- After the Marikana massacre, Nathi Mthethwa should never have been appointed to the Cabinet, let alone to the Arts and Culture portfolio.
The Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC) is the primary department concerned with heritage including the celebration of our public holidays. In his Human Rights Day speech in March this year, Mthethwa said “The Ministry and the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture are charged with the responsibility of coordination and observation of national days by the Republic…. When we observe such days as Human Rights Day and Human Rights Month, we are continuing the efforts of Nation-Building and Social Cohesion.”
Human Rights Day commemorates the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960 when police killed 69 people protesting against the pass laws. Monuments, public holidays and museums are for the benefit of future generations to learn from history so that past atrocities may never be repeated. Nathi Mthetwa was the minister responsible for the police who massacred 34 miners at Marikana on 16 August 2012. It is an absolute disgrace and an outrageous insult to those who were massacred at Sharpeville and at Marikana that Mthethwa was appointed as the minister responsible for our heritage. In his speech, he said “The transformation of the heritage landscape is part of the process of restoring the human rights to our people…” (And then he went on to rename the East London Airport as if that is the ultimate expression of human rights rather than the fundamental right to life). He. Must. Go. But then, he should never have been appointed in the first place, and then re-appointed in the second place!
2. He is ignorant about how the sector works.
After a year of COVID-19 related lockdowns that had devastated the incomes and the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of many in the dance and theatre sector, he tweeted that “theatre is alive and well” displaying an appalling lack of sensitivity and huge ignorance. Festivals that supported numerous artists were cancelled and some of the country’s most active theatres were closed, even permanently. He subsequently apologized, but that he even posted this tweet – which was not even true about the five theatres that his department subsidises most of which were shut during lockdown too – displayed how little he understands and empathises with the sector for which he is responsible.
3. He has shown poor leadership in policy development.
The original White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage was initiated with an extensive research and consultation process a few months after the April election in 1994 and was adopted by Cabinet in August of 1996, a two-year process. Mthethwa has taken the full five years of his first tenure and another year or two into his second to revise the White Paper; that makes it seven years reflecting his poor leadership and his inability to drive policies that have direct implications for the sector. (There is scant information – if any – about the adoption or implementation of the revised White Paper).
4. He has failed to implement a basic transformation policy: to provide subsidized theatre infrastructure in the country’s poorest provinces.
Mthethwa has been in charge of the DSAC for more than seven years and is the longest-serving minister responsible for arts and culture that we have had. And yet, he has failed to do the most basic thing to transform the theatre landscape by ensuring that each province has a publicly-funded theatre to facilitate national tours by the country’s dance and theatre companies and practitioners. He promised a theatre space for the Limpopo province a number of years ago that has not materialized. His department continues to fund the four theatres inherited from the apartheid era and has added the Market Theatre to this list, but for all the talk of “transformation”, of “the doors of culture shall be open” of affirming the human rights of all of our people (participation in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts is a fundamental human right articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), he has failed to address the lack of basic infrastructure in the country’s poorest provinces, thereby continuing to perpetuate and in fact, exacerbate inequality. Contrary to what many believe, it is not that there is no money for the arts, it is how the money is allocated that is the problem. Arts and culture are allocated more than R4 billion, far more than the budgets allocated to sport, and a host of other departments. The five subsidized theatres are slated to receive more than R300 million in this financial year, funds that could be far better spent on supporting a national circuit of venues and on dance and theatre companies located in each province.
5. He has displayed no vision or innovation that inspires that sector.
Mthethwa has become known as the minister of condolences for his numerous media statements expressing his condolences to the families of artists or sports people who have passed on. From January 2020 to April 2021, the DSAC issued 78 media releases of which 22 (28%) were messages of condolence! There were few, if any media releases that had to do with vision, that inspired the sector, that proposed something new. Quite simply, many in the sector are dying and it is no coincidence that Mthethwa displays little vision or passion for arts and culture.
6. A number of publicly-funded cultural institutions to which he appoints the governing councils and their chairpersons are in crisis, reflecting both his poor judgment and his lack of capacity – or political will – to act.
There are at least five publicly-funded cultural institutions for which Mthethwa and his department are responsible that are in some form of crisis. The William Humphreys Gallery, PACOFS and the National Arts Council all suspended their CEOs, with disciplinary process in various stages. The Council of the National Heritage Council was dismissed by Mthethwa last year, and their CEO left. Robben Island Museum is again mired in financial and management crisis. That these institutions are suffering crises related to governance are the direct responsibility of Mthethwa who not only appoints the governing councils of these institutions, but also appoints their chairpersons.
7. He has re-appointed individuals to governing councils despite being informed of their unethical behaviour, resulting in governance and management crises at these institutions.
Notwithstanding information and advice about the unethical behaviour of particular individuals on the councils of publicly-funded cultural institutions, Mthethwa has proceeded to re-appoint them, leading to the wastage of public resources, continued attempts to loot the public purse and reputational damage to those who blow the whistles on the corrupt behaviour. For example, despite evidence provided to him of the unethical behaviour of a previous chairperson of the Market Theatre Council by two different managements of the theatre, Mthethwa not only re-appointed the individual to the Council when its previous term ended, but also re-appointed him as the Chairperson of the Council. This led to donors withholding their funding and reputational damage to the institution as well as to its senior management; Mthethwa cares little about the public institutions of which he and his department are the paid custodians.
8. He is out of his depth, is flailing and does not know how to respond the challenges within the sector.
Mthethwa has a whole department with highly remunerated senior bureaucrats. He has access to the leadership of twenty-six publicly-funded cultural institutions whose councils and chairpersons he appoints, presumably because of their competence and knowledge of the sector. He can draw on their knowledge and expertise and yet, at the height of the crisis around the PESP funding, he appointed a new Ministerial Advisory Team at a cost of R3 million, the kind of budget that could support a dance or theatre company for a year!
He failed to intervene in the NAC crisis and that artists had to occupy the NAC offices for nearly two months in pursuit of some pretty basic demands, reflects his inability to show leadership and to resolve issues that are squarely within his ambit. He called for a meeting with Abahlali Base NAC and then failed to arrive with his acting DG informing us that he had a prior engagement (after he had called the meeting!). The next week, when he did pitch up, he switched off his camera after a brief introduction citing a poor connection!
Mthethwa is clearly out of his depth and does not know how do deal with the sector; he should go.
9. He hates accountability, preferring to spread lies about his critics rather than deal with the legitimate criticism.
Mthethwa is a liar who hates accountability. I wrote an article in the Daily Maverick in 2019 critiquing Tito Mboweni’s proposal for a new national theatre and a new national museum and suggesting – among other reasons for this being a bad idea – that many cultural institutions were in a governance or management mess, so that it would be a huge mistake to give yet more national institutions to an incompetent minister and department to oversee. Rather than deal with the content of the arguments, Mthethwa responded by saying that I was just making noise as I was angry that that he had declined my proposal for him to appoint an advisory committee that would include me, and from which he would be expected to take instructions and to whom he would have to report. I have NEVER made such a ridiculous proposal and challenged him to make public the document or the recording in which I made the alleged proposal. Of course, he never did, because such a proposal does not exist. He lied to deflect the legitimate criticism levelled at him and his department. He hates being accountable and would rather slander and try to hang the messenger than face up to the fact that he and his department are a disgrace. If this was true in 2019, it is even more so the case now.
10. Mthethwa has divided the sector through his creation and continued support for an illegitimate, sweetheart structure, CCIFSA, as the supposed representative voice of the sector.
The Minister created and continues to foist an illegitimate body – the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA) – as the representative structure for the creative sector when it has no membership, no credibility and no support from the major formations created by artists themselves. His strategy is to divide-and-rule Civil Society. Even after CCIFSA was dormant for a number of years, his department resuscitated it and this hollow body and its representatives have become some of Mthethwa’s chief defenders. Legitimate networks and representative structures created by artists and those who make their livelihoods in the sector struggle to find funding to support their advocacy work and would benefit greatly from public funds to do so. But Mthethwa is not interested in democracy, in structures that artists themselves have created, preferring to govern through patronage.
There are some who, despite Mthethwa’s numerous shortcomings and the adverse impact he and his department have had on the sector, believe that he should stay because “better the devil you know…” or because they have become cynical after 27 years of ANC rule that changing politicians won’t make any difference, or they give him the benefit of the doubt because they believe that his hands are tied by a lack of funding or whatever.
There is much that the arts sector does irrespective of the DSAC and whoever the minister is, and much has been achieved by and within the sector despite, rather than because of the DSAC and/or the minister. But Mthethwa is an elected politician and the DSAC and its bureaucrats are supported by and dispense public funding and so need to be held accountable; not to do so is to shirk our democratic responsibilities, and to allow others to shape democracy in their self-serving interests.
A new minister may very well turn out to be as deaf, as ignorant and as arrogant as the current minister, but s/he may also not be. Having a new minister – at a time when the arts sector has never been as organized post-1994 as it is now – will provide a window of opportunity for civil society to engage with the minister in the best interests of the sector.
With the devastation wrought by COVID-19, there is clearly a need for a fresh vision and new political will to make it happen.
It is for these reasons that #NATHIMUSTGO (and take most of his senior management with him).