Fund the labour of cultural workers, Mr President

Hold to account: Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa

Hold to account: Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa

Many years ago, around the time my first novel came out, I received an email within a month of its publication from a gentleman called Peter Rorvik who, in his email, charmed me by inviting me to the 10th Time of the Writer Festival in Durban.

Peter, at that time, was the director of the Centre for Creative Arts, responsible for not just the Time of the Writer Festival but also for Poetry Africa, the Durban International Film Festival and the Jomba! Dance Festival.

Peter’s charm came from the way he artfully name-dropped. Writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Tsitsi Dangarembga had agreed to come to the festival, he wrote.
Would I be interested in being one of the guest writers?

Never having been invited to a literary festival before, I responded with a quick “Yes.”

It would have been difficult to reject an invitation to an event at which writers I had looked up to were going to be. So I quickly started making plans with for my cousin Nomonde to stay with my then two-year-old son as I also tried to figure out which would be the best bus to take to Durban.

As those who have been to festivals of this sort know, there was no need to check for a bus. But you see, I was a novice, just delighted to be in the presence of some of my literary faves.

Within a month of the festival, I had figured out all the logistical details, including my tickets. When I arrived at the festival, I was met by a staff member who seemed to have been requested to study the writers’ biographies, and whatever other information they could get on them, so as to make the writers feel important.

I received my welcome bag with the programme along with, because the Centre for Creative Arts would cater for breakfast and dinner, a per diem to ensure that I would be able to buy my own lunches.

We also had to fill out all information pertaining to banking on this day to ensure that monies were transferred into our accounts timeously. The budget was enough so that writers from beyond South Africa’s border (and those less-privileged South Africans) would have dinner on a cruise boat in the Indian Ocean on the night of arrival.

So important did this festival become to me and many of my writer friends that, every year, we would take road trips to Durban so that we could bask in the conversations with other writers, even if we hadn’t been invited.

We would save money to attend Time of the Writer in the same way that jazz enthusiasts would save to attend jazz festivals and even offer to moderate panels to ensure that we received a night or two of free accommodation from the Centre for Creative Arts.

It was through Time of the Writer that I met and became friends with many writers who are now more important than some family members to me.

A key element to the smooth running of the festival was that there were people in charge who thought a festival of its kind was worth funding. At the department of arts and culture, Pallo Jordan with his director general Tumi Mosala, and later Themba Wakashe, had enough of an understanding and an appreciation for the work the Centre for Creative Arts was doing to set aside some funds for it in their budget. The Durban municipality was another key funder.

To their credit, the City of Durban has continued to fund the Centre for Creative Arts while the department of arts and culture decided that it preferred to decentralise it’s funding.

Instead of funding the centre and its successful events, it decided to fund arts festivals in different cities,  however mediocre or untested their curators were. What seems an important criterion in getting your hands on this funding is that the organiser be a cadre of a certain governing party.

Despite amounts of money thrown at some of these festivals, many of them have failed to have the sort of visibility — in an era of citizen journalism — that the arts festivals organised by the Centre for Creative Arts have garnered.

Last week, Durban hosted the 21st Time of the Writer Festival. The Centre for Creative Arts was kind enough to offer me a venue to launch my latest book, Hardly Working, the day before the festival events began, even though I was not one of their guests. There was a decent turnout for my launch but I noted that no one was there to tell my audience, some of whom had never been to a literary event, about the Time of the Writer events in the coming days.

I was not surprised though. In its 21st year, one of my favourite festivals is now a pale shadow of itself. In addition to the much-needed funds to organise, there has also been unnecessary interference and micro-management from some previous university management in the way that the Centre for Creative Arts operates.

At 21, the Time of the Writer festival, although it had some names familiar to many South African readers — like Mohale Mashigo, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, Ayòbámi Adébáyò and Yewande Omotoso — failed to draw the sort of big-name African writers that it would have 12 or even 10 years ago.

Further, there was no funding for either lunch or dinner for the festival guests and they had to pay for these meals out of their own pockets. Some of the staff seemed demoralised and as if they were only there for the wages they may be given and not necessarily because the arts are something they are passionate about.

It was a far cry from the work done by the Centre for Creative Arts back in 2007.

And so, because our president has asked that we send him, maybe one of the places we should dispatch him to is to revisit the way art is funded and where the money goes in the department of arts and culture.

Mr President, I am sending you to find out why an important festival organiser like the Centre for Creative Arts got its funding cut by the national department of arts and culture. Artists are, after all, the biggest, often unpaid, ambassadors of a nation wherever they go.

You want to be sent? Find those answers for your nation’s cultural workers.

Zukiswa Wanner is a Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Studies fellow

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