The official line on arts and culture

Recently appointed Arts and Culture Director General Themba Wakashe says the time he spent in New York and Amsterdam—where he worked as a research assistant and amassed several degrees, including one in arts administration—served to highlight the limited accessibility to the arts in this country.

It is a situation Wakashe is adamant about transforming, especially with regard to the country’s intellectual output, an indication of his recent history as the chief director for arts, culture and heritage.

In an interview at the department in Pretoria, Wakashe spoke frankly, albeit in broad strokes, perhaps an indication of the freshness of his appointment and his diplomacy.

As chief director of arts, culture and heritage, he was responsible for liaising with Unesco, the Southern African Development Community, the European Union and the African Union. He replaced Itumeleng Mosala, regarded by the opposition as an absentee director general, for a three-year term late last year and it is hoped he will usher in an era of accountability.

This means Wakashe has had to face the music regarding last year’s qualified audit, in which R13,4-million was unaccounted for.

Genial although somewhat media-shy, Wakashe professes to “claim his space in other ways”, which one can only hope means getting the job done without much fanfare.

What are some of the problems you have inherited with this department?

There is a lack of administrative skills and knowledge-based skills, so that when we talk arts and culture, we actually know what we’re talking about. There is room for improvement there.

Do you feel a lot of pressure based on the fact that there has been a gap between directors general?

Perhaps pressure in terms of the volume of work that needs to be done and the decisions that need to be made, but once you prioritise and get the pressing ones out of the way, then the machinery starts to get its own rhythm and you’re able to manage.

What are the priorities for you as the incoming director general?

We have started with a skills audit in the area of heritage, nationwide, so that we can begin to address the lack of a skills base.

Secondly, there is a lot of artistic and aesthetic input that is quite commendable and needs to be supported, but there has been little of the intellectual side, which is problematic because if you do not define yourself, you end up being defined by somebody else.

Priority will also be given to creative industries because I think that they are underperforming assets. We will have to find ways of unlocking that and making sure that we are able not only to take the arts to a higher level, but that we also are able to leverage the economic benefits in a significant way.

Another area of focus for me is children. There is generally an over-emphasis on youth and we don’t look at that process that leads to youth so we are faced with the challenges of audience development.

Are there relevant policies to address all those things that are lacking?

We’ve just finished a policy review looking at the shortcomings of the 1996 White Paper [which was seen to concentrate more on the performing arts and not enough on heritage]. By and large, there have been significant achievements in terms of access to funding in the arts and most of the institutions that were called for are there, such as the National Arts Council.

Community art centres continue to be a challenge. There needs to be continuous programming in these places, otherwise they end up being white elephants or vandalised.

What has happened about the qualified audit? R13,4-million was unaccounted for. What was the reason for this?

When the department split, there were assets that were registered with the wrong department and not transferred, such as the building we were using. It was not that there was anything actually untoward, [it was] more the way [in which] entries were recorded. For that matter, I had the opportunity to go to the portfolio committee and explain. So that is an issue that has been dealt with.

How does it affect your term?

I must make sure that during my term there are no qualified audits and therefore the management of systems should receive priority. We must make sure that the audit committees are there and attend to the issues that they are raising.

Some of the playhouses have been operating without councils. What is the reason for this?

The terms of the councils expired on December 31, with the exception of two institutions, those being the State Theatre and the Performing Arts Council of the Free State, because their terms expire at the end of March. We had some delays in appointing the new councils and that raised anxieties, but it is not that the institutions have been compromised because when that situation arises; the Public Finance Management Act kicks in and transfers the accounting authority to the CEO. So, in all other playhouses there are CEOs in place.

What caused the anxiety about the Market Theatre was that the CEO said that the month of February was going to be his last month. So there was a potentially serious situation [in which] there would be an institution with no accounting officer. Now an acting CEO has been appointed. The process of nomination has been finalised and it has gone to Cabinet. We are quite confident that during the month of March all the outstanding councils of these institutions will be in place and come April 1, when the new financial year kicks in, all the boards will be in place.

What is in store in the budget for your department?

We are going for the budget vote now and Finance Minister Trevor Manuel will be making some announcements on that. I would like to have a look at the infrastructure of creative industries so we can identify areas of investment. Arts and culture infrastructure, like all the infrastructure in the country, is still developed along apartheid lines.

[Look] at things such as cinemas, libraries and theatres in the townships; for example, Mdantsane, the second-largest township in the country, hasn’t got a library. That’s something we are establishing now. So the infrastructure really requires attention. But outside of that, we need to find the money to invest in the minds and souls of South Africans. Social cohesion is a serious challenge. When we look at some of the things that fellow South Africans do to one another, it is totally unacceptable. We need to restore that sense of humanity back to these brutalised souls that are on the streets.

Looking ahead towards 2010, what needs to happen to accommodate the influx of people into this country and to meet their expectations culturally?

First, I think it’s important that as a hosting nation we must move away from this obsession with the stadiums. My focus is on what we can do with our theatres and music halls, so that there is a buzz—which is not only South African, but African. For example, now there is a proposed exhibition on Nubian heritage and art (from the Sudan) as a build-up to 2010. We are going to put up a tender for Africa Day. This year we want to bring the best African music talent so we can build that as a tradition leading up to 2010.

We are also looking at the host cities themselves, looking at the social history of the cities with a view that we’re going to be producing documentaries and exciting DVDs.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

Client Media Releases

Sanral receives high honour
Conference validates contribution of traditional birth attendants
What makes IIE Rosebank College cool?