The Cultural Weapon 9 March 2011

The Cultural Weapon

 Mike van Graan

A few weeks ago at the opening of the South African parliament, in his State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma actually mentioned the arts!  More specifically, he said:

Linked to tourism, we will continue to develop the cultural industries sector which contributes about R2 billion (a little less than $300 million) to the Gross Domestic Product.  We have seen the value of events such as the Cape Town International Jazz Festival which contributed more than R475 million to the economy of Cape Town and created 2 000 jobs in 2010.

In the next paragraph, he states

We also wish to extend a special mention to the popular Cape Minstrels Carnival which brightens up this city every year on the 2nd of January, celebrating the freeing of slaves.

The context for these references is the main theme of the President’s speech i.e. that 2011 is the year of job creation to achieve the goals of the New Growth Plan that aims to create 5 million jobs over ten years.  All departments, including the Department of Arts and Culture, are required to contribute to the plan that has identified six priority areas for job creation: infrastructure development, agriculture, mining and beneficiation, manufacturing, the green economy and tourism.

So, while the creative industries are not mentioned in their own right, they are linked to the priority area of tourism, which, according to the President, creates one job with every sixteen tourists visiting the country.  Besides “brightening up the city” and “celebrating the freeing of slaves” the reason for the special mention of the Cape Minstrels Carnival is its link to tourism. 

Unlike the Cape Minstrels Carnival that is unable to show its economic impact or the number of international tourists it actually attracts, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival engages in an annual economic impact study of the Festival to show the Department of Arts and Culture the return on its investment of not a few million rand each year.  The Jazz Festival is a superb event, but one needs to question the President’s figures: does this one event really contribute the equivalent of almost a quarter of the total contribution of the cultural industries to the GDP?   Is the total value of the cultural industries sector (that includes all arts festivals, including many that are larger, longer and more well-attended than the CTIJF, together with the publishing industry, the commercial music industry, the film and television industries, the craft industry, etc) really worth only R2 billion to the national GDP?  With an overall Gross Domestic Product of around $300 billion, this would make the contribution of the cultural industries to South Africa’s GDP a miniscule 0, 001%!

It is all very well to state that the Jazz Festival created 2000 jobs, but the real story is whether these were permanent or ad hoc i.e. whether they were short-term income opportunities (which is a feature of the creative industries’ sector) rather than long-term “jobs”?

It is by no means a bad idea to boost employment in a country wracked by poverty, where 25% of the economically active population is unemployed (and that’s using the government’s narrow, disingenuous definition of unemployment which includes only those who do not have jobs, and are still actively looking for work as opposed to those who are unemployed, but have given up looking for work!).

The Department of Arts and Culture has distributed a Draft Discussion Document entitled “Optimising the Contribution of the Arts, Culture and Heritage sector to Government Priorities and Specifically the New Growth Path”.  The Discussion Document states that the proposed interventions of the Department of Arts and Culture will, among other things, focus on “a range of specific large scale interventions aimed at maximising the growth and employment potential of the sector” and clarifies this later when it states that the new interventions will “assume allocation of resources to a small number of large scale interventions rather than numerous small interventions”.

What will this mean in practice?  To what “large scale interventions” will the DAC allocate resources when the prevailing experience here and internationally is that the creative industries sector is characterised primarily by small and micro-enterprises?  Are we now only going to allocate resources to events like opening ceremonies for major sporting events as was the case with the FIFA World Cup?   Or, with the “oversupply” of Minstrels in the Cape, will the Department of Arts and Culture now redistribute Minstrels on a mass scale to other parts of the country to boost tourism there?

Till now, the primary permanent or medium-to-long term jobs created or supported in the creative sector post-1994 has been administrators, managers and bureaucrats in government departments, in museums, monuments, festivals, funding agencies and theatres. Some of these create short-term, income-generating opportunities for artists (rather than long term jobs), but there is a real opportunity for the Department of Arts and Culture to create decent work and decent jobs for dancers, actors, choreographers and directors as members of companies with at least year-long contracts.  In modern parlance, this may be regarded as unsustainable as they require ongoing subsidy, but teachers, nurses, government bureaucrats, judges, prosecutors, policemen, army personnel and politicians all have jobs paid for out of the public purse.  25% of our population survives on state grants.  So, why not artists too?  At least as members of companies, they have the potential to generate some income through their work unlike many of the other jobs subsidised by the state.

Linking the cultural industries to tourism is not necessarily a bad idea, but does this mean that the future of the arts in our country will be dependent on what international tourists want? 

The problem with new orthodoxies and political priorities – as valid and necessary as they are in their intention (in this case, to create much-needed employment) – is that they are applied to, and imposed on the arts sector in a formulaic, outcomes-based manner with little understanding of or sensitivity to the way in which this sector functions, and to its primary needs and varying dynamics.  The starting point should not be how to create jobs as the contribution of the arts to the New Growth Plan so that some box on a political report card can be ticked; rather, the starting point should be how to grant the fundamental right of every citizen to “participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts” as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In pursuit of that vision, a New Growth Plan for the Arts will be necessary that may, in some instances, contribute to the broader New Growth Plan, and in other instances, may not.  But then, the role of the arts is not only to contribute to economic growth and job creation, but also to human development, to democracy, to freedom of creative expression, to catharsis, to emotional and intellectual stimulation, to creative thinking, to innovation, to the exploration of the human condition within a society in transition such as ours, and to a host of other imperatives, rather than simply be harnessed in a utilitarian manner to serve the latest political imperative.

Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent.  He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses local expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector.  He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.

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About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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