State of the arts in SA

The recent scandal surrounding South Africa’s participation in the Venice Biennale sets the scene for some hard questions that need to be asked about the arts in South Africa.

Not the usual questions of opaque decision making, lax administration, arbitrary planning, alleged corruption and nepotism, but bigger issues.

What is the role of government in art in South Africa? What value does our country and society place on art?

South Africa has been blessed disproportionately with spectacular talent, and yet on so many levels at home it remains a backwater. How do we explain this anomaly?

The reasons are political and economic.


Generally, there are two economic models that govern the arts. Where the arts are expected to recover their own costs, commercial work with little artistic merit often dominates. Where subsidy and government funding for the arts is generous, the arts often lapse into a different kind of mediocrity — that of self-indulgence and public insignificance.

Examples of both can be found in South Africa. Neither model should ever win the argument outright; a healthy tension should be maintained, but not one that strangles talent.

Unfortunately, South Africa’s mixed economy — an often nightmarish chimera of neo-liberal globalised capitalism and dirigiste, developmental state — has left the economy of the arts (and so much else in the country, such as the very energy of the economy — electricity) decommissioned, having fallen between these two stools.

Blind leading the blind

To put it simply, on the one hand the arts have been abandoned to the market economy; on the other hand, the present government funding model for the arts has many shortcomings.

On the political side, the biggest problem (in this critic’s view) is that with a few notable exceptions those in charge of the arts haven’t got a clue about the arts. Decisions are therefore based in ignorance. Other factors — ideological or personal connections — become instrumental.

The department of arts and culture (DAC) is often given over to sinecure positions and is a political dead end, whereas it should be vital and tied to the department of trade and industry and to foreign affairs, as happens elsewhere in the world.

The fact that there is no proper working relationship between the SABC and the DAC is bizarre and frankly scandalous despite the fine sentiments voiced by then Minister Pallo Jordan in 2007. Instead, the DAC’s annual report boastfully informs how it set up TV screens for the public to watch soccer.

Our arts bureaucrats are also well known for their junkets abroad where they “promote” South Africa, but are totally unproductive as far as I can establish. They tend to huddle instead of network.

The whole approach by government stems from the top-down legacy of the Mbeki years, which we still suffer under as a country, and not only in the arts.

Government favours “managers” who don’t know the industry. They waste their tenure flailing about trying to get up to speed. They hold absurd izimbizo where questions are not answered, advice never taken. Top management is also very unstable; the moment an official finally becomes known there is a change of guard to the next uninformed bureaucrat.

As one leading figure in the industry remarked, ask any of the top officials to name three South African playwrights or three of anything — leading artists, directors, choreographers, composers, dancers, fine artists — and they won’t be able to.

It is ironic then when government regularly expresses its immense pride in the international accolades achieved by South African artists it had never heard of before nor ever supported.

Unlike any other minister, the minister of arts and culture has only one job: to dole out cash to the best funding proposal writers, which one hastily adds are often a set apart from the best writers. He doesn’t have to set industry standards, license mineral rights, battle public sector unions, draw up educational curricula and so on. He dishes out money, or rather the promises of money.

The DAC seems to have now become a conservative heritage project, leaving funding for the active arts increasingly to the lottery to sort out, while scandalous decisions in the allocation of funds are par for the course at provincial level.

False starts, broken promises

Government should be concerned about “capacity building” and developing the industry, but as present structures stand, there doesn’t seem to be a natural fit between what the department ought to be doing and what it is set up to do.

It is bedevilled by too many reporting agencies, which have insufficient autonomy, and of which many are not core functions. Nor does it have the resources to service them properly (the department has a 28% vacancy rate). The result is a long list of dead end projects.

If it had any imagination, the DAC could be incentivising transformation; making interventions; leading with innovative policy; working with other departments to nurture and develop, deepen and enrich the arts; keeping those who have proved their worth afloat in difficult times.

The arts hold the potential to mop up large pools of educated but unemployed people prepared to work cheap. Almost nothing has been done on these fronts for 17 years. Now we have Mzansi’s Golden Economy plan for the arts on which the jury is still out.

In the DAC’s core activity of engaging in questionable expenditure and doling out money, it spends hundreds of millions on buildings (theatres, museums, etc) but with diminishing returns inside them.

A crucial body is the National Arts Council, which is meant to fund craft, theatre, dance, music, literature and the visual arts nationally has a piffling R49-million budget for this purpose (more is spent on Artscape in a year).

It is no exaggeration to say that for the vast majority of South African artists, the DAC is utterly irrelevant.

Communication with its constituency is poor. One common complaint is the loss of documents; I know of a recent case where a project had to resubmit its application file five times. The current minister may be suave and speak with elevated rhetoric, but that is not what people experience when attempting to engage with the department.

The timelines and budgeting are far too short for any serious projects, never mind for projects to engage with the world outside where international institutions plan four years in advance.

When funding finally does come through, the contract as one practitioner put it “isn’t worth the paper it is written on”. The DAC notoriously runs out of money. Nobody in their right mind is prepared to bridge finance on promissory letters from the DAC.

And what is the response of the arts community? They behave as if they are as powerless as babies.

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