There was a festive atmosphere in Sandton on Tuesday morning as arts practitioners prepared to meet President Jacob Zuma for a landmark consultation on the role of the arts and problems confronting artists in the present era.
Croissants, yoghurt and muesli, waffles and drinks awaited delegates who signed in at what was to be an informal, and at times outspoken, sharing of ideas. In his speech, Zuma spoke at length, and off his prepared notes, about his personal experience and attitude towards popular culture in South Africa today.
Zuma, it transpires, is not a fan of violent television programmes: ”I’m one who believes that what we see and hear goes a long way to educating our society,” he said. ”There are those who live in this country but act as though they live in another country.”
The audience of 500 artists cheered at what was probably a reference to the Americanisation of popular culture and the popularity of imported forms like hip-hop.
”We wonder why South African society is so violent, and if you turn to television there is a lot of blood,” Zuma said. ”You don’t have to pay to go to the cinema, you can see it on television for free. There is also a lot of sex.
”My generation tries to send their kids to bed and [the kids] say no.”
Zuma then spoke about disobedient youths who watch violent and sexually explicit programmes on late-night television after their parents have gone to bed. Age restrictions, Zuma said, were an invitation for underage people to indulge in movies not intended for their age group.
The high level delegation in attendance included Arts Minister Lulu Xingwana, Education Minister Blade Nzimande, Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa, head of the national planning commission Minister Trevor Manuel, Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda and Deputy Arts Minister Paul Mashatile. In addition, provincial ministers of culture and sport were present from the provinces of Gauteng, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Mpumalanga.
Zuma said the meeting was ”part of the objective to open a conversation with every sector”, and that the arts sector is presently viewed in political circles as being of particular importance in the building of a national social and cultural identity. In addition, the government would use its medium-term expenditure framework as a mechanism to promote cultural diversity and ”bring people together”, Zuma said.
In her speech, Arts Minister Xingwana said the meeting would go some way to addressing issues of local content in broadcasting, the SABC debacle, issues surrounding the protection of intellectual property, tax concerns, arts funding and education and training for artists.
The artists present sang a rousing Awulethu’ umShini Wami, as Zuma ascended the podium. Minutes earlier Xingwana had referred to the president’s well-known song and dance routine, calling him ”an artist and a composer”.
Zuma took the compliment graciously, saying that if he were indeed an artist then this meeting had been called so he could address his own sector.
Zuma spoke of the need for the arts sector to organise itself formally in order for artists to protect their intellectual rights and to guarantee livelihoods.
It was a rare moment of collusion between artists and political rulers. The setting, in affluent Sandton, and the food and drink free-for-all gave some indication of how the government is going out of its way to communicate directly with the arts sector, which will have to use its meagre resources in creating items of appeal to overseas visitors to the Soccer World Cup next year.
Zuma told artists that the World Cup presents an opportunity not to be missed.
Top celebrities at the meeting included actor John Kani, composer and director Lebo M, music producer Chicco Twala, actress Leleti Khumalo, and a smattering of local television’s most popular soap opera stars.