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Covid-19 and the awakening of the arts sector

Covid-19 and the awakening of the arts sector

Mike van Graan | Amandla 75 | March 2021

Pretoria State Theatre. More than R300 million is spent on theatre infrastructure inherited from the apartheid era in Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and Bloemfontein with the Market Theatre added to this bouquet

In recent times, both internationally and in South Africa, there has been much cultural policy emphasis on the “cultural and creative industries”. This is a neoliberal concept that places value on the arts in terms of their economic contribution more than any other value.

The African Union has adopted a plan of action on the cultural and creative industries that is  influenced by the European Commission, the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s reports on the creative economy in 2008 and 2010 and Unesco’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, They have done this even though a key element of this neoliberal strategy is markets with disposable income. These are rare across the continent.

South Africa follows the neoliberal approach

The current South African Minister responsible for arts and culture, Nathi Mthethwa was assigned this role after being the minister responsible for the police that committed the Marikana massacre. It took him the whole of his first tenure of five years plus two years into his second to revise the 1996 White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage.

The original policy framework was premised on a human rights approach: Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts…”. And then there’s the Freedom Charter’s “The doors of learning and culture shall be open”. Despite this, the policy shifts have favoured a “creative and cultural industries” approach. 

This market-oriented approach is based on outdated trickle-down economics that emphasise the potential contribution of the creative sector to economic growth to allow the state to undertake human and social development. Ironically it continues to exclude those who are to be the supposed beneficiaries of these policies i.e. the millions of poor, unemployed and marginalised citizens who were excluded by race and geography under apartheid. Now they continue to be excluded by the additional criterion of class.

The arts sector partly to blame

The South African arts and culture sector that often complains about being marginalised has to bear much of the blame for such marginalisation.  To start with, most creatives do not do the reading and research required for informed action. The overwhelming majority believe for example that the sector suffers the proverbial government funding short straw. In fact, there is more public money for arts and culture than for sport, or for the Departments of Employment and Labour and Small Business Development and Tourism, all of which would generally be believed to make larger contributions to the economy. 

Apart from a few exceptions, the arts and culture sector rarely aligns with other civil society formations in the struggle for broader social justice issues. Creatives often give the impression that their struggles as artists are of most importance. This is linked to another deficiency within the sector – the lack of organisation and the absence of leadership that is able to draw the links between the micro struggles of the creative sector and the macro social, political and economic conditions that create and sustain these micro struggles.

Structure of funding and work inappropriate

There is no doubt that the struggles of creatives are real.  Much of this has to do with the nature of the work that is characterised by informality. There are few institutions or companies that have the capacity to employ creatives on a sustainable basis. Those who make their livelihoods within the sector are defined more as independent contractors than as employees, thus excluding them from the protections and benefits afforded by the Labour Relations Act.

Another contributing factor is government policy.  It is not that there is no public funding for the arts; it is rather how such funding is allocated.  More than R300 million is spent, for example, on theatre infrastructure inherited from the apartheid era in Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and Bloemfontein with the Market Theatre added to this bouquet. There is no questioning whether this infrastructure is necessary or useful in contemporary South Africa, or whether the funding could not be better spent on theatre and dance companies employing creatives in every province.  Current policy continues to exclude the less-resourced provinces from the national public funding available for theatre.

At the time of writing, artists occupying the National Arts Council offices had entered their eleventh day of occupation, demanding answers of the Council and refusing to be handed off by an arrogant and dismissive, and more recently, apologetic NAC leadership

Arts in the time of Covid

If the arts and creatives were able to survive in pre-Corona times, the Covid-19 pandemic and the related lockdown restrictions exposed the precarity of the sector on the one hand, and the absolute disjuncture between public policy and lived experience on the other. 

Some creative practices such as music, literature and movies had migrated to online or digital platforms over the last number of years and survived and even thrived during the lockdowns.  Other forms such as dance and theatre were left stranded by shut theatres and cancelled festivals, sites deemed to be super-spreaders of the virus. 

Even when theatres were allowed to have patrons under less stringent lockdowns, curfews limited night-time activity. Restricted audiences made productions financially unviable in a public funding regime that favoured buildings rather than what takes place on the stages of those buildings.  While many dance and theatre creatives took to online platforms to seek some form of income, their production values simply could not compete with what Netflix and other streaming services could offer as alternatives.

Initial public funds to provide relief from the pandemic excluded many creatives as they had not been UIF contributors, did not have tax clearance certificates and were not employees according to the LRA definition.

When additional funding did become available for the sector, it was administered via the National Arts Council (NAC) which has been disastrous. Contracts agreed at the end of 2020 are now being reneged on and numerous creatives who had made bridging finance arrangements on the basis of the promised amounts, now having the carpet being ripped from under them.  (The NAC claims that they need to reduce the funding allocated to the original group of recipients to meet the needs of a few hundred more. But theyhave clearly mismanaged the application, budgeting and decision-making process).

The financial impact and the lack of opportunities to practice their craft have left many creatives emotionally, psychologically and mentally unwell.

Yet, the minister responsible for the sector tweeted in late January that “theatre is alive and well in South Africa”. This provoked a huge outcry and a petition calling for his sacking, and it resulted in a rare South African experience: a ministerial apology.

The arts sector awakes

While the impact of the pandemic has been severe, it has also created the conditions in which the creative sector has been awoken to the need for political engagement and activism.

New organisations have emerged on an unprecedented post-1994 scale to advocate for different constituencies and for the sector as a whole.  A national formation of arts organisations created by artists has been launched to counter the sweetheart Cultural and Creative Industries Federation (CCIFSA), initiated and supported by Mthethwa as the “representative structure” of the arts sector.  Ad hoc and organised groupings have taken up issues and made presentations to parliament and to the media. They are less fearful of possible victimisation by being excluded from public funding than before. 

At the time of writing, artists occupying the National Arts Council offices had entered their eleventh day of occupation, demanding answers of the Council and refusing to be handed off by an arrogant and dismissive, and more recently, apologetic NAC leadership.  Individuals and collectives are strategising to take legal action against the NAC to demand that their contracts be honoured.

There is talk within the arts sector of the relevance of a Basic Income Grant for creative practitioners and of the need to align the sector’s interests with those of other social movements.

Covid-19 has decimated the creative sector, but if the conditions it has created lead to a more political aware, engaged and organised creative sector acting in solidarity within itself and with others, that would be an historic step forward.

Mike van Graan is a playwright, and Coordinator of the Sustaining Theatre and Dance (STAND) Foundation

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