After a game of ministerial musical chairs that saw Nathi Mthethwa replace Paul Mashatile, Sean O'Toole wonders if Mthethwa is suited for the arts.
It has been a year of boos and heckling for Nathi Mthethwa, the country’s new minister of arts and culture. This chorus of disapproval started long before his reassignment by President Jacob Zuma, a game of ministerial musical chairs that saw Mthethwa replace ousted Cabinet member Paul Mashatile in the arctic arts and culture portfolio.
In January, while still serving as police minister, water-starved residents of Mothutlung, a township in the North West, booed Mthethwa after he visited the family of a service delivery protester allegedly killed by police.
North West residents have been especially vociferous against Mthethwa, who between 2009 and 2014 presided over a department prone to blunt metaphor in this strife-torn region. In May, before his demotion (as it has been described by many commentators), residents of Mmaditlokwe near Marikana heckled Mthethwa when he responded to their demands for the release of 16 people arrested for public violence.
In response to Mthethwa’s appointment the arts community has been comparably tame, using social media to register their complaint – sometimes humorously, but just as often not. “Nathi Mthethwa says he is looking for the next great SA artist and an arrest is imminent, but hopes the public will come forward with names,” tweeted writer and popular columnist Tom Eaton.
Playwright and arts administrator Mike van Graan adopted a more strident tone. “Mthethwa’s roles in suppressing the right to protest and in defending the Nkandla expenditure render him completely inappropriate to the position of minister of arts and culture,” he wrote.
Not everyone in the wildly disparate arts sector necessarily shares these dim views of Mthethwa, who takes over a portfolio created a decade ago during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki. Eugene Mthethwa, the sartorial pantsula formerly with kwaito pioneers Trompies and now the slick-suited acting secretary general of the Creative Workers Union of South Africa, called for the arts community to give the minister “the benefit of the doubt”.
Who is Mthethwa?
But just who is the new minister of jazz and other arty things?
Born in Kwa Mbonambi, in the sugar cane growing region of Empangeni, northern KwaZulu Natal, 47-year-old Mthethwa is a former ANC chief whip. His literary tastes tend towards the turgid. In a 2011 article for ANC Today, an online publication of the ruling party, he favourably quoted the Vietnamese politician and communist intellectual Lê Duẩn in arguing Mandela’s identity as an ANC man as a much as a national icon.
Lê Duẩn is an unusual choice of intellectual mentor. “The party’s leadership constantly rests upon the principle of collective leadership,” argued the Vietnamese politician in the difficult months after Hồ Chí Minh’s death in 1969. “Personal arbitrariness is totally alien to its nature.” It is a line of reasoning that seems out of favour in the current ANC, which has become an increasingly centrist and paranoid institution.
In a speech earlier this year artist Brett Murray characterised the ANC as a party directed by the will of Blade Nzimande, Jackson Mthembu, Gwede Mantashe and Zuma – “the Marx Brothers on acid”, he said. Mthethwa’s closeness to this group cannot be overlooked, despite his perceived chastening, punishment, demotion, call it what you will.
Last year, when Mthethwa wed businessperson Philisiwe Buthelezi at a ritzy ceremony on a wine farm in Franschhoek, Zuma delivered a warm speech commending the groom. The wedding received a ritual screening on Top Billing, that unctuous TV barometer of post-apartheid social life (which, for the record, I once appeared on too). It was a lavish affair. His bride, a formidable figure in business with an impressive international track record in investment banking, wore a dress by Venezuelan-American fashion designer Carolina Herrera.
Local fashion duo Malcolm Klûk and Christiaan Gabriel du Toit supervised the final fitting. Buthelezi, who holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of Paris II, opted for a French theme and six-layer wedding cake. The ceremony included traditional performers and a DJ.
Publisher Khanyi Dhlomo and businessperson Robert Gumede, a well-known ANC benefactor, were among the 600 guests.
SA’s political class
What does this have to do with Mthethwa’s portfolio? A lot, if you accept the obliqueness of the view. Beyond the orthodoxy and posture of communist dogma, Mthethwa’s values and lifestyle choices are solidly and unimpeachably typical of South Africa’s political class, pre- and post-1994.
That is, they are contradictory, mannered, flagrant, baroque even. Which is also a direction being charted by seams of the local arts industry, especially in popular urban music after the early spring of kwaito, in the visual arts, and arguably even in our literature.
Is Mthethwa, with his collectivist ideals, the right man for the job? It is an irrelevant question. The crisis in the department of arts and culture, a strangely amorphous entity whose budget allocation props cultural institutions like Freedom Park, the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, the National Arts Council and Robben Island Museum, as well as keystone events like the National Arts Festival, is not one of leadership alone.
It is one of dysfunctional aspiration and cultural opportunity in places where big shot politicians are increasingly being booed. “When I was growing up there were hardly any black schools offering learning in the visual arts,” remarked Kroonstad-born Pallo Jordan in a 2004 interview.
Jordan, who during his years in exile in London modelled for a photo by George Hallett that eventually appeared on a reissue of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, had just recently assumed responsibilities in the new arts and culture department.
“There was never any formal training,” he elaborated. “A white kid with some native talent would be found very quickly and would be encouraged and nurtured. A black kid, by comparison, would have to nurse it alone, if they were lucky.” Jordan was talking about 1954, or thereabouts, but he could just as easily be describing 2004, or even now.