The freedom to make art is taken up by the need to protest

Dr Ismail Mahomed
Dr Ismail Mahomed

In March 2020 when President Ramaphosa declared a National State of Disaster and announced a national lockdown to combat the Covid-19 pandemic the Woordfees festival in Stellenbosch had just ended. Artists and audiences were safely back home.

The Time of the Writer festival presented by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of Kwazulu-Natal was scheduled to begin the day after President Ramaphosa had addressed the nation. Instead, the Centre for Creative Arts booked artists to go home on the first available flights. The level 5 lockdown was going to bar cross-border and international travel.

Two days later,  the festival announced that it was going to export its entire programme online and become South Africa’s first online arts festival. The Centre has since then presented the JOMBA! Dance festival, Durban International Film Festival, Poetry Africa festival and a Jazz Appreciation Month festival.

Exactly twelve months later in March this year, the Centre for Creative Arts presented its 2021 Time of the Writer festival again in the online space. On 5 May 2021, the Centre for Creative Arts launches its new Artfluence Human Rights festival supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands.

For most of the South African arts sector there is hardly a similar story to tell about survival. The largest percentage of the Centre’s donors are international funders. For most South African arts organisation that have looked to the Department of Sports, Arts & Culture for funding the story has been one of frustration, despair and hopelessness.

Very few in the arts sector had predicted that the lockdowns would extend over a year. Only a few lone voices had predicted what the devastating impact of the lockdowns would be on the sector. The Department of Sports, Arts & Culture had not predicted that a group of artists would take occupation of the offices of the National Arts Council for almost 60 days to bring attention to the Department’s mismanagement and maladministration of a R300 million Presidential Economic Stimulus Plan (PESP) that was intended to resuscitate the arts economy. 

The renowned Fugard Theatre in Cape Town which for the past ten years was funded by the South African Swiss-based philanthropist, Eric Abrahams shut down. The Fugard Theatre is just one of several companies to suffer a hard blow. The Apartheid Museum also announced is closure. Just Sets, a company that provides employment to hundreds of technicians also permanently closed its doors. The Cape Town City Ballet retrenched several of its dancers The death knell was ringing loudly from several corridors in the arts sector but a tone deaf Minister of Sports, Arts & Culture, Mr Nathi Mthethwa, could not hear any of it.

Instead in the midst of the devastation he foolishly tweeted that South African theatre is alive and well by referencing the five state-funded theatres governed by his Department. Not only was his tweet insensitive to a sector that was crying for assistance and attention but his tweet was also patently false. The Artscape Theatre in Cape Town was dark. The PACOFS Theatre in Bloemfontein had shut shop completely. The Playhouse Theatre in Durban had nothing on its stage. The State Theatre in Pretoria was streaming recordings of its past productions on social media. Only the Market Theatre in Johannesburg had the courage to venture into new territory and produce some fresh online work for livestreaming.

The Minister’s tweet was met by outrage from an angered arts sector. A fortnight later he apologised and retracted his statement. It was an apology tendered too late to an arts sector that had become increasingly exhausted with the Minister’s aloofness. Activists in the arts sector had already mobilised a petition with more than two thousand signatures calling for #NathiMustGo.

In November 2020, the Theatre Collective led by producer, Jaco van Rensburg, secured an audience with Parliament’s Select Committee on Sports, Arts & Culture to address the crisis in the sector and their growing frustrations with incompetence and maladministration in the Department of Sports, Arts & Culture. The Collective submitted a thousand page dossier to the Portfolio Committee and was promised a follow-up meeting with the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Arts & Culture. Despite several follow up correspondences to Parliament the follow up meeting has still not materialised.

On 15 March 2021, opera diva Sibongile Mngoma was determined to find answers to how the a R300 million Presidential Economic Stimulus Plan (PESP) was being administered by the National Arts Council (NAC). Sibongile Mngoma was not going to leave the offices of the NAC until she had received answers. She was joined by other frustrated artists in what marked a 60 day occupation of the NAC.

It was the first time in post-1994 cultural history that a significantly large group of artists came out strongly in defiance of  the Minister of Sports, Arts & Culture as well as the State. During the 60-day occupation the protesters scoured the NAC’s records and unravelled a string of inconsistencies and problems with the administration of the PESP.

Amongst the inconsistencies is grants being paid to Council members of the NAC. The NAC Council Act is unambiguous that Council members are barred from qualifying for grants during their tenure on the Council. Multiple grants had been paid to several applicants. There were several beneficiaries who had no track record of working in the art sector. The NAC had approved far more grants than it could afford. By now, the protest songs was not only about maladministration. It was also about corruption in the administration of the grants.

The NAC Council announced unilaterally that it was going to renege  on its contracts and reduce the amounts that it agreed to pay artists. The National Arts Festival in Makhanda took the NAC to court. The judgement ordered the NAC to make full payment to the National Arts Festival within 48 hours. This set a precedent for other arts organisation to also seek legal recourse.

The NAC Council secured a court order to evict the occupiers. Sibongile Mngoma and the artists who were in the building were not going to budge. The NAC Council reported the matter to the police. The occupiers had defiantly called for the Minister to send in the police. They challenged him to use the same armed tactics that led to the Marikana Massacre which happened under his watch when he was the Minister of Police. In further defiance, the artists at the Centre began to host a series of popular performances in the Newtown Cultural precinct and across every office in the NAC building.

Sympathisers from international arts organisations began to post messages on social media expressing solidarity with South African artists. Finally, Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Sports, Arts & Culture met with the protesters to hear their grievances. Johannesburg’s former mayor Herman Mashaba also stepped in. He provided finances for a top level legal team to lodge a complaint on behalf of the protesters with the Public Protector and to further pursue the matter with the Hawks and with Parliament. The Hawks have since confirmed that investigations have begun.

On 27 April 2021, South Africa’s Freedom Day, Sibongile Mngoma announced that the occupation of the NAC offices was going to finally end. It wasn’t an act of defeat. They were entrusting the matter to the hands of the Public Protector, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee, the Hawks and to Herman Mashaba’s legal team. After clearing and sanitising the NAC offices on Sunday 2 May 2021, the protesters defiantly sang that their next scheduled stop was going to be at Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s office. The Minister has been totally silent.

His tone deaf silence is not surprising. He was silent when the Fugard Theatre shut down. He was silent when several arts administrators lost their permanent jobs. He was silent when the iconic library at UCT housing South Africa’s most valuable African collection was burnt down. He was silent and he did not issue an obituary when the young and energetic arts activist Mahlubi Kraai died. Nor did he issue an statement when theatre legends Dawn Lindberg succumbed to Covid-19 and when internationally celebrated playwright Ronnie Govender died this week.

Dawn Lindberg and Ronnie Govender are not just ordinary theatre-makers. They were members of the Minister’s own Living Legends project. Ronnie was awarded a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize after the lifting of the nternational cultural boycott against South Africa. The South African government conferred the Order of Ikhamanga on him for his contribution of using theatre to advance democracy and justice in South Africa.  The Minister’s insensitivity and silence about their deaths is cold and shocking as it is about his remorse for the deaths of striking mine-workers massacred in Marikana under his watch when he was the Minister of Police.

Sibongile Mngoma has awakened a sleeping lion in an arts sector that has for a long while been waiting for a courageous leader to take up their cause and to fight for the rights for artists. At the opening of the recently launched Artfluence Human Rights Festival at the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of Kwazulu-Natal Sibongile Mngoma was honoured with the inaugural Artfluence Human Rights Award.

On Saturday 8 May the last day of the Artfluence Human Rights Festival, it was the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the South African Constitution. Section 16 in the South African Constitution guarantees artists Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Creativity. What value are these freedoms when public funding meant to support artists is maladministered and instead used to censor artists?

What value are these constitutional freedoms when a Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture who ought to be the custodian of these freedoms cannot engage with artists, cannot provide accountable answers and who handpicks individuals to serve on public funded agencies to serve a political agenda rather than the interests of artists?

What freedoms if we are to have an arts festival not to make art for arts’ sake but to make art to defend artists’ rights and to protect our democracy from the ravages of State Capture, corruption, maladministration and a Minister of Arts & Culture who should never have been brought near that portfolio after Marikana?

Dr Ismail Mahomed, Director of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN)