, but rather that he was made aware of the decision so late.
 
“We are not trying to say we are entitled to a grant,” Mann told the Mail & Guardian, adding that the NAC board had a right to decide against providing the money.
 
“But late notice of non-funding leaves the project stranded.”
 
Mann said he felt that if the NAC had communicated the possibility earlier, the programme might not have been scrapped.
 
“Normal business practice would be for the funder to alert the arts organisation about changes in funding policy. [This would allow] the organisation to adapt if possible,” he said.
                    
Out with the old, in with the new
Monica Newton, CEO of the NAC, said that applicants were informed within a week of the finalisation of the funding allocation. She said the nature of the selection process would have made it “impossible” to pre-warn applicants.
 
After the department of arts and culture appointed a new board earlier this year, the council revised funding mechanisms to fit new “strategic priorities”. She said the decision not to fund Wordfest was in line with a new strategy to give preference to organisations that had “previously not received support from the NAC”.
 
Wordfest had received more than R1.3-million in funds from the NAC since its inception 12 years ago.
 
However, Craig MacKenzie, professor of english at the University of Johannesburg, said the NAC’s decision showed “capriciousness and vacillation”. He said a lack of reliable support undermined the organisers’ abilities to build momentum for the festival with each successive year.
 
Author Thando Mquolozana said this decision showed that the NAC board “clearly doesn’t understand the function of arts in society”. The NAC failed to understand the meaning of the festival within its social context, he said.
 
The real victims
The real losers in the debacle were South African publishers and authors, said Mgquolozana, whose book A man who is not a man was launched at Wordfest in 2009. In his view, the programme represented “hope” for aspiring writers.
 
Cancelling the programme was “taking away the hope of the people” by removing a platform for writers who sought publication for their work, he argued.

 
“If the NAC saw fit to cancel the Wordfest programme then it saw fit to destroy the arts,” he claimed.
 
Mann said he felt the programme’s “developmental” approach played a vital role in the country. It fostered literary skills that would help to increase South African imaginations – a cognitive skill he said was essential to our current “phase of the struggle”.
 
He commended the support of the department of sports, recreation, arts and culture in the Eastern Cape for their support.

“They have provided core funding for the Eastern Cape portion of the project for 10 years without interruption. They’ve been amazing,” he said.

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