Standing up for the arts

Unlike in the preceding few days, the president’s Twitter account was relatively quiet on Monday February 17. There was a tweet promoting his newsletter, “From the desk of the president”, in which he wrote about being energised by the triumphs and vision of South Africa’s youth. He quoted Frantz Fanon, about generations discovering their mission. He even had an epiphany: “For our country to prosper and thrive we must do all within our means to ensure young people can participate in our economy in a meaningful way …”

Then, stealing the minister of congratulations’ legroom, the president gave a shout out to Mmabatho Montsho’s The Award Ceremony for taking home the Best Short Film award at the 2020 Worldwide Women’s Film Festival in Arizona earlier this month.

Perhaps, if one reads between the lines, one recognises a self-conscious distance in the president’s wording. The South African creatives were making “their mark” on the world stage and “they continue” to make us proud. Business as usual … except not.

Montsho’s response, rejecting the presidents’s endorsement, was direct and succinct. We all know the issues — sexual harassment, structural economic apartheid and an industry that exploits its talent with impunity. Because the past is so entrenched in the present when it comes to the ownership patterns of some of these channels — black chief executives notwithstanding — rarely do we think of the actual, trickle-down effects of their discriminatory policies. We have internalised as normal a status quo that disproportionately affects black people and black women artists.

What is encouraging about Montsho’s open letter is that it speaks to a growing, organic collectivism where grievances from the sector can no longer be seen as the episodic outbursts of individuals or the strategic, duplicitous ramblings of politically connected folk.

Disparate lobby groups (I Am For The Arts, for one) and think-tanks within the arts are stepping up to fill the void, creating the kind of groundswell that is known to make politicians hot under the collar and speaking nervously.

As this continues, as it is sure to as the economic pressure mounts, itchy Twitter fingers will no longer suffice.

Keep the powerful accountable

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