/ 4 June 2019

Arts sidelined in Ramaphosa’s new cabinet

Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa
Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his new Cabinet for the sixth democratic Parliament on Wednesday 29 May.

He appointed a Cabinet made up of 50% women, and a number of younger ministers, and signalled that stricter accountability measures were being put in place to counter the patronage state that Jacob Zuma’s presidency created. But some in the arts were disappointed with his reappointment of Nathi Mthethwa, with Nocawe Mafu as his deputy, especially as the sports and recreation portfolio has been added to Mthethwa’s department of arts and culture.

Stalwart Isidingo and Muvhango actor Aubrey Poo said the news of the merger was “disappointing for the arts … A merging of the department of arts and culture with sports and recreation means that the arts will get diluted.”

A history of discontentment

At the beginning of May, an open letter to the president called for the appointment of a minister of arts and culture “from civil society”. We must be mindful of the way in which the idea of ‘civil society’ often functions to substitute NGOs, and a professional class, for more democratic and popular forms of influence. Nonetheless it is significant that the letter had real traction in art circles and quickly won more than a 1 000 signatories. Supporters of the call include the African Musicians Trust, musicians Vusi Mahlasela and Vicky Sampson, comic Riaad Moosa and playwright Mike van Graan.

This call was made in line with Section 91 (3c) of Chapter Five of the Constitution, which permits the president to make no more than two Cabinet appointments from outside the ranks of the National Assembly.

Signatories and supporters of the letter said “the arts and culture portfolio has not been managed by competent and passionate champions of the arts, but [has] rather [been] used to appease political factions and balance constituency interests in the ANC. This has, regrettably, pushed arts and culture to the ‘fringe’ of political life and public interest.” The letter also cited “inadequate support” and “inaction and lack of a clear vision” as some of the problems that have plagued the sector.

Van Graan told New Frame that “the call was made as there is general frustration in the arts, culture and heritage sector that with the abundance of talent in our country, the availability of significant funding [the department of arts and culture’s budget for this year was R4.6-billion] and the perilous position that most citizens find themselves in given the unemployment and poverty rate in our country, that the potential for arts and culture to play an empowering and transforming role is completely unrealised because the politicians and bureaucrats appointed to head the ministry and department simply have no clue or understanding about the transversal nature of culture generally, and the arts in particular”.

Arts ministers have all come from the ANC — aside from Ben Ngubane, who was initially a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party — and there has been no precedent for a minster outside the National Assembly. The only appointment of a Cabinet minister with no political affiliation was former president Nelson Mandela’s selection of Chris Liebenberg as finance minister in 1994.

Between 1994 and 2004, under Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, Ngubane was head of the department of arts, culture, science and technology. In 2004, Pallo Jordan was appointed as the new minister of arts and culture, after the portfolio was separated from the ministry of science and technology. Lulama Xingwana followed in 2009 and was succeeded by Paul Mashatile in 2010 and then Mthethwa, who started his term as the incumbent minister in 2014.

The problems with the department started soon after the advent of South African democracy. The arts were understood to be a sector of low political importance. This is strange, given how integral arts and culture were to the anti-apartheid struggle, at home and abroad. There were significant contributions to the arts from within and around black consciousness, the trade union movement and the United Democratic Front. Figures like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba became global icons in exile. Artists were often organised within or in alliance with progressive popular organisations.

But after winning state power the ANC pushed the arts to the outer periphery of its priorities. As Gwen Ansell has written for New Frame, “the ANC brokered away what it considered less strategic areas to minority parties – arts and culture, in a ministry also including science and technology, went to the Inkatha Freedom Party”.

A problem of perception

Among other issues related to funding and governance, the arts and culture department has suffered from a perception problem, where it appears that ministers have been banished to the arts for poor performance in other departments.

When Zuma moved Mthethwa to the role of arts and culture minister from the police portfolio in 2014, it was understood to be a political demotion. Mthethwa had been embroiled in a number of political scandals, chief among them the Marikana massacre.

Mthethwa also appeared to have little specialist knowledge or interest in the sector when he was initially appointed as minister, suggested by his ignorance of the highly controversial Brett Murray painting The Spear. Given how contentious and prolific conversation and contestation around the painting were at the time, this admission of ignorance signalled a man out of step and deeply disinterested in his new appointment.

Van Graan told New Frame that the minister has played a divisive role in launching a “sweetheart” organisation — the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa — supposedly as a representative body for the sector. But its leadership has been self-serving and used their positions to benefit from state funding without doing anything to earn credibility within the sector, he added.

The impact is a divided sector, which is unfortunate given that the struggles many creatives feel at a micro level are the consequence of poor policy and funding strategies at macro levels, which can only be changed through organisation and advocacy.

This article was first published by New Frame.