/ 3 July 2024

Gayton Mackenzie: The gangster-turned-minister

First Sitting Of The National Assembly In South Africa
The art of change: In a controversial move, Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie has been made the minister of sports, arts and culture. Photo: Brenton Geach/Getty Images

On Wednesday, a fly was the most envied creature in South Africa’s arts and culture community. 

It was there when the newly appointed Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, Gayton McKenzie, met the officials of his new department for the first time after he was sworn in as member of the coalition cabinet in Cape Town. 

Many in the creative and culture industry wished they could have been that proverbial fly on the wall to observe it.

The officials in the department of sports, arts and culture (DSAC) have often been reviled by artists because of their arrogance, lethargy, scandals, corruption and abuse over 30 years of democracy. But these mandarins must be nervous because the 50-year-old former gangster has nothing to lose except his temper.

Veteran playwright, theatre director and arts administrator Ismail Mahomed, who is the director of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, cheekily imagined on Facebook being that fly: “I want to rejoice when he pulls out his Okapi from his back pockets and waves it as he looks at them in the eye and says to them in his authentic accent, ‘Jou stuk kak! Don’t fuck with me. I’ll steek you, jou blerrie Ma se kind! I’m now in charge and I’m speaking up for the artist, jou naai!’”

While this spectacle was created in Mahomed’s quirky imagination, he added that a trusted friend connected with high-level politicians and government officials had told him that officials at the DSAC were worried about McKenzie’s appointment. 

“The shoe is now on the other foot,” Mahomed said. “Artists can sit back now and watch how their arch enemy — officials in the DSAC — sit worried, feel threatened, are scared of their futures, don’t know what the future will hold from one day to the next.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s appointment in this crucial, but desperately neglected, portfolio of McKenzie, a controversial, populist politician who was jailed for 17 years for robbery, caused some outrage. 

But, at the same time, it seems many in the art world have put on their big-girl and big-boy pants — the pragmatic ones.

It is not because they are particularly enamoured of the right-wing Patriotic Alliance president or his sometimes dodgy, reactionary views on migration and Palestine. No, it has to do with the aforementioned despicable treatment from DSAC they have been forced to deal with. 

The arts portfolio was combined with science and technology up until 2004. The DSAC was established in June 2019 by the merger of arts and culture with sports and recreation.

Virtually without exception, this clown car of a ministry came with incompetent ministers. It had become, at best, a last-chance saloon but was more often used as a dumping site by the ANC before the incumbent was shifted into oblivion or to an ambassadorial post somewhere out of sight.

Since 1994, when South Africa became a democracy, the ministers have been Ben Ngubane (twice), Lionel Mtshali, Pallo Jordan, Lulu Xingwana, Paul Mashatile, Nathi Mthethwa and, finally, Zizi Kodwa.

According to senior people in the industry, nobody was worse than Mthethwa, who was demoted there after the Marikana massacre, when he was police minister.

He set the bar so low that his nickname “Minister of Congratulations and Condolences”, seemed a compliment in the light of his overall under-achievement during his seven years in office. 

His most notorious “accomplishment” was the monumental mega-flag project — a 120m-high pole with a 10m by 15m flag at Freedom Park in Pretoria. It would have cost R22 million but it was cancelled in 2022, before it was erected, after a massive public backlash.

Playwright, writer and polemicist  Mike van Graan described him as “probably the most pathetic minister of arts and culture we had”. 

Mahomed noted that, with Mthethwa, “the confidence of the cultural and creative sector in the department hit rock bottom”.

His successor, Kodwa, who took over in March last year, showed in his short tenure he was “cut from the same cloth”, said Mahomed. The best he could do was organise an awards programme in which artists could nominate themselves for a prize of R100 000. 

“Several hungry artists did,” Mahomed said. “Some got the moola, and they’re a little better off, but the arts sector is not any better.”

In June, the flamboyant Kodwa was arrested for receiving R1.6 million in bribes, forcing him to resign. He has bounced back as an ANC MP after the recent elections.

I put in a request to interview McKenzie but his representative replied: “He says he won’t give any interviews until he first understands the portfolio properly.”

Fair enough. So, what can McKenzie expect? 

Just because the ANC government does not take the cultural and creative industries seriously doesn’t mean that it is not a serious industry. The South African Cultural Observatory says the sector contributes nearly 3% to the country’s GDP — in 2020 that was R161 billion, approximately the same size as agriculture. It also provides jobs to about a million people.

“It’s a very large sector but it’s often misunderstood as being just the arts and culture slice of the pie, whereas the creative and cultural industries are quite a bit larger than that,” said industry specialist Mariapaola McGurk. 

It also encompasses creative and design services, such as architecture and industrial design; audiovisual and interactive media and books — and the press. 

McGurk, who is doing her PhD on the industry, said it is a non-hierarchical sector that has “a lot of nodal points and moments of connection but there’s a high level of independence and a flat model”.

The industry has lots of potential, especially as concerns youth development and unemployment. 

“But I really do believe that there is a lack of understanding of how the sector functions in order for government, which is a very centralised bureaucratic system, to engage with it in a comprehensive way.”

The role of the DSAC should be to enable the industry, McGurk said.

“So, you could be supporting and developing a sector that, in my mind, is rebellious against capitalism, while working within capitalism, because it values the creative, the social and the economic all in one. We could be contributing to all three of those spheres.”

The total budget allocation to the DSAC for the 2023-24 financial year was R6.29 billion, of which about 70% went to arts, culture and heritage.

Nobody knows what the DSAC bureaucrats will be telling McKenzie in their briefings in the upcoming weeks and months. Their track record doesn’t fill people in the arts industry with much hope for a cultural revolution.

On Sunday, the energetic Mahomed wrote an open letter to the new minister with some “basic advice”, which includes dislodging the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA). 

This is a controlling body set up under Mthethwa, which Mahomed described as “a political federation created by the ANC to control the arts sector for political ends” which, he said, has a “dismal record”.

McKenzie, as a non-ANC card-carrying member, Mahomed added, had no obligation to sustain the federation. 

“If he can put the noose on CCIFSA on day one of stepping into office, Gayton McKenzie will have achieved far more for the arts than what the ANC has done in the last 30 years.”

Mahomed also suggested that the new minister take a personal interest in the performance-management contracts of senior DSAC officials and “act firmly to call to account and dismiss those officials who do not deliver”.

For Van Graan what McKenzie should do is simple: “If he wishes to remain sworn in, and not sworn at … I think that it might be a good idea to actually meet with the arts sector and just engage with them.”

He agreed with Mahomed about CCIFSA, saying it was a sweetheart body that had been given “millions of rand to run themselves and they’ve never done anything for the arts sector except chow the money”.

McGurk said: “I would absolutely be thrilled if [McKenzie] showed a level of humility and accepted and realised he doesn’t understand this industry.”

Her second proposal is that McKenzie start  engaging with leaders in the industry who do understand it. 

“People like Ismail Mahomed, Sibongile Mngoma, Gregory Maqoma and many more … who really understand the value and the nature of the industry.”

McGurk cautioned that the sector was not just “the song and dance people”. 

“It has potential to be a robust and really influential industry,” she said. “It is a complex space that you can’t just come in and take over. You have to work within the rules and the structures of the industry.”

She added McKenzie should form strategic partnerships with the trade and industry and small business departments. 

“These partnerships are critical to the growth of the creative economy.”

He should know the subversive Van Graan will be keeping a close eye on him. The playwright has plans to expand his popular, long-running satire My Fellow South Africans.

“In the middle of August, we are going to be launching the same thing, similar style, but with a lot of different content under the banner of My Fellow Coalition Partners,” Van Graan said, with a chuckle.