Thinking through the art and science divorce

‘Arts, science to go their separate ways,” proclaimed Business Day. The Sunday Independent was more upbeat with “Arts and Culture to star in and run their own show”. Whatever the spin, President Thabo Mbeki decreed that from August 1 the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST) would split into two separate departments, each with its own director general, to “enable the departments to have a more focused approach”.
Both departments will remain accountable to the current political incumbents, Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology Ben Ngubane, and his deputy, Brigitte Mabandla.

The questions, of course, are: why; why now; what will change; and is this a good thing?

In response to the “why” question put to the ministry by the Sunday Independent, Andrew Aphane, ministerial spokesperson replied: “The decision was made by the president in consultation with the minister. This development will allow a more focused approach.” In response to a later question, “Did the year-old pressure group, Pansa [the Performming Arts Network of South Africa], have any effect leading to the departmental split?” Aphane said: “The decision to restructure the department is a presidential one, which would allow a more focused approach.”

Now, of course, we all know that the president does not simply wake up one morning and decide that a particular department needs to be split “to allow a more focused approach”. It is a decision informed by a range of factors that are obviously not being made available officially for public consumption. The Business Day article hinted at “operational tension within the department” and “tension about access to resources and difficulties in defining mandates”.

The primary impetus in answer to the “why” and “why now” questions could simply be the ending of the contract of the director general—Rob Adam—in August. This would have provided a good opportunity to reflect on the needs of the department. Adam would also have had the opportunity to indicate the conditions under which he was prepared to have his contract renewed. As a scientist, and with science and technology growing its budget significantly over the past years, and with many innovative programmes and projects in that branch, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Adam would want to concentrate on this sector and be relieved of the controversies, pressures and instability that have dogged the arts and culture sector.

The most significant change in the DACST is that the current director general will take over the science and technology branch, and a new director general will be responsible for arts and culture. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to conclude that given that the director general’s contract was under consideration, rather than lose the expertise and experience of a senior public servant, the minister and—subsequently the president—would have made the decision to split the DACST.

Whatever the reasons, this represents an opportunity for the arts and culture sector, and it would be churlish to trash the new department before it starts. On the plus side, it will indeed allow for more focus if the department has its own director general, as opposed to having one person split between two departmental branches that have no obvious synergies. It will also allow the new director general—depending on who it is—an opportunity to start afresh, without the baggage that the DACST has built up.

But will a new Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage have a real chance if the minister stays the same? After all, he is the political incumbent and must take final responsibility for all the negative and adverse (as well as the positive) effects of the DACST on arts and culture.

One view is that a minister is only really as good as his/her senior staff.

If the minister is poorly advised, if the minister does not have access to all the information required and if she/he is shielded from stakeholders and their views then, inevitably, the minister makes poor decisions and carries the responsibility and stigma of these. In the case of the DACST there is little doubt that the optimism attached to the appointment of senior staff in the past year in the arts and culture branch, has been misplaced.

If the primary impetus towards the formation of the new department was the consideration of the renewal of the director general’s contract, then there is still much room to manoeuvre. As a free-standing department, arts and culture could be shifted to any other ministry, that is there is no longer any reason why it should remain with science and technology and the current political incumbents. And if the director general is “gatvol” of arts and culture, the minister probably is too.

There is also the possibility that a floor-crossing senior politician might be rewarded with a ministry. And, in any case, a mid-term or post-floor-crossing era might require a Cabinet reshuffle, so it is unlikely that we have heard the last word on the ministerial status of the new department.

Wherever this department is located, the appointment of a director general will be key. One hopes that government will recognise that this presents an opportunity, and that it will not resort simply to promoting someone within the department.

What is needed in that position is the breadth of vision and policy-making abilities of an Andries Oliphant, the organising abilities of a Lynette Marais, the bureaucratic experience of a Pumla Madiba, Nicola Danby’s capacity for deal-making and delivery, Jeanette Deacon’s wisdom, the charm and human touch of a Delecia Forbes, Doreen Nteta’s sensitivity and integrity, the political savvy of Nise Malange and the humour of Peter Terry.

Obviously, no one person will embody all that a director general should be, but that is why a director general runs a department, and does not do everything him or herself. What the above points to, though, is that any incoming director general must have the maturity to recognise that she/he doesn’t “know it all”, that the department is not the primary repository of knowledge and expertise, and that, in fact, there is much experience, skill and sympathy in the subsidised and NGO sector that can be incorporated into the management and development of the arts and culture sector.

Plugging into, and playing such a facilitative—rather than “ruler”—role, the new director general and the department will enhance the sector, will serve the arts and culture public, will get better press, and will win kudos for the minister and the government.

Now isn’t that an attractive win-win scenario?

Mike van Graan is the general secretary of the Performing Arts Network of South Africa. The views expressed in this column are his own, and are not necessarily those of the network or of Artslink.co.za.

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