/ 10 March 2024

Manifestos: EFF is tops — but what trumps how

Anc Launches Election Manifesto In South Africa
Senior executives of the dysfunctional King Sabata Dalindyebo local municipality — with the assistance of the deputy minister of agriculture, rural development and land reform, Nokuzola Capa — spent R183  997.82 to attend the ANC’s February elections manifesto launch. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Reading election manifestos is dispiriting at the best of times. The media, obviously, take the greatest delight in slating the ruling party because it’s easiest to check whether their promises from last time have been kept. 

However, all the parties seem to have their sales pitches written by graduates of the same University of Weasel Words.

They all contain slogans nobody could disagree with: “End crime!” “End load-shedding!” They use the same linguistic tricks — crammed with passives without an actor: “X should be done …”, “X is needed …” 

All of them focus on the “what”, with long-winded waffle about the “how?” — if it’s discussed at all. 

Populist parties specialise in authoritarian fiats: “There shall be…” 

Parties on the right specialise in promising the impossible: less regulation and fewer taxes when the new measures “we will ensure” could only be implemented through regulation and would need to be funded somehow.

But looking at how the manifestos say the parties propose to handle arts and culture — especially music — is the most dispiriting task of all. 

So far, I’ve seen — in no particular order — the Rise Mzansi People’s Manifesto, the Democratic Alliance’s Rescue Plan, a Change Starts Now document (they have since thrown in the towel) and the manifestos of Action SA, the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). 

A few of the biggish players, such as the Inkatha Freedom Party and Good Party, are still to launch their plans.

All the documents contain proposals for infrastructural improvement that will, as a side effect, benefit the arts. But concrete, targeted, informed cultural policies? Not so much.

Bottom of the class by a long way is the DA. The party’s narrative promises to “rescue South Africa” from a range of ills — although you’re on your own with poverty and inequality, because all they promise is to “enable people to rescue themselves”. 

But there’s no mention of arts, culture or heritage policy. The closest they get is to complain, in a testing-obsessed section on education, that “tuition time is constantly sacrificed to other priorities, including (…) choir practice …” There will be no singing in schools on their watch.

Barely scraping in above the DA is ActionSA, with a line about how “all children should have access to a range of well-resourced extracurricular activities (…) such as sport, drama and art”. But from the private-sector focus of the rest of the document it looks like that will only happen if business stumps up the cash — and, as we know, he who pays the piper…

The ANC makes the arts part of priority five out of six. That’s a progressive placement, acknowledging that human creativity has a bigger place and role than simply as a money-making commodity. 

But the generalised framing is highly instrumental — “reinforce the contribution of arts, heritage, languages, culture, sport and the creative sector more generally to nation-building, social cohesion and national development”. 

Each of the ANC’s six priorities has both a general framing and a more detailed subsequent section but, disappointingly — and in contrast to other sections — on the arts the follow-up really doesn’t add much. 

That’s a step down from the previous national elections, when the ANC manifesto had a detailed chapter on the creative industries — heavily global market-focused but at least it was there.

It’s left to Songezo Zibi’s Rise Mzansi to explicitly discuss the creative economy, although often tightly linked to tourism, much as the ANC manifesto treated it in 2019. 

Anc Launches Election Manifesto In South Africa
Biker at the African National Congress (ANC) Election Manifesto Launch at Moses Mabhida Stadium on February 24, 2024 in Durban, South Africa. The manifesto launch provided a platform for the ANC to outline its plans for the 2024 national and provincial polls. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images).

The party does, however, promise to “leverage public and private investment in community arts and sports infrastructure and skills, to build a vibrant amateur and professional arts sector. We will also encourage and assist marquee arts productions [huh?] that promote South African arts, tourism and national culture.”

Rise Mzansi notes the communities it talked to, unsurprisingly, linked loss of hope to the loss of community cultural infrastructure but doesn’t make as much of that link as it might. 

And there’s a lovely line about “Africa-centred education (…) imagining African futures …” which could definitely cue some more concrete discussion of restoring arts education in state schools but doesn’t. 

Left hanging like that, it seems just another slogan with high symbolic but minimal concrete value, alongside “end blue-light brigades”.

Top of the class, like last time (but with massive caveats), comes the EFF, whose manifesto has a chapter on arts and culture and extensive consideration of the creative pipeline in the education chapter.

It’s the only party to acknowledge arts and music education as having not only economic, but human, value “to improve cognitive skills and stimulate learners”. It’s the only one to acknowledge the importance of intellectual property and the laws around it to the arts — the others might as well be living in the pre-digital age. 

It deals with the concrete problems artists are facing now: the high cost of instruments; the lack of arts equipment and teachers in schools; the inability of skilled arts veterans to secure teaching posts because they lack formal qualifications; the lack of labour protections for the majority of freelance arts practitioners.

However, there are several big buts. First, most of this is expressed as orders from above, such as “every school will have one arts and culture teacher per grade by 2025”. There is no consideration of how to get there or of the budget, curriculum and logistical adjustments. As in other manifestos, “what” trumps “how”.

Second, some of it is absurdly specific — “one monthly [arts] festival in each district municipality” — where the cultural needs of communities are often more locality-specific than this. Also, the central imposition of one-size-fits-all policies, events and hard infrastructure might not be at all what is needed.

Third, some of it is just plain wrong. Local-content music quotas are, inarguably, a good thing. But setting those too high — 85% or 90% is proposed in some broadcasting contexts — subverts their value and renders them almost un-implementable, particularly in today’s multi-channel digital music-consumption world. 

As the Hlaudi Motsoeneng mess at the SABC illustrated — 90% of the music played on its 18 radio stations had to be homegrown — it discredits an otherwise very useful measure.

The EFF, alone so far, has listened in detail to what cultural practitioners, including teachers, are saying. It genuinely knows what today’s problems are. For that, it deserves praise. 

But any party that translates diverse and nuanced needs into a fixed set of centralised and authoritarian orders is signalling it might not carry on listening should it ever achieve power.

This piece originally appeared at sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com.