In the latest ANC policy discussion paper on arts, culture and heritage, the word ‘artists’ appears only once.
At a press conference on Monday where the topic was discussed, a Soweto artist who attempted to ask a question on behalf of local artists was told the session was for journalists only and was asked to address his question separately.
The outline of the policy document given by ANC’s Baleka Mbete at the briefing dealt almost exclusively with the party’s concerns over the desecration of graves.
Mbete cited the vandalism of the grave of PAC leader Robert Sobukwe as a recent example, suggesting that when such graves are treated with “indignity and disrespect” it reflects “the lack of respect we have for ourselves. “.
The arts, culture and heritage paper Mbete was briefing the media on is part of a set of ANC discussion papers released in May ahead of the party’s upcoming national policy conference.
The paper recognizes current and past gaps in ANC thinking on arts, culture and heritage. Policies on these topics have often seemed “ad hoc, hesitant and ill-articulated,” he notes.
He states that arts and culture have suffered from being lumped together with sport, “which undoubtedly receives more prominence and funding”, and suggests that one of the reasons for the current weaknesses in the field is that the he ANC has not had a dedicated arts and culture committee since 1991.
The document suggests that as a result, South Africa sees the “dominance of English and, to a lesser extent, Afrikaans; neoliberal ideologies and Western cultures”.
Another possible consequence: “the levels of violence against foreigners”, which the newspaper attributes to “the misunderstanding of our current humanity”, an issue that the arts and culture should be seized with.
The link drawn between xenophobic violence and the failures of artistic and cultural policies reflects a vision that dominates the document. It is that the arts can and should be used for highly instrumentalized and pragmatic purposes to support nation-building, social cohesion and the pursuit of “revolution or transformation in a post-apartheid transitional society”.
This vision will not be new to anyone who has followed the government’s arts and culture plans over the past few years, notoriously exemplified in May by Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s shelved plans to spend R22 million for a “monumental flag”.
But for those who already fear that there is little room in such a vision to support artists who may not wish to be co-opted into a particular revolution or patriotic agenda, this latest guidance document does not offer many reasons to hope.
Although the document lists among its recommendations the need to develop “new funding methods to ensure sustainable funding for arts, culture and heritage”, this proposal does not appear in the conclusions regarding “priority policy interventions and flagship programs.
The paper concludes that immediate priority should instead be given to:
- A revival of “cultural attaches” in major embassies around the world;
- The development of a policy of repatriation of the “mortal remains” of South Africans abroad;
- An archiving policy, to ensure the safeguarding of the archives of the liberation struggle;
- A focus on indigenous knowledge systems and language policy;
- The “promotion and integration” of the philosophy of ubuntu; and
- The development of three cultural/memorial sites: the Southern African Liberation Heritage Route, the Liberation Memorial Multipurpose Center and the National Heroes Acre.
It is hard not to conclude that the ‘heritage’ part of ‘arts, culture and heritage’ is treated as much more important than the ‘arts and culture’ part.
There is also the fact that existing government heritage sites, such as the Robben Island Museum and the Winnie Mandela House in Brandfort, have been poorly managed or neglected, raising the unanswered question of what new projects in this area could do differently.
The ANC document actually cites both the Robben Island Museum and the Winnie Mandela House as “legacy projects” worth celebrating, despite much recent evidence to the contrary.
He notes, however, the problem of “seemingly progressive businesses” being launched without additional resources earmarked for maintenance, and advises: “Our political position must address this dilemma.”
At Monday’s press conference, Mbete assured the Soweto artist whose question was cut that in preparing the working document, the artists were consulted widely.
Mbete said these artists were asked, “What are the main issues they want to highlight?”
The claim that the resulting article does indeed capture the main concerns of South African artists is one that is sure to be hotly contested. DM