Nathi Mthethwa: On patrol for the nation’s artistic soul

Was it a surprise to you that you were given the arts and culture position?
No, there is no surprise when you are a cadre of the ANC because you are deployed anywhere. You are given a five-year contract to do a portfolio and when you are finished, you wait for another one. At no stage do you have a say.

What qualities do you bring to the position?
People say to me you are a minister here but you can’t sing; how can you survive in the sector? It’s not about that. If you attend some of the meetings of the ANC, you will see that I lead revolutionary songs. I know I can command a revolutionary song.

I will be working with stakeholders and cultural activists and we will be going on a journey together. We will bring our understanding and our connection with young people.

This is an area that is, by and large, filled with practitioners who are young, with hopes for the future and dreams.

What would be important would be to bring that strategic leadership to the sector, primarily to co-ordinate the endeavours that have been started by my predecessors.

What are the first things you will tackle?
On my first day I had a briefing on what has happened in the department and what we need to do. I immediately raised the issue that we are writing the true history of South Africa through the voices of its people, rather than through colonialists.

We need a single national monument where everybody who comes to South Africa will be able to understand our history. It has to be brand- new. No nation has come through what we have come through without that kind of recognition and national monument.

South Africa has a very rich history that needs to be taught properly. Things such as the Anglo-Boer War need to be taught fully, so that we would see that it was a South African war where everyone had a role. There is this strong feeling I have that it is important that we acknowledge all our history.

One thing we have to do is measure the contribution of arts to the big picture. Take for instance the yearly jazz festival in Cape Town. When people go there they talk about one aspect, which is tourism, but they forget that at the core it is arts and culture. They go there to connect spiritually with their needs. It is very important. I also want more people coming here to produce movies.

I see arts as helping a young democracy that is competing with old democracies. We are still finding our way. I want to see South Africans being given an opportunity to reflect on themselves on a yearly basis. Heritage is very important because this is where we are grooming our people to understand [our cultural history]. By identifying young people and giving them a chance to study, we are creating a reservoir for the future.

We must also find a way of promoting all our languages. Some of them are seen as being inferior, which is a mistake. We also have to develop our unofficial languages, such as that of the amaPondo. When we develop them we are saying: ‘We understand your culture, we know who you are and we want to see you prospering.’ It is a huge task.

Who do you listen to?
I do not have a favourite because my point of view is that of an internationalist, where I listen to music from around Africa – Senegalese and Congolese music – and the world. I particularly enjoy jazz and soul. When I sit down to reflect and take stock I listen to jazz, and on a really bad day it is soul music. I like Richard Nwamba’s African Connection [programme on SAfm]because it brings that music from across the continent. It’s a pity that it is only once a week; I would like to have it during the week too.

We need to take better care of our artists. They entertain us and they become our celebrities, but in the end they die in very difficult circumstances. We need to improve their lives. They helped us to attain freedom and they are creating a new South Africa. Look at kwaito, which was an initiative of young people without anyone guiding them.

Do the arts get enough financial support?
I still have to see the fullness of the sector, but I would probably want arts to have more concentration in the sector. I am not sure it would only be financial. If you go to other countries, arts and culture are the things that unite people. They play a big role, like with sports and recreation.

I am excited because of the potential that I feel we can unearth here. This is a junior department to others, but what can be more senior than leading a nation to identify itself? A nation that does not understand its soul is not worthy to be called a nation.

Are there limits to freedom of expression? What about The Spear painting?
One area that we really fought for very hard is what is contained in the Bill of Rights: people have to express themselves. When you do that, you would be responsible and not express yourself to incite violence. When it comes to The Spear I can’t say it is up to the minister to say what people must express. Whatever we do as a nascent demo-cracy, we must respect others.

I’m taking my point of view from the values of ubuntu, with the caring and sharing of Africans.

But other people have their own views.

Are you going to any shows this weekend?
I am going to the office as we speak for consultations, and I will still be doing that this weekend. Obviously I will be going to any events that I can, because you can’t be something that you do not understand fully. It is one of the perks.

We have become a crass, materialistic society to the detriment of our most important needs – our spirits and our emotions. We cannot continue that way, because we are missing that sense of belonging.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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