A Missed Opportunity for Arts & Culture

Another Missed Opportunity for Government to Listen

Asked on a South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) news insert whether I thought the Arts Consultative Conference would make a difference to the lives of artists, I smiled and answered, ‘I am observing but get the feeling it is another pre-election feel-good campaign.’ And yet, being the eternal optimist, I was still hopeful. I was not the only one clearly. In Newtown Precinct on the 14th of April, South African artists came out in droves to attend the two day ‘consultative’ conference and for a chance to be listened to by the Department that is meant to cater for their issues – the Department of Arts and Culture. Despite the fact that only 500 artists had been accredited, an extra 350 artists in film, music, literature, crafts, storytelling, and visual arts, turned up. This alone should have been indicative to the DAC officials on just how important this was, but did they notice? The answer to that is an unequivocal ‘no.’

The first day begun with an address by Arts Minister, Paul Mashatile and Economic Deputy Minister Enoch Godongwana both telling us how ‘important artists are’ blah blah blah. Owing to lack of electricity, the programme had started late so tea break was skipped to continue with the programme. Avril Joffe addressed the delegates giving us a case study of the use of the art, culture and heritage sector as a tool for social cohesion and economic growth. If nothing else, those artists who did not know, got to know about the Arterial Network from her.  Then it was straight to panel discussions where we got to listen to a heritage expert, Zimbabwean Dr. Webber Ndoro telling South African artists on the importance of their heritage sites, and National Library Chair Muxe Nkondo on literature and books.

After these two presentations, the delegates were asked by a very strict Chair, Gauteng MEC for Sports & Arts Lebo Maile, to ask questions. Many questions were posed, as well as quite a few rants – among the amusing ones, a singer who spoke thus: ‘there are some of us who are very good at what they do, yes, I am saying it, I am a good singer. But at every cultural festival and event, the government keeps focusing and inviting the same people who cannot even sing and do not understand music.’ If the reader fails to understand why this was funny then perhaps I need to highlight that as she spoke, African National Congress favourite singer and dancer Chomee had just stood up and her producer Arthur was sitting in the row next to the speaker.

Delighted that we had been addressed by the National Library Chair, I enquired just who was in charge of book purchasing since it seemed odd to me that I can go to many a library in the country and not find South African writers on the shelves. The answer? ‘That is a very good question. The people in charge of that are right here and you can talk to them further.’ To his credit, Professor Nkondo did introduce me to a pair in charge who, when I took them to task just before lunch break, informed me that my issues would be addressed in the breakaway sessions.

SABC Head of News Phil Molefe was another interesting speaker and he found no irony in stating that the arts were very important to SABC and that is why the national broadcaster dedicated two five minute sessions twice a week on SAFM to focus on the arts. He also highlighted the 40 percent local content regulation of the national broadcaster but failed to mention that it is a qualified 40 percent (so for instance when South African music is played from midnight to 6am, and when news in isiZulu is shown on SABC 1, they count as part of the 40 percent of local content).

After lunch we went to the breakaway sessions which were arranged in an odd way to say the least. I would have thought film and theatre would have had its own room so artists in this field can bring forth their most important issues to report back the next day, same for visual arts, literature (where I could get a chance to talk further with the National Library folks) and so forth. Alas, I was being too hopeful. Instead, we had three parallel sessions under the umbrella topics of Organisation, Performance, and Funding on the first day and slightly narrower discussion panels the next day (Skills Development; Sourcing of Goods & services in Sector; Cultural Precincts, events & Information hubs; National & international Touring Company, Heritage Development; Art Bank & Public Art Programme). In each of the sessions we had a hodgepodge of different artists. And yet, from the two breakaway sessions I attended in the two days, many very real industry issues that needed to be discussed were brought forth.

Among the big issues

  • Definition of artists on South Africa’s economic landscape – most artists are treated by South African Revenue Services and taxed as full time employees but many other industries consider artists as unemployed because of their irregular income and thus will not give home or car loans. A delegate suggested that DAC needs to work with Department of Labour and SARS to ensure clarity on this. This was an issue of particular importance to artists given that at last study, the arts and heritage sector contributed more than R40 billion annually to South Africa’s GDP.
  • A set minimum standard royalty fee percentage in the different creative arts fields and a DAC-funded legal team to fight for artists hen companies infringe those rights.
  • The need for cultural attaches at all South African diplomatic missions to ensure that there is a promotion of South African arts and artists.
  • The need for bureaucrats in DAC who are familiar with their field of artistry. Someone complained, and many nodded in agreement, that oftentimes artists will talk to department officials on a certain issue and the official is not familiar with the field at all although they are getting paid for it.
  • The need to streamline the national, provincial and local governments’ year ends so that funding can be better accessed by artists.
  • The need for the Department to give real deadlines to act on different issues so that artists can hold them accountable.
  • The need to separate Sports from Arts & Culture in provincial and local government.
  • The need for SABC to guarantee that their 40 percent local content occurs between 6am and 8pm so that artists can get the most out of the exposure. Also the need for Public Service Announcements (PSAs) to ensure that more people are familiar with the arts since the national broadcaster does not do that. A delegate suggested that ICASA monitors and fines the SABC if this is not done.
  • A South African library book in each South African library purchased by the libraries. Also, a system where any time a local book is borrowed, the author and the National Library split a minor royalty fee (in the same way that musicians get paid anytime their music receives airplay). The author would then get her/his share as part of their royalty while the contribution to the National Library would go to a Writer’s Grant that would permit the grant recipient to take time off to write without worrying about bills.
  • DAC seemed very keen to push the idea of an Arts Bank but in the breakaway session I sat in on Day 2, many a visual artist shot the idea down, suggesting instead that it would be better if the funding was utilised for existing yet underfunded galleries. Another idea that DAC was keen on, that of setting up a National Skills Academy was also shot down by artists for two reasons: one being that there are already existing institutions dealing with the arts which need support and as such, funds should be diverted there instead; and secondly that talk of training more artists was not practical given that existing artists are not thriving (a delegate whispered, ‘what do they want to train more of us for when those of us who are here are dying broke or committing suicide because we cannot pay our bills?’)

In the end though, all this talk came to nought as artists received copies of a Conference Declaration which some of us thought may have been written before the conference begun.

And why would we not think that? Clause 5.1 of the Declaration read, ‘We will also establish a National Skills Academy’, and 5.9 read, ‘An art bank will be established…’ Then just in case the reader is not laughing already, there were Clauses 9 and 10 which committed to ‘initiate a consultative process’ and to a ‘follow up consultative conference’ – in essence, more conferences about this conference. Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back as we waited for this talk shop to end though was when a delegate from the Creative Workers Union South Africa (CWUSA) wanted to make an announcement to the delegates about a march to M-Net on Wednesday March 20. The march follows that company’s recasting of actor Tony Kgoroge when he questioned a clause in their contract to him – an issue that many an actor have battled with with M-Net. The powers that be, despite the very real presence of creative workers, did not feel this warranted the delegates’ attention and refused to allow a minute or two (which is what it would have taken) for the announcement to be made.

And they wonder why we are cynical.

Instead the programme closed with a team of choristers from, some said Denmark, singing some song in isiZulu and DAC officials joining them on stage, dancing, whistling and ululating. Yay for celebrating a Rainbow Nation of Starving Artists!