Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards: A Reflection (2011)

There has been much exasperation, disappointment and even anger expressed after the recent Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards affirmed white winners in all 17 categories in which the panel of 13 judges made selections.  Considering that only four of the 68 nominees were persons of colour, this should hardly have come as a surprise.

Fingers were immediately pointed at the judges for 2011, the majority of whom were white, and most of these were Afrikaans-speakers.  Some opined that it was little wonder then that awards were given to Afrikaans-speakers in the coveted categories of leading actor, leading actress and leading support actress, best performance in a cabaret/revue/solo performance, most promising student and best director.

The actual awards event with two presenters – one English and one Afrikaans (in a province with isiXhosa also as an official language); entertainment provided by white musicians, and dancers who were persons of colour, covered in mud and who had the unfortunate appearance of subserviently holding up the awards for the all-white winners, as well as the acknowledgement of DA politicians in attendance, added to the perception  – by some – of the 47-year-old awards as, at worst, a relic of the apartheid past, and at best, a confirmation of the Western Cape and Cape Town being “untransformed” and out of touch with the rest of the country.

However, to criticise the judges for the overwhelmingly white nominations and winners, is a superficial response unless it is supported by an analysis of what the judges were obliged – by the local theatre industry – to work with.  Are the nominations and awards only a reflection of the cultural biases of the judges or do they reflect the reality of the demographics within Cape Town’s theatre industry?

According to the award organisers, there were 63 productions which were eligible for the awards, of which 53 (84%) were presented in 6 theatre spaces: the Baxter Theatre (15), UCT’s Intimate/Little theatre complex (9), Theatre on the Bay, Artscape and the Kalk Bay Theatre (8 each) and the Fugard Theatre (5) with single productions spread between the New Africa Theatre, Magnet Theatre, the City Hall, Maynardville, Kirstenbosch Amphitheatre and the HB Thom in Stellenbosch while On Broadway housed two shows.

Four of the six main theatre spaces – Theatre on the Bay, Kalk Bay Theatre, the Fugard Theatre and the Little Theatre/Intimate Theatre complex – provided more than 100 roles for actors during 2011, but fewer than 5% of these were filled by actors of colour.  While the Baxter Theatre and Artscape produce some of their own work (both reflecting greater racial equity in the employment of actors in their own productions), many of the productions presented at these spaces (and the Fugard and Kalk Bay Theatre) are “rentals” i.e. independent theatre companies that hire the space.

The key point is that of the actors employed in plays presented during 2011 at these 6 theatres and who were eligible for the leading actor, leading actress, leading supporting actor and leading supporting actress categories, just more than 10% were persons of colour which was proportionately less than the 12% representation of persons of colour in the Fleur du Cap nominations in these categories.   In other words, rather than the judges being responsible for the lack of nominations of people of colour – and ultimately for the absence of people of colour as winners in various categories – the more fundamental problem is that of theatre managements and independent theatre-makers choosing to do plays and/or casting the plays in a manner that provides the judges with an overwhelmingly white pool – nearly 90% of the total number of actors – to choose from.

The Mechanicals, for example, is a superb company that attracts numerous nominations each year for the excellent theatre work that it does with relatively meagre resources.  It is based at the UCT Little Theatre/Intimate Theatre complex, with most of the company members being graduates from this institution.  And yet, despite UCT graduating a number of actors of colour each year, The Mechanicals seldom has actors of colour in its productions.  Why?  Do actors of colour not get invited to be part of the company?  Are plays selected for performance that generally do not cater for actors of colour?  Are actors of colour not prepared to work at risk like white members of the company?  Whatever the reason/s, it does not help with the diversification of the local theatre industry if young actors of colour are not honing and celebrating their skills in a company such as The Mechanicals.

But if the lack of demographic equity is a major problem in the Fleur du Cap’s acting categories where one could expect greater equity, the situation is even more dire in other categories.  Of the 38 plays whose directors were considered for the Best Director award, only one director – Fatima Dike – was a person of colour, with 7 directors being responsible for just under 50% of the total productions under consideration.

Nineteen productions included music or soundscapes of which of only three were done by persons of colour.  28 of the 32 lighting designs were done by white designers with one person of colour being responsible for 3 of the 32 designs, while no person of colour designed costumes (for 18 productions) or sets (for 29 productions, 21 of which were shared by 10 designers) or puppets.

These facts confirm a much greater problem within Cape Town’s theatre industry, and the “whiteness” of the award nominees and winners cannot be laid simplistically at the door of Distell, the sponsors of the event, nor at the door of the judges who can only select from what they are given by theatre managements, festivals and independent producers.

Given our history and the peculiarities of the industry in the Western Cape, we are – understandably – highly sensitive to the racial/cultural dynamics at such award events.  And yet, there are many white industry players who are not nominated or who do not win awards despite being nominated.  For every white actor nominated in the Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor categories, there are at least 13 white actors who are not nominated.   Two directors – Alan Swerdlow and Fred Abrahamse – were each responsible for 4 plays in 2011, but, despite their great experience and expertise, neither was nominated in the Best Director category.  If these two directors were persons of colour, many would believe that they were slighted on the basis of racial or cultural bias, but that – in the context of the demographic composition of the theatre industry in Cape Town – would be highly superficial and simplistic.   This implies that there needs to be much more participation by, more opportunities created for and upskilling of people of colour across the theatre industry in Cape Town regularly to produce a critical mass of nominees who stand a real chance of winning on the basis of merit rather than because of political correctness.

With theatres having limited resources for producing their own work (thus their heavy reliance on rentals), festivals have become the key producers of new theatre productions.  The Suidoosterfees, the Woordfees in Stellenbosch and the ABSA KKNK in Oudsthoorn – all of which serve a primarily Afrikaans-speaking market – produce numerous plays between them annually so that inevitably, many of these plays will be staged in the city’s main theatres and will thus be eligible for the awards.  Given this scenario, it would appear to be less a case of simplistic cultural bias of some of the judges in favour of Afrikaans theatre personalities and more a post-1994 systemic problem of cultural policy and funding that provides a surfeit of excellent Afrikaans theatre productions (few, if any, of which provide work opportunities for “black African” actors, directors or technical personnel).

Notwithstanding all of the above, do cultural biases play a role in the judging process?  Certainly!  All awards of this nature have an element of subjectivity on the part of the judges.  So would the judging panel benefit from being more representative of the region’s demographics?  Absolutely!  Notions of excellence and merit are not absolute, but are culturally-influenced and time-bound so that determining award winners would benefit from robust debate and a diversity of perspectives.  Judges should, however, have the requisite theatrical expertise and knowledge as it would be a great disservice to the sector if awards are made on the basis of political considerations rather than artistic ones.

On the other hand, this year’s awards event reflected poor political, business and artistic judgement.  No company wants its brand – or the events and projects that promote its brand – to be compromised or sullied in any way.  After the 2011 embarrassment of awards being made to the wrong nominees, and precisely because the organisers would have been aware of the nominations and the potential controversies around the winners given similar controversies in the past, the event could have been organised to be more inclusive and more celebratory of the diversity of theatrical (as opposed to music and dance) talent in the city.

The semiotics of an awards event can be easily corrected in future.  The greater challenge of this year’s Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards is to Cape Town’s theatre sector: does it have the vision for and commitment to a theatre practice that serves, reflects and includes the diverse communities of people of the province?

Mike van Graan is the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute and is Artscape’s Associate Playwright.

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A response to the critique that “all the black characters die” in When Swallows Cry and the pessimistic messages that this conveys


As the creative team of WHEN SWALLOWS CRY which premiered at the Market Theatre in January this year, we were overwhelmed by the generous and moving responses to the play.  However, there were some who – even though they were thoroughly absorbed by this piece of theatre – had problems with elements of the writing, particularly the perceived pessimistic ending.  This is to acknowledge those concerns, and to engage with them.

Generally, as a writer, once the work is in the public domain, one leaves it to audiences to interpret it as they wish.  However, given this perception of the ending, I would like to offer some insights into what the play is attempting to do. (We were able to address some of these concerns in Q&A’s after a few of the performances, and this is to provide a broader opportunity for such engagement).

There are many who will read this who may not have seen the play, but I do not think that talking about it, or “giving away the ending” will detract from how future audiences will engage with, and be engaged by the piece.

Finally, although this article has been brewing for a while, I am writing this on the same day as a march took place in Pretoria against migrants and refugees from other African countries.  The play deals with this exact theme – African refugees and how they are treated in other countries – although South Africa features only in passing in the play.

Stories of Swallows

When Swallows Cry interweaves three stories set in Africa, or about African migrants and refugees.

The main story features a “migrant” Canadian teacher – initially assumed to be an American – who is captured by a group of bandits in a West African country.  He is held for ransom to generate the funds required to develop the region in which he is held.  As more information about who he is emerges, the leader of the bandit group – Commandant – decides to kill him, while the ordinary soldier does not see the sense in it.  Eventually, the soldier turns on Commandant and releases the hostage.  At the end, when he is presented with an opportunity to do so, the Commandant decides not to shoot the Soldier.

A second story features two Zimbabwean teachers who flee the economic hardships and the political oppression of their country in a boat heading to Fiji where they will not require visas for at least three months. However, the boat ventures into Australian waters and they are held at a detention centre for illegal immigrants, and are marked for immediate deportation to Zimbabwe.  They manage to capture their racist detention officer but realise that they are unable to escape.  The detention officer regains control, and the two refugees are shot dead.

The third story tells of a Somalian who leaves his war-torn country for South Africa, only to experience brutal xenophobic violence that obliges him to seek refuge in America.  He obtains a legitimate US visa but is hounded at the port of entry (the play was written before Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, but the story resonates with this executive order).  One of his tormentors is an African-American official, a descendant of African slaves, but whose job it is to prevent “undesirables” entering America, and threatening their security.  The officials refuse him entry and, rather than return to the countries from which he has fled, the Somalian kills himself.

These stories, featuring three actors playing contrasting characters in the three different playlets, are multi-layered and raise numerous themes about contemporary mobility e.g. the freedom with which the Canadian is able to travel, unlike the Africans.  The stories comment on each other, not necessarily in sequence, but as a whole.

Responses to the play

The primary critical response to the play was that it is pessimistic in that the black characters all die in the end, and that, in addition to them dying, in one story, the black characters allow a white man to come between them.

A few of the critics stated that – presumably because of my Afrikaans surname – black people should tell their own stories (implying that black characters will have happier endings).

Alternative readings and insights

It is to the above criticism that I wish to respond, to provide alternate interpretations and to contribute to the debates that I hope the play will continue to generate.

First, it is not true that all the black characters die.  In the core story, although the Commandant has “the right” (the Soldier betrayed him), the means and the opportunity to do so, he does not kill the Soldier.  Through the Soldier’s reasoning with him, the Commandant comes to accept – though reluctantly – that there is the possibility of some good coming out of the release of the hostage.

This contrasts to the story of the Zimbabwean refugees, where, although the refugees seek to appeal to the humanity of their captor, he refuses to see them as anything but sub-human.  His deep racism simply does not allow him to change, and he acts accordingly.

In the Somalian story, the black American interrogator is less compromising than his white counterpart and treats the Somalian – who hails from Africa, the African-American’s ancestral home – with harshness and disdain.  The Somalian attempts to appeal to his blackness, in the hope of sympathy, but the African-American will have none of it.  He does not act out of racial or continental solidarity, but in terms of his job description, and his job is to keep America safe. He is American, and not African, even though he may owe his ancestry to Africa, and even though he shares the Somalian’s skin colour.  Still haunted by 9/11, for the African-America, the Somalian represents a threat to his country.

In the play, there are six black characters.  Three of them die.  Two are shot by a white supremacist.  One kills himself.  Of the latter, rather than the superficial reading of “a black man dies”, it is more important that audience interrogates the reasons for his death.  The Somalian prefers to die by his own hand rather than return to South Africa where people like him are killed by black South Africans, or to return to Somalia where his countrymen – all black – kill each other in the ongoing violent conflicts there.  Why does a black man prefer to kill himself when refused entry into overwhelmingly white America, rather than return to South Africa or Somalia?  An average of 100 Somalians are murdered in South African annually.  Just two weeks ago, eleven Somalians were killed in Khayelitsha.  That is the more challenging, uncomfortable question that needs to be grappled with; it is not simply a question of black characters dying in the play, it is also about why this particular black character chooses to die.

What makes someone so desperate that they think they would be better dead?  Just this week there was the report of a Ghanaian migrant, Frederick Ofosu aged 33, who hung himself in Malta.  He left a message explaining his despair, that he was made to feel like a criminal when he had done nothing wrong.  Those are the sentiments too of the Somalian character in the play.

The uncomfortable truth in post-apartheid South Africa is that black people kill other black people.  African nationals are killed by black South Africans.  Miners at Marikana were killed by black policemen serving a black government.  More than 100 black, mentally ill patients died because black politicians and supposed care-givers, simply did not care.  More than 40 black people are murdered each day in South Africa, overwhelmingly by other black people.

Living in denial about this, or attempting to explain it away – or even justifying it with ideological and intellectual somersaults does not address the carnage. Facing up to it would be a better first step to stopping it.

It is easy and comfortable self-righteously to shout at Americans that “black lives matter” and engage in Facebook activism when an African-American is shot by a white policeman, or to scream racism when black South Africans are violently assaulted or verbally abused by white people; it is far more challenging and uncomfortable when we have to call out violence committed against black people by other black people.  But, it has to be done.

One of my aims in setting these stories in non-South African contexts is to invite South African audiences to look at these stories with greater dispassion, and so reflect on the meaning and relevance of these stories and themes for us locally.

Second, it is also precisely because of the tendency – particularly among middle-class people and Facebook “activists” – to view almost everything through the lens of race that I chose to write three stories with the three actors playing completely different characters in each story.  With one story featuring two black characters and one white character, the likelihood of the white character being seen to be representative of all white people and the black characters representative of all black people, is great in the South African context, so that by having three stories, with each actor being completely different in character in each story, the invitation to the audience is to understand the character and his motivations beyond the colour of his skin, to see the characters as human beings with agency, rather than as automatons acting according to pre-determined racial mappings, and to identity and sympathise with the characters in their various situations as individual human beings, rather than as representatives of particular groups.

Our failure or inability to look beyond the superficial element of skin colour and to have human empathy is a reflection of the extent to which our own humanity has been damaged, how we have allowed a system of racism and its legacies to demean and rob us of empathy, and how, accordingly, we could end up exactly like the racist Australian detention officer who refuses to see others as human beings – like some South Africans refuse to see African nationals as human beings just like ourselves – so that we can beat, stab, necklace, shoot and kill them.

When we see the Somalian simply as a “black who dies” rather than as a human being, an individual character with a life story who chooses to take his own life rather than be repatriated to a country where he may be killed by others who have exactly the same skin colour as him, or who has his dignity trampled upon by the American port authorities, we reflect our damaged humanity, our inability to look beyond the superficial, and to hear, to listen, to feel as the character does.

Thirdly, the play has the same basis for all three stories i.e. the power relations are wholly unequal between “the captured” and “the captors”.  What the play interrogates and seeks to show is that – while the situations are all essentially the same – the endings to the different stories depend directly on human agency, on the decisions taken by the human characters in each story.  Indeed, some characters are white and some are black, but except for the story featuring the Zimbabwean characters, the endings are wrought less because of the colour/race of the characters than by decisions made as human beings, with agency.  The invitation to South African audiences is again to view the play beyond the limiting lens of “race”, and to evaluate the human and structural impulses that drive the resolutions.   As in real life, the characters are not simply pawns of fate, nor are they mindless tools of macro structures that oblige them to act in particular ways; they can choose how to act.  We often hear the defence “I was just doing/I had to do my job” (security policemen, Nazi soldiers, etc); when confronted with real human beings, those in power have a choice: will they act as fellow human beings, or will they hide behind the “doing my job” screen when wrecking the lives of others?  Admittedly, these are not always easy choices, but they are, nevertheless, choices.  The African soldier chooses to release their hostage, despite the possible consequences for himself.

Which brings me to my fourth, and the most important point regarding this theme as the writer: the play explores the notion of “being civilised” and acting in a “civilised way”.  Western countries project themselves as “civilised”, evolved, with the values and behavioural standards to which the rest of the world needs to aspire.  Those who act contrary to their (western) values and standards are deemed to be barbarians, uncivilised, backward.

In these terms – and this play was commissioned by a Norwegian theatre company so that it will have an international audience – those in Africa would generally be considered to be barbarians and uncivilised while Australia and the USA would be assumed to be centres of civilisation (along with Europe).  However, how civilised a country is or their people are – for me, at any rate – is how they treat the vulnerable, human beings in need of shelter, safety, refuge, etc.  The expectation of “civilised audiences” would be that the western hostage is killed in Africa and that Australia and the USA would be hospitable to those fleeing places of conflict or with low life expectancy and a poor quality of life.

However, this does not happen in the play.  The “civilised world” acts in ways that are barbaric (as is the case in real life – note Trump’s ban on refugees from Syria, Australia’s despicable treatment of “illegal immigrants”, European countries that close their borders to refugees fleeing a war and even Germany – praised for taking in more than a million refugees – repatriating migrants/refugees to countries Germany considers “safe”, even if the migrants/refugees have left those countries precisely because they are NOT safe).  It is in Africa where the characters act with humanity, with reason and with empathy, and that is one of the main points of the play – to juxtapose the brutal endings of refugees in the so-called civilised world, with the happier ending of a hostage in the so-considered barbaric, backward world of Africa.  Unlike the American port officials, the African soldier does not just “do his job” or “obey orders”; he reasons, he empathises and acts accordingly, even at great risk to himself.  Neither is it a simplistic matter of “a white man coming between black people” as some superficially interpreted the piece; the character, Soldier, was not convinced that killing the hostage (the original intention was to sell/ransom him in order to generate funding for the development of their village) would be in the best interests of the village as it would attract the army and perhaps international military intervention.  Despite his deep desire for revenge for what the hostage symbolised, and then for Soldier’s betrayal, Commandant accepts Soldier’s reasoning, drawing a distinction between Soldier being a good man, but a bad soldier.

Finally, in the original text as I had written it, it is the story of the Commandant and Soldier that ends the play, on a more “hopeful” and ambivalent note.  However, during rehearsals, the director – Lesedi Job – determined that the play should end differently with the Somalian story as the climax, arguing against a less “Hollywood” ending to bring home the less-than-happy realities of many African migrants in the world today.  When I saw the production for the first time the day before its first preview, I agreed that this ending was valid and worked theatrically.  Would those who felt that the ending was too pessimistic because “black characters died” have felt differently had the original ending prevailed?  I do not know; theatre is a collaborative affair, with theatrical and dramatic choices made by others in the creative team, as it should be.  I am happy with the ending also because it inspires debate.

This brings me to the trope of “We (blacks) must write our own stories.”

First: absolutely, everyone must tell, write, stage their own stories.

Second, by black, do these populists mean Biko-black (inclusive of Africans, coloureds and Indians) or Jimmy Manyi-black (Africans)?

But, thirdly, which of the “Swallows” stories are “our” stories – as in black South African – stories?  Not a single one. And yet, they are all about human beings in, and from Africa.  It is completely false that there is one “black narrative” on a continent of nearly one billion people and a country of 54 million.  The narratives of human beings from other African countries are not the narratives of the South Africans, for example, who marched against them in Pretoria, or who burn and loot their shops, and shoot them dead.  The stories are certainly related but to assume that simply because people share the same skin colour they have the same story or the same perspectives, is, quite simply, false.  Marc Gbaffour, Chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum said after watching the play “When Swallows Cry is amazing…I could hear the voices of real migrants talking about the challenges they are facing.”

To be a writer does not require race essentialism and/or racial solidarity; it requires human empathy.  This allows woman writers to construct believable, sympathetic males characters; disabled writers to present well-rounded able-bodied characters, and straight writers to write gay characters into life. Details and further texture are provided by other tools of the writer: research and imagination.


All over the world, we are witnessing the rise of populism and the lack of nuance, the inability or lack of will to deal with complexity; polarisation based on half-truths, the conjuring of emotional responses and fear unrooted in rationality and facts.  As much as we can see this and decry it when it is performed by the Donald Trumps, Geert Wilders and Marie le Pens of the world, we are unable to recognise it in ourselves.  However, in my view, it is the flip side of the same distorted coin – a belief in falsities and half-truths that make us feel good about ourselves, that may earn us applause when we shout these half-truths aloud and punish the “other” for their real and perceived sins.  In South Africa, given our history, these falsities and half-truths generally have to do with “race”.

If I do anything as a writer, it is to challenge such intellectual and political superficiality, and to invite audiences to think more, to analyse deeper and to reflect longer on what they have experienced.  And then, to act as empathetic humans in a world and in a society where such action is increasingly necessary, but increasingly difficult to find.

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White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage 2016, A Critique


The Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage made public in November 2016 is an improvement on previous editions of this policy position paper.  Inputs by members of the Reference Panel as well as submissions made by the broader arts, culture and heritage sector, have helped to advance the revised White Paper as an overall policy statement.  However, there are still major deficiencies within this document, and this critique is provided as a contribution further to improve the document and its legitimation within the creative sector.  It can be considered by itself, but it would be of better value if it were considered along with two previous submissions:

  1. Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage (2013), A Critique and
  2. Theatre and Dance Discussion Document

Both these documents were sent to the Department of Arts and Culture in November 2015 for consideration as part of the development of the Revised White Paper.  Some ideas and criticisms contained in those documents have been incorporated into the current draft of the White Paper, and it is hoped that further points made here, will be considered.


Policy is a product of its time, more particularly, of the social, material, political, cultural and economic conditions that prevail at the time.  It is absolutely necessary then that polices are regularly reviewed, with amendments made and appropriate policies created that respond to the conditions that exist at the time of the review.

The Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) tabled a Revised White Paper (RWP) on Arts, Culture and Heritage in June 2013 under its previous minister, Paul Mashatile.  This edition was drafted internally by the DAC – either by a consultant and/or DAC official/s, with the Department reluctant to reveal the identity of the drafters, particularly after the first draft encountered stiff opposition.  An indaba – which many feared would simply be to rubberstamp this draft – was held later that year, where delegates were informed that the Minister hoped to have a new White Paper ratified by parliament before the end of his term in office.

An election took place in May 2014, and a new minister was appointed that in turn led to what has now become “normal practice” i.e. that senior staff – more particularly, the Director General – is removed to make way for a candidate preferred by the new minister (in this case, Nathi Mthethwa, the former minister responsible for police at the time of the Marikana massacre).

Under Mthethwa’s Acting Director General, Mr Vuyo Jack, the process of revising the original White Paper of 1996 was started afresh in March 2015, given the criticism levelled at the 2013 edition of the Revised White Paper – both for its content and for the manner in which it came about (with limited consultation with the arts, culture and heritage sector).

At an Indaba on the revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage (26-27 November 2015), further inputs were received from the creative sector.

The current RWP, in the “Process and Methodology” section, states

“On 4 November (2015), the Honourable Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, appointed an eight-person Reference Panel to revise the 1996 White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage.  The team was subsequently expanded to include a ninth member representing the country’s youth.” (p4)

The panel comprised Prof A Oliphant, Dr S Fikeni, Prof M Nkondo, Ms A Joffe, Father S Mkhatshwa, Dr A Beukes, Mr T Kgoroge, Ms L Mashile and Ms T Goso.

According to a DAC briefing on the process of revising the White Paper to the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture on 30 August 2016:

  • A provisional draft for internal discussion was due in March 2016, followed by subsector public consultations in April, resulting in a revised draft in May which would then be circulated for public comment in June, after which it would be revised based on feedback received before being submitted to the Minister at the end of July 2016
  • Consultations were held in all the provinces from May to June, but “compilation of the first draft (of the revision of the Revised White Paper) was delayed since only three Reference Panel Members have contributed”
  • “The first draft of the White Paper was due on July 30, 2016. However, due to the lack of capacity within the Reference Panel as a result of several members dropping out, the three remaining members were over-stretched.  A request was granted by the ADG (Acting Director General) to extend the deadline for the first draft to 31 August 2016”

Notwithstanding this lack of contribution from the Reference Panel appointed to revise the White Paper (only a third of the panel remained or actively contributed), the DAC outlined the proposed new dispensation to the Portfolio Committee on 30 August 2016, much of which is contained in the “Second Draft” published in November 2016.  It is unclear, then, whether this new, proposed dispensation was the result of the panel fulfilling its mandate, or the DAC’s own invention (panel-beaten from earlier drafts of the revised White Paper) or a combination of both.

A year after the November 2015 indaba, the “Second Draft” of the Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage was made available publicly, and another indaba was called for 17-18 November to discuss this latest edition.  Further submissions have been invited, with 15 December 2016 as the deadline for these.

Critique of Process

  1. The 1996 White Paper process was premised on two key elements largely absent from the current process

1.1  extensive consultation with the arts, culture and heritage sector over a period of nearly a year, led by individuals nominated by the arts and culture sector and

1.2  extensive research into the nature of the arts, culture and heritage sector – eventually comprising the Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG) Report – which served as the basis for the recommendations contained in the 1996 White Paper

Notwithstanding the fact that the current version of the White Paper has been in development for nearly three times longer than the research and consultative process of the 1996 White Paper, it sorely lacks comprehensive research of the sector as it currently stands: the gains since 1996, the gaps, the new challenges of our society 20 years on, etc.  Accordingly, it makes recommendations or statements that are often generalised and unsubstantiated by research.  At best, the RWP makes recommendations that allude to various reports or studies that have been done e.g. DAC National Mapping Study (2014) and the VANSA Report on the Visual Arts (2013), but these reports have not necessarily been interrogated within the broader arts, culture and heritage sector, or within the specific sector that it relates to, so that – unlike the ACTAG process – the recommendations may lack the legitimacy of sector knowledge and support.

The RWP references many different reports, but there is no list of links to these reports in an appendix at the end of the RWP which would allow the sector to familiarise themselves with these reports and provide feedback to the recommendations made on the basis of these reports.  In other words, there is a distinct lack of transparency in the formulation of the Revised White Paper which may be by design, by poor management of the process, or both.

2. Unlike the Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG) that was appointed by the then Minister from nearly 300 nominations received from the public – and the arts, culture and heritage sector in particular – the Reference Group appointed to draft the Revised White Paper in November 2015 was done largely by ministerial decree, probably informed by senior DAC officials.

2.1  This reflects how far our society and the governance of the arts and culture sector has moved from the founding principles of “arm’s length”, “transparency” and “participatory democracy” contained, or alluded to both in the 1996 White and the ACTAG process that led to the White Paper.  While the 1996 policy affirmed the transparent appointment of structures governing the arts, of bodies that dispensed public funds and of institutions supported by the public purse, there have been significant changes to this policy position without the policy being formally changed through a White Paper process i.e. policy changes have occurred by stealth, or by unilateral DAC decision-making rather than through consultation.  Thus, the governing boards of publicly-funded theatres, museums and monuments have their chairpersons appointed by the Minister, rather than being elected by their colleagues; in this way, the ruling party has a direct conduit into publicly-funded institutions, and boards may be intimidated into self-censorship because their chairpersons carry political blessing.  Such ministerial appointments also grant disproportionate power to the chairpersons of such boards.  This is also the case with funding agencies such as the National Arts Council, National Film and Video Foundation and the National Heritage Council.

2.2  Publicly-funded institutions now have to declare, as part of their branding, that they are “agencies of the Department of Arts and Culture”; in other words, they are accountable – not only for the public funding they receive – but also for their programming, strategic and implementation plans that have to be aligned with the vision and aims of the DAC.  The unilateral, ministerial appointment of the Reference Group – the presence of some independently-minded individuals notwithstanding – is indicative more of a desire to control and ensure the interests of the DAC in the White Paper, than the interests of the arts and culture sector.  That the President of CCIFSA – a sweetheart organisation of the DAC that supposedly represents the sector to the exclusion of other civil society bodies that have been around for longer and have more policy-making expertise – is part of the Reference Group together with individuals who serve on the boards of other DAC-funded entities – further reflects the bad faith of the DAC in formulating a policy document that genuinely seeks the best interests of the arts, culture and heritage sector in the context of contemporary South Africa.

2.3  In its report to the Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture, the DAC stated that several members of the Reference Group dropped out, leaving the three remaining members over-stretched.  In other words, two-thirds – 66% of the Reference Group appointed by the Minister – failed to deliver anything of substance.  Nevertheless, at that very briefing and prior to the deadline for the first draft of the RWP, the DAC outlined what the “new dispensation” would look like. This raises four further points of concern

2.3.1      who were the individuals who withdrew from the Reference Group, why did they do so and who were those who may have remained, but did not contribute anything?  If they are serving – on Ministerial appointment – on other publicly funded boards, are they fulfilling their mandate there, and do they have the requisite skills, experience and commitment to do so?

2.3.2      it reflects the shortcomings of unilateral ministerial appointments, where individuals are appointed to serve the arts, culture and heritage sector, but fail to do so – for whatever reasons – and neither the minister nor those failing individuals are held accountable

2.3.3      if the Reference Group was largely dysfunctional, who was responsible for the drafting of the RWP?  How could the DAC outline the “new dispensation” to the Portfolio Committee before the deadline for the RWP, unless it was substantially involved in the formulation of the RWP?  Is the RWP largely a reformulation of earlier drafts of the RWP that were devised internally within the DAC?

2.3.4      The presence of particular individuals within the Reference Group e.g. Andries Oliphant who chaired the ACTAG process and was initially involved in the formulation of the 1996 White Paper, and Avril Joffe, a UNESCO expert on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions who has worked with other African governments on formulating cultural policies may give some comfort that – even if the process leaves much to be desired – at least the content of the White Paper would be informed by a degree of policy-making experience.  On the other hand, the numerous editing deficiencies within the White Paper and the uneven structure and patchy content of the White Paper raise questions about whether this final draft has been signed off by even the remnants of the Reference Group?

3. The consultative processes related to the revision of the White Paper have entailed meetings with the publicly-funded institutions, provincial workshops and two-day national gatherings of stakeholders to discuss the latest version/s of the RWP. While there are inherent power relations that favour the DAC in their consultations with institutions that are dependent on them for funding, with the DAC being able to make and drive decisions affecting such institutions whether these approve of them or not, broader consultations – to have legitimacy – require adequate preparation e.g. the distribution of documentation beforehand, sufficient time for stakeholders to engage with the documentation within their respective organisations, opportunities for stakeholders to interrogate versions of the RWP as it develops after provincial and other consultations, etc.  This can be done in face-to-face gatherings but also through technology and online platforms.

The RWP states that it has adhered to “the participatory and consultative principles on which South Africa’s democracy and public policy development practices are founded…” (p5).  However, the experience of stakeholders in the revision of the White Paper has generally been one of it being rushed, with inadequate time to interrogate the RWP and a feeling that the “consultations” have been box-ticking exercises rather than genuine attempts to engage the views of stakeholders.

Why the process matters

There are some who would argue that while there may be limitations in the policy-making process, criticism in this regard should be muted since at least there is a (better than the 2013 version) policy document on the table.

However, the process of formulating the primary policy document that will affect the arts and culture sector nationally is as important as the content of the policy recommendations for at least the following reasons:

  1. South Africa is a constitutional democracy and is a work-in-progress in this regard; we are both a democracy because our Constitution decrees it so, and we are becoming a democracy as we contest what this means for society as a whole and for our respective sectors. It is the democratic right of arts, culture and heritage practitioners to participate actively in the formulation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies, strategies and structures that directly affect their practice and livelihoods.  When government – in this case, a minister and the Department of Arts and Culture – restricts the participation of the sector in policy-making, it compromises democracy and creates a version of democracy in government’s image, and co-opts democratic processes and principles to serve their narrow, pre-defined interests.
  2. In a democracy, the arts and culture sector – like all sectors of society – have a right to create and belong to organisations that they believe best advance and defend their interests, including holding government accountable for poor or non- implementation of policy, decisions that adversely affect the sector, wastage of resources, etc. The DAC however, has imposed an organisation from the top down on the sector – the Creative and Cultural Industries Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA) – which in its two years of existence has done little to warrant the support or respect of stakeholders within the sector.  By appointing the president of CCIFSA to the Reference Group, the Minister both marginalises organisations established by practitioners themselves and seeks to legitimise the policy recommendations in the RWP as those bearing the support of civil society through CCIFSA.  This strategy serves only to divide and rule the sector, rather than unite it in the best interests of arts, culture and heritage stakeholders, a situation that serves the interests of the DAC far more than it does the development of South Africa’s creative sector.
  3. Whereas a genuinely consultative and participatory process aids the legitimation of the policy recommendations, a process that is undemocratic, restrictive and politically manipulated serves to undermine the credibility of the policy recommendations and further sows distrust of and suspicion about the motives of the DAC and casts doubts about the good faith of the Minister. The lack of time in calling for participation in national indabas and the hosting of such indabas also raises suspicions about  whether service providers organising the indabas have gone through the required tender processes, or whether work has been allocated on the basis of deviations to preferred service providers close to officials within the DAC.  Accordingly, this distrust will continue to manifest itself in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation phases of the policy whereas the formulation process should be one of building relations and trust between key stakeholders.
  4. A poorly managed or politically-manipulated process disempowers the arts and culture sector and creates cynicism. A lot of what has taken place – certainly with regard to achievements – within the creative sector has been despite, rather than because of government policy, government support or government intervention.  Whereas there had been much expectation of the DAC and the government in the period immediately following the adoption of the White Paper in 1996, the sector has become increasingly cynical about government, about its commitment to and management of policy processes, particularly since the annus horribilis of 2000 when many state-funded institutions and cultural NGOs suffered terrible losses.  As cynicism about government generally and the DAC in particular grows, so the arts, culture and heritage sector increasingly finds alternative ways to grow and sustain their work, outside of government policies and structures.  This perpetuates and increases a huge divide within the sector between those dependent on government resources on the one hand but still in relatively early stages of their career and market development, and others who could assist those in need of development but who are alienated from government and its processes, and simply get on with their lives, seeking to have as little to do with government as possible.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Afrikaans arts market where – unrestrained or supported by government – Afrikaans music, theatre, festivals, movies, literature, television programmes, newspapers and magazines, visual art by Afrikaans artists, etc – flourish because of a market with the disposable income, passion and knowledge to support such work.  On the other hand, many theatre makers from peri-urban and/or less-resourced provinces who make their way to the National Arts Festival, with or without public subsidy, struggle to find a market and generally return to their homes poorer than when they left.  For all its talk about social cohesion and nation building, the DAC simply lacks the respect of many skilled practitioners who could play a role in the development of the sector, but are alienated from the DAC’s lack of vision, and its ways of operating.
  5. Even if the process were above board and legitimate, that the revision of the White Paper has taken more than three years under the auspices of two different ministers and three different directors-general,

5.1  does not boost confidence in the DAC and its capacity and leadership ability as the primary vehicle to manage, implement and evaluate the policy and the responsibilities assigned to it within the policy and

5.2  shows that the Department and its effectiveness are subject to the factional battles of the ruling party, so that any investment in the leadership of the DAC (ministerial and staffing) on the part of the sector, would be relatively meaningless in the medium-to-long term as it is likely that a new minister and director general will be appointed in which such investment of effort and time will have to start afresh.  Normally, what this means is that politicians and senior bureaucrats with little knowledge and understanding of the sector resort to formulaic and tired notions of “transformation” as their starting point with which to engage the sector, without a more comprehensive historical overview, contemporary analysis and vision to guide them, so that – when politicians and senior officials change – there is often the debilitating feeling that we are at the beginning, again.

This, then, further encourages the arts and culture sector to seek ways to survive and grow outside of government structures and policy as any dependence on it, will be subject to decisions and political interventions largely outside of the sector’s – and individual artists’ or organisations’ – control.


The RWP assigns the primary responsibility for the implementation, management and evaluation of the RWP to the DAC.  However, there is no analysis of the DAC as the primary vehicle through which the 1996 White Paper was driven. In the absence of an evaluation of the DAC, the following are examples that illustrate the need thoroughly to interrogate the DAC, its vision, leadership and capacity in being able to drive, implement and monitor the RWP.

1. Illegal appointment of the National Arts Council in 2015

In the interests of transparency, the National Arts Council Act requires that nominees for the Council of the NAC are interviewed in public, and that the public be given the opportunity to object to any nominee.  However, the interviews for the 2015 Council were held behind closed doors and the public was never informed of who the nominees were, with the Minister subsequently appointing the Council members.  Civil society organisations and individuals wrote to the Minister, to the NAC, the Department and the Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture pointing out this contravention of the NAC Act, but the appointments went ahead and the Council was inaugurated in late 2015.  A year later, the Minister terminated the services of the Council precisely because of this contravention, of which he had been informed!

This episode resonates with another example of a few NAC Councils back when the DAC attempted to deny a legitimate Council member a seat on the next Council.  In terms of the Act, the sitting Council elects three of its members to serve on the next Council to provide a degree of continuity.  Among the three members elected, was an individual of whom the DAC did not particularly approve as she had constantly raised critical questions of the DAC in the various positions she had held.  The DAC did not appoint her to the next Council, even though it was pointed out to them that this was against the Act.  Eventually, due to legal engagement, the DAC was obliged to reappoint the individual to the next Council.

These examples point to at least four challenges within the DAC and/or the challenge that the DAC represents for the arts, culture and heritage sector

1.1  Its laissez faire attitude to the laws (and thus policies) for which it is responsible – can it then be trusted with this new White Paper and the implementation responsibilities assigned to it?

1.2  the attitude of the DAC to independent thinkers and critics i.e. that while one of its core mandates is to promote and defend freedom of expression, in reality, it prejudices individuals and organisations that raise critical questions

1.3  the lack of commitment to transparency which denies the creative sector its legal rights and undermines democracy

1.4  its refusal to take seriously the protestations of civil society who monitor policy implementation and raise criticisms in good faith (can it thus be a good partner of civil society as called for in the RWP, can it be trusted by civil society, is civil society better off acting on its own in parallel to the DAC, and simply ignore it in the same way as the DAC treats civil society?)

The problem with the breakdown in trust and the relationship between the DAC and civil society actors is that there is much expertise within civil society which could and should be used to realise the goals of the RWP.  However, many in the sector simply do not trust the DAC and refuse to engage with the policy recommendations of government, whether it tries to encourage compliance by incentive (which it rarely does) or by coercion (which it more often threatens but lacks capacity to carry it through, fortunately)

The DAC’s mandate appears to be to serve the political imperatives of government and not the vision or interests of the sector.  Where there may be overlap and mutual interests, the DAC is unable to articulate these overlapping interests in a manner that encourages cooperation and its historical failures are such that it lacks credibility particularly within a large part of the skilled, resourced, networked and experienced creative sector.

  1. Management of international policy instruments

South Africa played an influential role in the devising of the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, and was one of the first countries to ratify this international legal instrument.  In terms of the operational guidelines adopted by the signatories to the Convention (South Africa had a representative on the Committee devising these guidelines), signatories are to submit a report every four years detailing how they have implemented the Convention, the successes and challenges in doing so, and how they have worked with civil society – a key element within the Convention – to achieve this.

The first report was due in 2012.  Arterial Network South Africa (a civil society body established by some in the arts sector and linked to similar chapters across the African continent) organised a conference on the Convention – with the financial support of the DAC in late 2011 – and elected a working group to liaise with the DAC to prepare and submit this report.  However, notwithstanding numerous attempts to engage with the DAC before the April 2012 deadline, Arterial Network submitted its own – civil society – report on the implementation of the Convention as the DAC failed to meet the deadline.  The DAC instead called for tenders for consultants to complete the report (a report template was made available by UNESCO that would not exceed 25 pages) and three tenders were received, ranging from R600 000 to R990 000.  The DAC selected the most expensive tenderer to host provincial workshops on the Convention and to complete the report.  Four years later, the report was still not submitted.

This episode again underscores-

2.1  the DAC’s inability to work with independent civil society organisations within the creative sector where the leadership is provided by the members and the elected leaders and

2.2  the DAC’s inability/lack of internal capacity to manage the instruments (laws, conventions, protocols, etc) for which it is responsible

It also reflects the DAC’s lack of education of the creative sector about the opportunities, rights and obligations of the sector in terms of such international and local legal instruments.

Why, then – based on such patterns of poor management – should the creative sector have any confidence in the DAC’s ability to manage the implementation of the RWP, or that it will work – in good faith – with the organisations established by the sector to represent their interests?

  1. Lack of capacity within DAC institutions

The DAC is responsible for at least 26 institutions which receive subsidies through the DAC.  These institutions are accountable to the DAC for how they spend their subsidies on an annual basis.  They include museums, statutory bodies like the NAC and NFVF and theatres like the Market, Artscape and PACOFS.

Parliament’s Portfolio Committee has often reprimanded the DAC because of the qualified audits of many of the institutions under its wing.  If the DAC were committed to transformation and building capacity, and if it had the capacity itself, it would ensure that over time, capacity would be built within each of its institutions to ensure sound governance, effective management and accountable use of public resources.  However, earlier versions of the RWP rather recommended the amalgamation of institutions as a way of dealing with this challenge i.e. combine poorly performing institutions with better performing institutions in the hope that this will improve capacity, or at the very least, cynically reduce the number of institutions for which it may be reprimanded by the Portfolio Committee.

What this points to are

3.1  the DAC’s own inability and lack of capacity to empower and so substantially to transform the institutions for which it is responsible (beyond superficial demographic transformation of its governance and management structures)

3.2  the hollowness of the DAC’s call for transformation within the sector to be expedited when its own institutions are not substantially transformed in terms of real empowerment through upskilling, building capacity, sustaining effective management and governance over a lengthy period of time, etc.

4. DAC’s management of (its) civil society organisations

While the above point refers particularly to the cultural institutions of the DAC, the DAC also has a poor record in managing relationships with the “civil society organisations” (can they really be labelled such?) that it establishes to “represent” civil society.

In January 2015, the DAC hosted a national conference for theatre and dance practitioners, at which a National Dance and Theatre Advisory Group was elected by attendees (one theatre and one dance representative per province).  This Group was mandated to devise policy and other strategies to serve the interests of the dance and theatre sectors, and yet, for nearly two years, this Group struggled to obtain the resources from the DAC that it believed it needed to do its work.

Under a previous Minister, an interim committee was unilaterally appointed to drive the establishment of a representative body – the Creative and Cultural Industries Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA) – for the sector and with which the DAC could “negotiate” and collaborate as civil society partners.  Even with a reasonably healthy budget, this interim body only managed to host a national launch – flawed in many respects – nearly a year after its appointment.  Since then (March 2015), this “representative” structure has done very little representing of the sector (the President of CCIFSA was appointed to the Reference Group to draft the RWP, yet failed to make any meaningful contribution to its work).

This reflects:

4.1  (again), the lack of respect that the DAC has for the independent organisations established by artists themselves

4.2  the DAC’s preference to establish “civil society” bodies that would be dependent on it for funding and generally do its bidding, even though they have little credibility within the broader creative sector

4.3  the DAC’s emphasis on superficial demographic transformation (the leadership of all these formations have been overwhelmingly black African, consistent with the demographics of the country) but without ensuring that the requisite skills were in place for the structures to do the work required; consequently

4.3.1      the structures are set up for failure and thus to earn the cynical dismissal of the sector and/or those who believe that “affirmative action” – or some version of it – is to blame and

4.3.2      substantive transformation does not take place while superficial, demographic transformation gives an impression of “transformation”, but without the structural changes having taken place

The RWP speaks of “forming professional, local and regional arts and craft associations and networks with membership benefits and development programmes” (p4); if the examples of the National Dance and Theatre Advisory Group and CCIFSA are indicative of the DAC’s formation of such networks, then it would be far better for the sector if the DAC refrains from doing so.  As with other sectors of society where workers form unions and professionals such as teachers, doctors and accountants form their own associations, it must be professionals within the sector that form organisations to defend and advance their interests and to have public funding to support their work, without compromising their independence and accountability primarily to their membership, rather than to their public funder.

5. The DAC and its dislike of Freedom of Expression and independent, critical thought

The 1996 White Paper affirmed the Constitutional right to freedom of creative expression by asserting that that policy would “ensure that all persons are free to pursue their vision of artistic creativity without interference, victimisation and censorship”.  In support of this principle, was the arm’s length principle of funding where “the state shall facilitate mechanisms for peer evaluation and decision-making regarding the funding of arts and culture activities” (to avoid politicians and government officials making such decisions and so asserting a political bias in such decisions) and the principle of autonomy, described as “the full independence of publicly-funded arts institutions, organisations and practitioners from party political and state interference”.

The RWP lists “Freedom of expression and access to information” as one of its principles (whereas in fact, they are two quite different principles); the DAC would be hard-pressed not to list freedom of expression as a principle, since this is a right guaranteed in the Constitution.  However, it is in the practice and execution of this right that the DAC’s commitment to this principle needs to be evaluated.

First, there is no longer any reference in the RWP to the principles of arm’s length or institutional autonomy, at least not as a commitment to these principles in support of the right to freedom of expression.

Secondly, notwithstanding the 1996 White Paper and these sound principles, the DAC instituted a law by which all the institutions it funded on a regular basis would have the chairpersons of their governing boards appointed directly by the Minister of Arts and Culture, thus providing a conduit of political influence on the one hand, and a source of political intimidation on the other (the chairperson would be accountable to the Minister, a political appointee, rather than to the Board members who would have no say in electing her/him).

Thirdly, publicly-funded institutions are now required to carry as part of their branding the fact that they are “agencies of the Department of Arts and Culture” i.e. they are no longer autonomous entities but bodies required to fulfil the mandate provided to them by the DAC.

Fourth, as alluded to in other paragraphs above, the DAC has a long record of marginalising or seeking to marginalise critical voices – individual and organisational – within the sector, and in seeking to establish “representative” voices and structures that are largely compliant, not least as they depend on the DAC for funding.

While the Department of Arts and Culture may do some good, without interrogating its capacity, ideological and management failures, we cannot be confident about the implementation and management of future policies.  What previous experience points to are consistent patterns of failure in that

  1. there is no real commitment to freedom of expression and organisational autonomy
  2. the DAC prefers to liaise/negotiate with organisations that it funds and establishes as so-called representatives of the sector, without acknowledging the inherent and unequal power relations and the compromising of democracy
  3. it does not empower the organisations and institutions for which it is responsible, thus rendering them incapable of representing or undertaking substantial transformation of the sector
  4. it manages the laws, international instruments and policy processes for which it is responsible with an ambivalence that favours its interests as a Department rather than what these instruments require or that would in the best interests of the creative sector

Against this background, the question has to be asked: can the DAC in its current form really – and be expected to – fulfil the functions and responsibilities assigned to it by the RWP (see p75 and the latter pages of the RWP).

False Analysis of the Failures of Policy

It has been necessary to point to the failures of implementation of policy, of poor management of stakeholder relations and of contradictions in the mandate of the DAC and its actual practice e.g. with regard to freedom of expression, precisely to alert the arts, culture and creative sector to the potential challenges in implementing this Revised White Paper, to provide the DAC with an opportunity to prove its credentials and good faith going forward and/or to encourage the creative sector to act in parallel (as many components of the sector have been doing) to the DAC in order to grow and sustain their work, overlapping only minimally, if at all.

As if the above illustrations are not sufficient cause for concern, the RWP itself is premised on fundamentally flawed – indeed, false – analyses of the failures of policy, rather than the failures of the DAC in implementing and managing policy.  The drafters of the RWP have largely confused these two issues as this section will show.

Policy must be evaluated regularly to ascertain its impact, if any, and to ensure that it remains relevant to changing conditions.  If the management and implementation of policy are not evaluated and addressed, then changing policies will have little impact as the same poor management and implementation mechanisms will prevail.

This is one of the key failures of the Revised White Paper – a false analysis of the failures of 1996 White Paper (pg 10).

Given the wide-ranging proposals for policy changes carried out in the context of the historical transition, it was to be expected that the initial democratic culture and policy interventions would not, somehow, magically resolve the legacies of the past. Two decades of implementation experience laid bare the limitations of the founding policies (my emphasis) These include:

  • A lack of coherence in the design of the overall system resulting in overlaps between different agencies and institutions;

Comment: This is not necessarily the fault of the policy, but rather poor subsequent planning, legislative inconsistencies and uneven implementation of policy

  • Slow transformations in the sector;

Comment: The 1996 White Paper calls for substantial transformation of the sector and has as its basis the transformation of the creative sector as a whole; that transformation has been “slow” is not a fault of the policy but of those responsible for driving and implementing transformation.

  • Inefficient and cumbersome administrative procedures;

Comment: Again, this is not the fault of policy; administrative procedures are put in place as the result of legislation such as the Public Finance Management Act or the National Arts Council Act; administrative procedures can be changed relatively quickly where there is vision and political will, and without having to change policy necessarily – unless policy has built-in administrative procedures for example, the manner in which an arts council is to be appointed, in which case attempts to change these procedures may have less to do with their “cumbersome” nature, than with authorities preferring a different method to transparent and participatory appointment of publicly-funded bodies.

  • A lack of coordination between national, provincial and local arts, culture and heritage policies and the need for greater interdepartmental cooperation;

Comment: Again, this is not the fault of policy.  This may be because of different levels of government being controlled by different political parties, or different factions within the same party, or with constitutional limitations on the role of local government in the creative sector, or on inefficiencies and incompetence within the different government structures; it is imperative that the causes of such a lack of coordination be properly analysed and addressed, as any future, changed policy may suffer from similar lack of coordination in its implementation. In addition, as Lance Nawa has pointed out in various forums, there is a Constitutional challenge with arts and culture being declared a concurrent competency of national and provincial government, but not of local government, even though it is at the latter level that arts, culture and heritage services can best be provided in response to citizens’ needs. The lottery has played a major role in the arts, culture and heritage sector during the period of implementation of the 1996 White Paper, and yet, there is no mention of its positive and – in too many cases – negative impact on the sector, and the absence of coordination between the lottery and other funding agencies in the arts and culture sector; this is a structural problem within government, not a fault of the 1996 White Paper.

  • Inadequate formal education and training opportunities for art, culture and heritage

Comment: The 1996 White Paper has a section on the development of human resources for the arts, culture and heritage sector; that there are inadequate opportunities, again, is not the fault of the policy, but of those required to implement this policy!


  • The uneven distribution of infrastructure, facilities, material and resources outside the main metropolitan areas;

Comment: It is the Department of Arts and Culture that decided to fund three theatres in the country’s richest province – the State Theatre, Market Theatre, Windybrow Theatre – and none in Eastern Cape, North West, Limpopo, Northern Cape and Mpumalanga – it is not the fault of the 1996 policy! The 1996 White Paper called for the establishment of arts centres throughout the country to improve access to the arts and to cultural infrastructure to create, produce and distribute art; that this has not happened, or that it has been poorly implemented is the responsibility of government, NOT a deficiency in the original policy document).


  • The persistence of the perception of arts, culture and heritage as marginal luxuries;


 Comment: The drafters of this RWP do not explain how this is a fault of policy, or how changing the policy will change this perception – this is a matter of education, not of policy.  However, previous editions of the RWP – and this one – emphasise the “creative and cultural industries” as drivers of economic growth and job creation, no doubt, in the hope of changing the perception among politicians at least about the value of the arts in reducing inequality, unemployment and poverty.  The truth is that the 1996 White Paper already spoke about the economic potential of the creative sector, and the DAC’s Cultural Industries Growth Strategy (launched in 1998) was based on this.  Notwithstanding this lengthy period of emphasis on the cultural and creative industries (at least 18 years), our poverty, inequality and unemployment indicators have deteriorated. It is a false and unfair burden to place on the arts and culture sector what other sectors of our economy and the political class generally, have been unable to achieve.

  • Insufficient attention to the role of the private sector in funding and developing the sector;

Comment: The 1996 White Paper called for greater incentivisation of the private sector to support the arts; the DAC’s response was to create Business and Arts South Africa, and to make a contribution to the endowment of the Arts and Culture Trust, a private sector initiative.  This is how the DAC chose to implement policy; what is required is an analysis of how this has failed to deliver on the vision which the DAC has of private sector support for the arts sector, rather than attribute any such failures to the original policy.

  • Inadequate monitoring and evaluation of institutions, programmes and events.

Comment: Evaluation and monitoring should be standard elements in any implementation – not necessarily policy – strategy.  Implementing policy through institutions, structures and strategies requires regular evaluation of impact to determine whether the policy goals have been/are being realised.  Again, to blame inadequate monitoring and evaluation of institutions on policy is to absolve the DAC of its manifold failures in this regard which has led to countless institutions for which it is responsible having qualified audits, being poorly governed and managed, failing to deliver on institutional mandates, etc.  Changing the policy and even insisting on evaluation and monitoring within the policy, does not improve the DAC’s ability or commitment effectively to provide such oversight.

That the RWP is premised on a fundamentally flawed analysis i.e. “the limitations of the founding policies” is a real cause of concern since:

  1. it reflects poor analytical capacity with the resultant recommended changes in the RWP not addressing the real reasons for the failures regarding the implementation of policy rather than the policy itself
  2. there is no analysis of the Department of Arts and Culture and its management, implementation and evaluation of the 1996 White Paper, leaving it largely intact as the primary vehicle for implementation
  3. recommended changes for structural changes within the RWP e.g. amalgamating the National Film and Video Foundation and the National Arts Council would appear to have less to do with the failures of policy than with the DAC’s desire for such changes for whatever reasons, since many of the structural changes proposed are to institutions that came into being after the adoption of the White Paper


There are many positives in the RWP, at least relative to previous versions of the RWP.  These include:

  1. a recognition of the different values of art, culture and heritage (intrinsic, educational, creative, therapeutic, recreational, social, economic, etc, pg 2, 7, 8) and accepts that “humans are holistic beings with material, psychological, emotional, cultural, spiritual and intellectual needs” rather than the previous RWP editions’ emphasis on the economic dimension of arts, culture and heritage in order to address the country’s principle challenges of inequality, unemployment and poverty
  2. sector-specific proposals to enhance each of music, theatre, dance, literature, heritage, etc (pgs 15-35) – these were largely absent in previous versions of the RWP
  3. the intention of the RWP effectively to “contribute to a cohesive and united society in which everyone has access to arts, culture and heritage, resources, facilitated and opportunities…” (p3) and to extend “art, culture and heritage infrastructure, facilities and resources beyond the colonial urban centres into peri-urban and rural communities” (p4) – this affirms the 1996 White Paper’s premise that “everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts” (Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and the Freedom Charter principle “The doors of learning and culture shall be open”. The creative industries approach of the previous versions of the RWP meant that it would be those with disposable income who would best have their arts, culture and heritage needs catered for, rather than “all” South Africans
  4. it speaks of “transforming South Africa into an inclusive society based on actual equality” (p3), a recognition that the idea of “the rainbow nation” works only for people of a particular class (middle to upper) and that poor people are generally excluded in our society
  5. it promotes human resource development through formal and informal programmes (although, this was a recommendation of the 1996 White Paper too)
  6. it envisages expanded markets for local creative products and services into regional, continental and global markets (p4)
  7. the emphasis on digital aspects of the creative sector both in production and distribution, but also in archiving is to be welcomed
  8. more detailed outlines of the potential social benefits for arts and culture practitioners are contained in this document than previous policy documents


Notwithstanding these positives, and the deficiencies already dealt with in regard to the process, the flawed analysis of the “limitations” of the 1996 White Paper and the DAC as a vehicle for implementing the RWP, there are further flaws in the RWP that will be dealt with thematically.

Conceptual weaknesses

There are numerous conceptual weaknesses, contradictions or gaps in clarity in the Revised White Paper.

  1. Alignment of the White Paper with the core mandate of the Ministry

As the first objective of the RWP, it is stated that the intention is “to align the revised White Paper on Arts Culture and Heritage with the core mandate of the Ministry of providing arts, culture and heritage services, facilities, funds and resources; contribute to addressing poverty and job creation; and promote social cohesion and nation-building by providing access, resources and facilities to all who live in South Africa, with special attention paid to injustices and imbalances of the past.” (p3) The introduction to the vision and mission of the White Paper also states “the vision and mission of this White Paper affirm the vision and mission of the DAC…” (p5).

Comment: The 1996 White Paper arose out of a vision for the arts, culture and heritage sector based on the realities of the time, and as determined largely by the creative community.  The Department of Arts and Culture took its mandate from the White Paper, rooted in this vision for the arts, culture and heritage.  This RWP has a fundamentally different starting point which is the “core mandate of the Ministry”, a mandate determined by the Ministry itself and/or by government more generally.   In other words, the vision for arts and culture has to be aligned with what the Ministry is “mandated” to do, rather than the Ministry being “mandated” by a vision contained in the RWP.

The vision of the RWP is “a dynamic, vibrant and transformed arts, culture and heritage sector, leading to nation-building, social cohesion and socioeconomic inclusion” (p5) and the mission is “to create an enabling environment in which the arts, culture and heritage can flourish and play a significant role in nation-building and socioeconomic development…” (p5).

The assumption of the RWP – clearly mandated by the National Development Plan – is to deal with the country’s major challenges (inequality, poverty and unemployment), and, in the process, also to achieve – or at least contribute significantly to – nation-building and social inclusion.

The RWP presents these – inequality, poverty and unemployment – as new contemporary challenges that require a response from the DAC, the White Paper and the arts, culture and heritage sector.  However, these challenges are not new and existed at the time of the adoption of the 1996 White Paper, a policy document that sought to address these exact – and other – challenges.  What is different now, twenty years later, is that these challenges have been exacerbated i.e. we have a more unequal society than in 1996, unemployment is higher than then, and were it not for the massive roll out of social grants with nearly 17 million citizens receiving a state handout, poverty would be significantly greater too!

So, rather than paying “special attention…to injustices and imbalances of the past”, the RWP should also pay attention to the factors that have contributed to greater injustices and imbalances of the last twenty-two years e.g. macro-economic policies, poor service delivery, high levels of corruption within the state – factors mentioned in the Diagnostic Study of the National Planning Commission that led to the National Development Plan, but which are completely absent in this RWP.  Without addressing these broader factors that have contributed – and continue to contribute to rising unemployment, inequality and poverty – the intentions of the RWP in addressing these “triple challenges” and the harnessing of the arts, culture and heritage sectors in doing so, will be meaningless and ineffectual.

While the RWP – correctly – calls for the renaming of the Department as the Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage to reflect its true mandate, it is in the area of “culture” that the RWP is particularly weak.

There is no articulation of the “cultural dimension” of development, or of nation-building, of human rights, of social cohesion i.e. what values, worldviews, traditions, religious and other beliefs, social and interpersonal modes of behaviour, social constructs, etc impact on the goals of the RWP?  How do they impact – in real terms and potentially? And, what – in policy terms – must be done to mitigate such impact?

The RWP states that it should “ensure the cultural dimension of development is adopted, adhered to and implemented across all relevant government departments” (p66) but it does not give clear direction as to what this actually means.  To simply leave it to departments to interpret, would render this meaningless; this policy document should clearly articulate an understanding of “the cultural dimension of development” and the practical implications of its transversal nature.

Culture is a transversal phenomenon and impacts directly on social cohesion, nation-building, development strategies, economic growth, the spread of HIV/AIDS and strategies to reduce the disease burden – what, in policy terms, is the RWP’s position with regard to this understanding of culture?  It is largely absent, an absence that does not resonate with recent international campaigns to infuse culture into the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Furthermore, one of the biggest contradictions in the last twenty years, was the exercise of freedom of artistic expression versus culture in the case of The Spear painting by Brett Murray.  On the one hand, the artist was exercising his constitutional right to freedom of creative expression by making a painting that depicted the rape of the public purse (long before the State Capture Report), while one of the chief criticisms levelled at the painting was that it was insensitive to African culture by publicly depicting the genitals of the President.  The RWP fails to interrogate this contradiction, and to assert a position with regard to culture and human rights, or culture and freedom of expression in particular.

  1. Who is the RWP for?

The Revised White Paper talks about providing access and resources “to all who live in South Africa”, to address challenges to do with “factors of exclusions” and to “promote social cohesion” (p3); however, the RWP refrains from addressing xenophobia, particularly as manifested towards millions of African nationals from other countries on the continent who have migrated to our country in search of better lives or refuge from conflicts at home.  Is this a Revised White Paper for “all who live in South Africa” (p3) or for all South Africans, only?  There is an allusion in the RWP to new immigrants into the country, but given the number of refugees and migrants in South Africa, the history of xenophobic violence against African nationals and the RWP’s emphasis on nation-building, social cohesion and culture, there needs to be a greater policy emphasis with regard to the integration of African nationals in particular.

  1. Hasten transformation to enable accelerated transformation?

The fourth stated objective of the RWP is to “reconfigure the existing art, culture and heritage sector and the policies underpinning it to eliminate duplication and hasten transformation to enable the accelerated transformation (my emphasis) and optimal performance of the sector in relation to current social, education and economic policies.” (pg 4)

Comment: It is unclear from the above how the White Paper will “hasten transformation to enable the accelerated transformation…of the sector”, implying – tautologically or nonsensically – that transformation needs to be sped up in order to speed up transformation.

Such imprecise use of language is fairly common in this policy document, giving the impression that terminology is employed to convey particular meanings or to satisfy the authorities but which have little meaning in policy and practical terms; it’s as if the document sometimes gets lost in political-speak, making it difficult for the reader to understand what is meant.

Another example of gobbledygook language is to have arts, culture and heritage “flourish and play a significant role in nation-building and socioeconomic development by leading nation-building and societal transformation through social cohesion” (p5).  What does this actually mean?  That the arts, culture and heritage will play a significant role in nation-building by leading nation-building? That it will do so through social cohesion?  What is the difference between nation-building and building a socially-inclusive or cohesive society?  Is one a strategy and the other an end?

Part of the stated mission of the RWP is to create an enabling environment in which the arts, etc can flourish and play a significant role in nation-building and socioeconomic development by “providing leadership to the arts, culture and heritage sector to accelerate transformation” (p5).  It is unclear whether this – providing leadership…to accelerate transformation – is the role of the RWP or the DAC or both (since the RWP affirms the vision and mission of the DAC).  The White Paper of 1996 was premised on the need for transformation stating the principle of redress, meaning “…the correction of historical and existing imbalances through development, education, training and affirmative action with regard to race, gender, rural and urban considerations”.  The DAC had the principal responsibility for driving such redress and transformation.  Twenty years later, this is simply being repeated, without an assessment of the nature and quality of transformation of the last twenty years and of the DAC’s role in driving and managing such transformation of the sector.

  1. African Knowledge Systems (AKS)

The RWP genuflects to the current debates about decolonisation in tertiary institutions by inserting decolonisation as a principle and defining it as “placing African knowledge, epistemology, art, culture and heritage at the centre of policies, practices, institutions and programmes” (p6).  However, it also lists “openness” as a principle, defining it as “all cultures in every country in the world, balanced by national and local needs and priorities, are in principle open to and act upon each other”, without seeming to recognise that cultural values, ideas and beliefs embedded in creative products from more resourced economies are more able to act on, and influence the cultures of less-resourced societies.  According to the RWP, there is thus a need – on the one hand – to decolonise our culture, but, on the other, to be open to other cultures.

The RWP states that it seeks “to integrate AKS into arts, culture and heritage policy” (p13).  It further states that “the origins of AKS can be traced back to the development of a new concept in organisational theory and social developments in the United States of America in the 1980s”, without reflecting on the irony of importing an “African” concept from America, in the context of a discussion about “decolonisation”.

More confusing though is the critique of AKS embedded within the RWP:

“AKS mainstreaming is a problematic means to achieve the goal of the equality of knowledge holders for a number of reasons:

  • AKS mainstreaming is too vague a concept to be utilised effectively for the equality of knowledge holders
  • Different understanding of the usage and meaning of AKS mainstreaming
  • The employment of AKS mainstreaming as an efficiency vehicle without attention to its redistributive effect
  • The attempt to conceptually integrate the equality of knowledge holders form the beginning with existing knowledge institutions and programmes has been counter-productive” (p14)

Notwithstanding – or perhaps because of – this critique, the RWP “supports” (rather than directs or affirms) the establishment of a National Institute of African Knowledge Systems with an arts, culture and heritage component at a tertiary – or many tertiary – institutions. (p14).

There is no definition of African Knowledge Systems that would be useful for policy purposes and the discussion about AKS in the policy document appears to be a cut-and-paste job from another document.  It is so conceptually meaningless and woolly as to be counter-productive for inclusion in this document.  One of the principles of the RWP is “good governance” (defined as “sound, transparent and accountable governance and management principles and procedures”) – what would be uniquely African and exemplary of African epistemology in this regard, since “good governance” is generally a term employed by international donors – and European donors in particular – to demand a certain form of government by global south, including African governments?  While claiming to place AKS at the centre of the RWP, there is, in fact, very little integrating of “African Knowledge Systems” into the various sections of the document.

  1. Social Cohesion and Nation-Building

The RWP states that

“Social cohesion and nation-building is (sic) a response to the ongoing and unfinished national project which began with the transformation of South Africa into a constitutional democracy in 1994.  The DAC is the custodian of this national outcome.” (p13)

If, as the Diagnostic Study of the National Planning Commission points out, our society is as divided as ever, what has the DAC done – and what has been its impact – over the last twenty years as the custodian of nation-building and social cohesion?  The RWP correctly points out elsewhere that reducing inequality will be a key strategy to integrate the marginalised poor into the mainstream.  This is not something that the DAC can do; this is a matter of macro-economics, of job creation, education and myriad other interventions.  What, then, are the key interventions that the DAC can or should be making in this regard?

The RWP states

“The arts, cultural and heritage dimension of social cohesion and nation-building is integral to the DAC’s mandate to develop South African culture to reduce inequalities, exclusions and disparities based on ethnicity, gender, class, nationality, age, disability and any other distinctions which engender divisions, distrust and conflict.  This is to be achieved by eradicating the divisions and injustices of the past and to foster unity and a sense of being proudly South African”.

The above is a typical example of the woolly, circular thinking that permeates too much of the RWP.  This section is descriptive and general, without having any relevance or practical meaning in policy terms.

  1. Performing arts traditions

The RWP speaks of traditions within the South African performing arts comprising “African, European, Asian and Jewish strands…”. (p15) There are three continental references and one religious/cultural reference – why?  If “Jewish” is included, why not Hindu, Christian and Muslim?  For a document that seeks to build social cohesion and to build a nation, such language and references are extraordinarily provocative.

Conclusion: Some parts of the RWP are more clearly written than other parts.  There are better definitions and more precise uses of language that bring clarity in some parts of the document than in other parts.  Then again, some of the definitions – listed in the Appendix – are not carried into and through the document so as to be meaningful in terms of policy.  It is as if different writers have contributed based on their areas of interest or expertise – and some on the basis of gaps being identified, but not really having the clarity to fill these gaps – and the document as a whole is a copy-and-paste job that is poorly edited, does not reflect an overall “eye” and consistency in language and conceptual meaning and whose structure in unwieldy.  Many parts are also descriptive without having policy relevance.

Some paragraphs stop in mid-sentence e.g. “The objective of the NDP is to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030…as a long term strategic plan, it serves four broad objectives:…???(p12)” and “The objective of this policy proposal is not rationalisation but the elimination of duplication and overlaps for greater integration, consolidation, coherence, optimal functioning and effective delivery by the…???” (p24)

The RWP in its current form can do with a substantial edit.


The RWP defines transformation as follows: “to reconfigure the personnel, programmes and collections, exhibits, performances and events in arts, culture and heritage to reflect the demographics of an African society with diverse cultures” (p6).

A much more detailed analysis of transformation is contained in the critique of the 2013 edition of the RWP, and so it will not be repeated here.

The 2016 RWP states that transformation has been “slow”.  However, there is a complete absence of research into how the sector has been transformed over the last twenty years.  The report on Visual Arts states that the demographics in producers of art are much more reflective of the country, but that raises the key missing research for this policy document: what is the state of human resources, ownership and leadership at every level of the value chain (education, creation, production, distribution and consumption) for every discipline (music, theatre, dance, film, design, visual arts, literature, festivals and events, etc)?  Without such detailed research, it is impossible to determine whether transformation has indeed been slow, or whether it has taken place at all?

This, though, would only be an analysis of quantitative transformation – how the numbers of women, black, disabled, etc people have changed in each discipline and at every level of the value chain.

What is also missing is research into qualitative transformation: how demographic/quantitative transformation has contributed to the substantial and sustainable changing of lives, how structures and processes have been changed to benefit the majority of South Africans, how infrastructure, resources and skills have been redistributed nationally, etc.

The DAC’s own record with regard to transformation and infrastructure – building arts centres and supporting theatres – is a rather poor one, with most infrastructure supported by the national purse still based in the more resourced provinces and urban centres.

The most disturbing, frustrating and sad thing about this Revised White Paper, is that for all the pontification about transformation, social cohesion, the National Development Plan, alleviating poverty and reducing inequality, there IS VERY LITTLE IN IT THAT ARTICULATES A VISION, POLICIES AND PRACTICAL PROPOSALS TO MAKE THE ARTS, CULTURE AND HERITAGE AFFIRM – AND TO MAKE THESE ACCESSIBLE TO – HISTORICALLY MARGINALISED, POOR AND UNDER-RESOURCED COMMUNITIES AND INDIVIDUALS.  While it takes a broader focus than previous editions that foregrounded the creative and cultural industries, this RWP also emphasises the creative and cultural industries in the misguided belief that these will contribute to social and human development and to meeting the country’s major challenges.  The document repeats phrases about nation-building, social cohesion, poverty alleviation, etc, but there is little in it that would excite an arts practitioner in Limpopo or Northern Cape, or indeed, in Nyanga, Alexandra or Mafikeng.


This lack of research into the nature and state of transformation over the last twenty years reflects the lack of research that generally informs the RWP, with the following illustrative examples:

  1. The impact and limitations of the 1996 White Paper

The assessment of the implementation of the 1996 White Paper (pp 8-11) is a caricature of research and analysis, most exemplified by the following:

“Against the historical background of apartheid education, which was designed to deprive children of basic, secondary and tertiary education, including art, culture and heritage education:

  • The introduction of arts education at all levels of education was adopted as policy
  • The establishment of arts, culture and heritage administration, management and policy programmes at tertiary institutions was endorsed
  • The provision of basic infrastructure and resources in historically underdeveloped rural and urban communities commenced”

There is no research that analyses the current state of arts education at primary and secondary levels (the absence of qualified teachers, the lack of facilities and resources, etc).  To say that arts education “at all levels was adopted as policy” without showing its impact, and what now needs to be done, is disingenuous.

Similarly, tertiary programmes to develop human resources “was endorsed”; the 1996 White Paper did not call for arts education simply to be adopted as policy and for management programmes to be “endorsed”; it called for the implementation of these in order to develop the skilled human resources that would be required radically to transform and sustain the transformation of the arts, culture and heritage sector.  This has been one of the key failures of the DAC – to develop human resources to lead and manage cultural institutions and civil society structures, and this is reflected in the state of many institutions under its watch.

Another key failure of the DAC is the roll-out of infrastructure in rural and deprived urban communities; this had indeed “been commenced”, but despite this being a key strategy recommended in the 1996 White Paper, it was poorly implemented with infrastructure created, but without ensuring that local government would continue to support such infrastructure in the long term and without the requisite human resources being developed effectively to manage such infrastructure.

While the RWP talks of developing a coherent and integrated system, it is precisely because of the lack of coherence and integration over the last twenty years that much of the 1996 White Paper’s recommendations remain unfulfilled, which, again, goes to the vision, capacity and leadership ability of the DAC.

The RWP talks about how the 1996 White Paper’s recommendations on the economic dimension of the arts was developed into the Mzansi Golden Economy programme and how its recommendations for ongoing research was made manifest in the recent launch of the Cultural Observatory.  However, in the same paragraph, it also mentions a third item – the original White Paper’s recommendation to promote the rights and status of arts and culture practitioners – and yet, despite many false starts, very little, if anything has been done in this regard.

It has already been pointed out how the RWP drafters have falsely analysed the lack of implementation of the 1996 White Paper as the “limitations of policy” rather than as the failures of management and implementation of policy.

  1. The National Development Plan: Vision 2030

The RWP makes much of the National Development Plan (NDP) and of the role of arts, culture and heritage in contributing to the NDP’s goals of eliminating poverty and reducing inequality by 2030.

Whereas the NDP is based on a thorough diagnostic study (much as the 1996 White Paper was based on the comprehensive ACTAG Report), this RWP is based – at best – on a patchwork of (largely untested) reports (see below), generalisations and a distinct absence of research, both into what currently exists, what has been achieved since 1996 and what remain as key challenges.

The Diagnostic Study lists the key factors that hold back the development of the country:

  • A high disease burden
  • Communities that remain divided
  • The uneven performance of the public service
  • Apartheid’s spatial patterns continue to marginalise the poor
  • Too few South Africans have jobs
  • Increasing levels of corruption
  • Economy is dependent on resources
  • Crumbling infrastructure
  • Poor educational outcomes

In addition, it speaks of the weakening of state and civil society institutions, poor management of the economy, the flight of skills and capital and politics dominated by short-termism, ethnicity and factionalism as factors that contribute to a decline, and that need to be arrested.

Based on this diagnostic study, the NDP makes comprehensive proposals to alter the direction of our society and to reduce inequality and eliminate poverty.

While the RWP makes much of the NDP, in truth, the NDP devotes little more than two paragraphs in its 440 pages to arts and culture.  As a document that interprets the NDP, and integrates arts, culture and heritage into the NDP vision, the RWP is as weak as the NDP is in integrating arts, culture and heritage into its vision.

Reference is made to the Cultural Industries Growth Strategy (CIGS) – initiated in 1998 – and to research that shows how well the music, craft and visual arts industries contribute to the GDP and to employment; if this is the case, should we not simply be continuing what has been done in the last while?  On the other hand, if the cultural and creative industries have been making such significant contributions over the last twenty years, how come inequality and unemployment have increased?  Are there broader factors that impact adversely on the potential contribution of the arts, culture and heritage sector to these noble goals, and over which the sector has no control?

The political imperatives of the RWP (NDP goals, social cohesion, etc) are the over-arching and dominant drivers of the RWP rather than a vision for arts, culture and heritage.  There is no guarantee that taking this approach will realise the goals of the NDP.  A case could be made for an alternative approach (contained in the 1996 White Paper) – for a vision for the development of arts, culture and heritage among all the people of South Africa, that with proper management and resourcing, could realise the goals of the NDP more effectively than the approach taken by the RWP.

  1. Reports and documents

The RWP references a number of documents and claims to be informed by these.  These include:

National Development Plan Vision 2030 (2011)

Constitution’s Bill or Rights (1996)

African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (1981)

Charter for African Cultural Renaissance (2006)

UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001)

Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003)

Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005)

The African Union’s Agenda 2063 (2014)

Charter of the United Nations

IDC Music Industry Study (2013) – as yet unpublished (p19)

Research Report: An Assessment of the Visual Arts in South Africa (2010)

DAC National Mapping Study (2014)

Towards Optimally Functioning Community Arts Centres in South Africa (2002)

However, there are no links to these reports or documents as an appendix.  The drafters of the RWP may have had insight into many of these reports, but the creative sector has not necessarily had similar access.

It would have been really helpful to have a document that combines the key findings of these various reports and lists the international protocols referenced by the RWP, which would then also have saved the drafters from having to include so much descriptive text within the policy document.

Within the RWP itself, there is little clarity about how a particular document informs a particular recommendation.


  1.  Theatre

It is a substantial improvement on previous editions to include bold and precise policy recommendations (pp15-17), based on submissions made by theatre practitioners.  Some of the recommendations though e.g. “introduce a formula of 50% in-house productions and 50% external independent productions” – which are not from the sector – are potentially unworkable and restrictive.  The implementation of these recommendations – necessarily summarised from the larger Dance and Theatre Discussion Document – need to be done in accordance with the recommendations in that Document (it should be referenced in the RWP along with other reports and documents which inform this RWP).

  1. Dance

This section is not written by someone informed about dance; changes to the dance sector (aesthetically and in terms of collaborations) began in the mid-80s through Dance Umbrella.  Some excellent dance companies e.g. Vuyani are still dependent on international funding, and other excellent companies e.g. First Physical, have collapsed because of the lack of local support!  The recommendation of employing dancers on a 50/50 basis (p18) is illiterate.  This section needs to be rewritten to make it consistent with the kind of recommendations made in the theatre section as dance employs similar principles – theatre infrastructure, companies, resident choreographers, touring circuits, etc.

  1. Music, Visual Arts, Audio-visual Media, Heritage, Literature, Language, etc

As with dance, these sections are poorly articulated in policy terms, and require significant editing.  There appears to be much copy and pasting e.g. the Heritage and Literature sections, without editing this copy for the purposes of policy.  There is too much repetition, generalisation, broad meaningless statements in these sections for a policy document; a good edit is required.

On page 22, we are introduced for the first time to “the governance body for the National Arts and Audio Visual Council of South Africa”, an amalgamation of the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and the National Arts Council (NAC).  There is no introductory motivation for this, nothing till/at this point to indicate that it is necessary for social cohesion, NDP, transformation, or other purposes – and yet, this is a pretty major structural change being proposed.  It also needs to be pointed out that both these bodies – NFVF and NAC – are post-1994 structures; the reasons for their proposed amalgamation then would be instructive.

4. The Cultural and Creative Industries

After the section on policies for the different disciplines, there is a section on the cultural and creative industries that is almost as long as the preceding section.  What is the relationship between the creative and cultural industries on the one hand, and the core disciplines and the policy recommendations associated with these on the other?  Again, there appears to be much description, copying and pasting in this section with little reference to or resonance with the policy proposals related to music, theatre, heritage, etc.

This is a structural problem within the RWP, and it reflects a lack of coherence and the kind of woolly thinking mentioned earlier.

  1. Arts, Culture and Heritage Education and Training

The RWP correctly pays attention to the urgent need for the development of human resources and capacity within the arts, culture and heritage sector.  However, much of the relevant section is about description, with few practical policy recommendations, and the reader has to imply potential policy recommendations from the descriptions.


There is much more than can be said and written about the Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage.  However, this intervention seeks to address some of the more fundamental issues; others will provide their perspectives and submissions, and hopefully, the next version will be a better one.

This White Paper has been in the process of becoming for such a long time, more than three years!  And yet, the arts and culture sector has kept functioning.  As with other sectors of our society, it is the resourced, the educated and the networked who are able to get on and prosper with limited, if any government assistance, while the marginalised and the poor for whom government and policy should most work, remain on the fringes due to the delays in policy formulation, and more importantly, in the poor implementation and management of policy.

That this process is still open, represents an opportunity for a visionary, inspirational policy to be drafted, and for relationships between key stakeholders, including civil society actors, to be brokered.

Very little in the last three years though give one hope that the DAC – principally – and the Minister will grasp these opportunities.

This, however, does not mean that the arts, culture and heritage sector should not find ways of addressing the key challenges within the sector, and the key challenges in our society through the sector, whether with, or without government.




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The National Arts Festival Fringe as Animal Farm

Many theatre-makers on the Fringe of the National Arts Festival often wonder what they need to do to attract audiences in a highly competitive market with more than 300 productions on the Fringe alone, in addition to the Main programme’s offerings.

The Festival has released its 2016 attendance figures (“…ticket sales and attendance at Festival events totalling 227 524”) and a list of the top 30 Fringe shows in terms of gross income.   What, many may ask, are the “top 30” doing to get their share of the 220 000 plus people attending the Festival?

Both for the sanity of fringe theatre-makers and for informed marketing, it is necessary to interrogate these figures.

The first myth to debunk is that 227 524 different individuals attend the festival in Grahamstown; the town itself has a population of less than 100 000, and it simply does not have the infrastructure to support its own population, let alone accommodate an increase of more than 200% in its population albeit for only ten days.  The Festival statement talks of “ticket sales and attendance at Festival events”, a combination that includes festival attendees who generally buy multiple tickets, and free attendance at festival events such as exhibitions.  The Festival calculates attendance at Fringe and Main exhibitions at 50 and 120 persons per day respectively (that was a few years ago; I’m not sure if these attendance figures are subject to inflation), and such free attendance is included in the overall attendance figures.

To my knowledge, the Festival has never released data of actual Fringe ticket sales and actual Main programme sales per genre that would give Fringe artists a better idea of the realistic size of their potential market.  If one removes the free attendance figures from 227 524, and then subtracts the ticket sales for main programme events, what is the figure for actual Fringe ticket sales?  And, more tellingly, what is the total number of tickets available for sale on the Fringe, versus the actual number of tickets sold?  From actual ticket sales on the Fringe over the last ten years, how many Fringe productions could expect to generate 50% box office income?  My suspicion is that the answer to this question would be “less than 80%) i.e. there are simply too many productions on the Fringe for the size of the Fringe market for the average producer to generate a reasonable box office income.  It is unlikely that the average Fringe theatre producer will make sufficient money at the Festival to cover festival expenses, let alone production costs.

And yet, some are doing well on the Festival Fringe, and the Festival tells us that there were three “sold out” productions on the Fringe, including my own show, Pay back the Curry.  However, contrary to what one would expect, only two of three “sold out” shows featured in the top 30 sellers at the Festival, which reflects the need for further interrogation of the figures.

Of the three “sold out” shows, “Big Boys the Third” had 12 shows, “Brent – A Mobile Thriller” had 16 and “Pay back the Curry” had 8.  But, although “Brent” had the most shows, it could only accommodate a mobile audience of three at each show so that its total “sold out” audience would be less than 50% of one “Curry” show in the 100-seater Masonic Hall Front.  On the other hand, despite “Curry” selling out all of its eight shows, it achieved less than 50% of the “Big Boys” total audience since they played 12 shows in the 220-seater Kingswood Theatre.

Being “sold out” means different things depending on the size of the venue, and while it may be theoretically true, “sold out” does not necessarily equate in practice to high income.  Still, it is very rare for a show, particularly a new one such as “Curry” without any previous profile at the Festival, to sell out all its shows, and even for “Big Boys” with its previous popular incarnations, achieving this distinction is no mean feat.

According to the Festival release “comedy continues to dominate the National Lottery Fringe accounting for 49% of ticket sales. Follow Spot Production’s Bon Soir 1.5 topped the leaderboard of top grossing productions, closely followed by the same company’s Big Boys the Third and the perennial Raiders franchise from Theatre for Africa.”

Of the 30 top-selling shows, 19 are listed in the comedy category (63%) and 7 in theatre (23%) with illusion (2), dance and musical theatre (1 each) making up the rest.  Twenty-five of these shows (83%) had six or more performances, and 18 (60%) charged ticket prices of R80 or more, with “Raiders” being at the highest end at R120 per ticket.  (Most of the theatre shows on the Main Programme were priced at R75 or below).  At least 25 of the top-selling shows were presented at the National Arts Festival before, either in their current form or in another form, with the title and/or participants recognisable to the Festival audience.  Even within these top-selling shows, there would be a wide range of “gross income” from the high R40 000s shows to the R200 000 plus shows.

From the above, the following deductions may be made:

  1. A combination of a long run (6 or more shows), relatively high ticket prices (R80 or more) and a large venue (150 seats or more) are ingredients – though not definite guarantees – for a top-selling show on the Fringe
  2. In addition to the above, having a production in the comedy genre is significantly more likely to attract an audience than the theatre genre.
  3. “Brand recognition” in the form of production titles or artists who have profiles at the Festival and beyond, is a significant factor in driving ticket sales.

We conducted some – not particularly scientific – research over the course of “Curry’s” run at the Festival principally to determine how people became aware of the show, and then what persuaded them to buy tickets.  From the responses to more than 220 questionnaires, we concluded that the primary ways in which people became aware of our show were:

  1. through the Festival programme (we had a full-page colour advertisement in addition to the insert that all shows have) (38%)
  2. through word-of-mouth (others who had seen the show as part of its development process in Cape Town, or at the Festival itself) (22%) and
  3. through a teacher i.e. they attended as part of a school block booking (12%)

The latter, I believe, was significant to our success as it helped to fill up the first two shows (an important strategy both to get out word-of-mouth about the show, and to build ticket-buying momentum for the remaining shows).  Our first show was sold out before we arrived in Grahamstown and the reasons for this may be gleaned from the answers to the second key question i.e. what convinced you to buy tickets for the show?  The primary reasons given were:

  1. the comedy genre, thereby affirming the Festival’s release about the importance of comedy for the Festival market (25%)
  2. the title of the piece and the writer were the joint second reasons for people buying tickets (15% apiece) followed jointly by
  3. the director and being part of a block booking (10% each).

The director, Rob van Vuuren, has a strong festival brand (as is reflected in his having three other shows in the top-selling band of 30 shows), and some schools have prescribed my plays, which accounts for some of the school block bookings.  Word-of-mouth is imperative at the Festival itself based on the quality of the production, but genre and artist brands account importantly for pre-Festival ticket sales (we had sold more than 50% of our tickets by the time we opened).

We did not have a poster (usually an expensive marketing item that is lost in poster clutter), but we did have flyers as well as advertisements in Cue.  Cue does not carry the “Fringe in a Flash” reviews on days when the show is not happening, and with our actor being involved in three other shows at the Festival, we did not run for two days in the middle of the Festival.  We were fortunate to have two Cue reviews (one “Fringe in a Flash” and one from the Cue specialist theatre writer), but from the research, the Cue reviews were less important than general word-of-mouth and other factors listed above, in driving ticket sales.  Through an administrative error, our “Fringe in a Flash” review was not listed on a further two days when we did have shows, but word-of-mouth kept up the sales momentum with numerous punters having to be turned away at the door for the last shows.

There are clues in the above information and analyses that may provide producers with insights about the kind of shows and the marketing of their shows at future festivals.  But, beyond these figures, there is another tale that is being told which the Festival – and more broadly, the theatre sector – needs to address, and this is a tale of inequality within the sector – still principally along racial lines – and as reflected in the Festival in a range of ways.

Applying a general classification of “black” and “white” shows where the participants in each are wholly black or wholly white respectively, and “mixed” where there is a combination of black and white creatives, it would appear that:

  1. of the top-selling 30 shows, 21 are white, 6 are mixed and 3 are black
  2. 85% of the 81 black shows are theatre with 15% comedy, compared with 43% theatre and 57% comedy for 65 white shows, and 40% theatre and 60% comedy for 42 mixed shows
  3. 85% of black shows have five performances or less, compared with 32% white shows and 31% mixed shows

From the above figures and anecdotal experience of the various shows I attended at the 2016 Festival, it may be possible to make the following generalised deductions (and I would welcome alternative analyses):

  1. that black shows are generally concerned with the exploration and depiction of black life experience which continues to be painful and challenging
  2. that the Festival market/audience, still overwhelmingly white and historically privileged, has more of an appetite for comedy and escapism than with learning about, or being exposed to “black pain”
  3. that most white and mixed theatre producers have an appreciation of this market and provide this market with what it desires
  4. that, for as long as the Festival market remains as it is in terms of its demographics and buying power, black shows will struggle to generate income, let alone break even at the Festival
  5. that, with the market being overwhelmingly white, there are few brand names in black shows that this market knows or identifies with
  6. that black shows are treated differently by the Festival in that relatively few are given 6 or more shows in which to develop an audience
  7. that black shows may be “ghettoised” with a number being allocated to a particular venue e.g. the Glennie Festival Centre, with its incredibly poor sight lines (from two rows back)
  8. that the Festival structure/system – allocation of venues, lengths of runs, Cue reviews, Ovation awards, etc – does few favours for black shows, and generally favours white and mixed shows


While the Festival claims the Fringe to be a democratic space in which all artists have the right to compete with each other equally, this simply is not the case.  Those of us with theatre and marketing skills, access to resources to create works with superior production values, festival histories, brand recognition within the primary festival markets, who speak and work primarily in English, who live in the more urban centres and who lead relatively privileged lives in the context of contemporary South Africa, are far better able to compete in the Festival market and on the terms set by the Festival.

The Festival attracts public sector sponsorship – from the Eastern Cape government, from the National Lotteries Commission, the National Arts Council and over the next three years, R17m from the Department of Arts and Culture – on the basis of its much vaunted economic contribution to the province and to the city of Grahamstown.   However, there is little interrogation of the actual beneficiaries of the Festival’s economic impact; as with the Festival itself, I suspect that it is largely the historically privileged and resourced who are the primary beneficiaries of the Festival’s economic impact (certainly the stubbornly high levels of poverty and unemployment in Grahamstown over a long period of time do not tell a story of Grahamstown’s indigent benefiting from the Festival).  These public funders either do not have the capacity nor the political will really to interrogate the economic and social impact of the Festival, and appear to be happy to tick some box and to accept the word of the Festival, which at a superficial level appears to be have “transformed”.

In a previous exchange on this theme, it was pointed out to me that the Festival is not only about the economic impact (ironically by someone who drafted the report on the economic impact of the Festival to prove its worth to donors), but also about the opportunities that it provides artists to carve out a name for themselves, to build their brands and to learn from other shows at the Festival.  It is on these premises too that the Festival largely fails black artists on the Fringe.  The Festival presents a huge learning opportunity for theatre practitioners, particularly from less-resourced provinces, to observe theatre from other parts of the country and even the world, and that could inspire them and provide insight into different forms of presentation.  Many black theatre practitioners simply do not have the means to purchase tickets to see other shows on the Main or Fringe, and notwithstanding the artist ticket that allows practitioners free entry into shows when seats are available, in practice, it would appear that a kind of “audience stokvel” prevails, with casts of one black show being provided with free access to other black shows in exchange for similar access, and so that at least these shows have something of an audience.

The Festival has put the municipality on notice, advising it of the potential loss of the Festival if the municipality does not arrest the infrastructural decline e.g. water shortages, that impacts adversely on the experience of festival attendees.  With the changes taking place within the Festival’s leadership currently, and with the availability of three-year funding from the DAC, it is an opportune moment for the Festival – in co-operation with the broader theatre community – to reflect on itself, both as a symptom and as a contributor/perpetuator of the divides and inequalities within the sector, and to take serious, concerted action to address these.

It’s all very well staging and celebrating a production of Animal Farm that speaks to the perpetuation of historical inequalities under a new political regime “out there”; however, we would do well to reflect and do more introspection about the Animal Farm that is us, about the divisions and inequalities between shows and producing companies at the Festival, and the South African theatre sector more broadly.

With less arrogance from the Festival’s leadership, and more of a vision and political will to address these inequalities, it will not take that much in the way of goodwill, effort, time, planning and resources to contribute to real, rather than superficial transformation of the theatre sector and of the Festival itself.

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Barbarism, Burnings and Becket 3

Beyond “decolonization”: towards an emancipatory discourse and practice.

Our social media and public discourse has become increasingly polarised and polarising; there is little room for nuance, for reflection rather than point-scoring between “us” and “them”. This is the final in a series of three articles, published in an attempt to negotiate this minefield. They are stand-alone articles, but they need to be read in their totality.

Our social media and public discourse over the last two years has been fraught with the language of decolonisation, white supremacy, intersectionality, racism, white privilege, institutional and systemic violence, and “must fall” hashtags. It has been a period of unprecedented youth and student activism since 1994, with many new, engaged and impressive voices emerging that have sharpened our insights and debates, highlighted many issues about which society has become complacent and alerted us to generational differences in understanding our history and its impact on our contemporary experience.

During this period too, there have been, and continue to be, numerous incidents of overt racism that have brought latent wounds to the surface, reflecting the limitations and superficiality of the post-apartheid “reconciliation” and “rainbow nation” narratives.

While the student activism and the incidents of racism have been key discourse-shaping headlines, there are a few hard questions that have to be asked: Is the focus on university transformation and tertiary education access the most important focus for us as a country right now? Is our primary struggle really against racism and white privilege? How liberating is the language and discourse of “decolonisation”? What does our greater awareness of systemic and structural violence mean for transformative strategies and tactics?

While there may have been initial hostility towards the struggles of students, there is probably now greater awareness of and support within our broader society for cheaper (and for students from poor families, free) access to tertiary education. Access would include the provision of adequate, affordable accommodation (even free for poorer students). STATS SA studies on poverty have shown that poverty is lowest among the cohort of South Africans with tertiary education and highest where education levels are most basic, so that in order to break the cycle of poverty, students from poorer families should be prioritised in accessing – and being supported in – tertiary education. In alleviating poverty, the effect of achieving employment commensurate with a tertiary education is often felt beyond the individual and her immediate family to include extended family networks.

Students have also alerted public attention to the plight of outsourced workers, and to the cynical way in which the university saves costs by stripping the most vulnerable workers of employment benefits, and placing them at the mercy of profit-driven companies, rather than as employees of a publicly-funded institution.

But while the tertiary student struggles have sustained public awareness, it is the 2015 matric results that revealed where the major educational challenges in our country lie. There is little point in repeating what many analysts have said, but who has access to tertiary education (and thus the best chance of moving out of poverty), is directly related to the quality of schooling received at pre-primary, primary and secondary levels. Notwithstanding the huge amount of public resources allocated to pre-tertiary education, hundreds of thousands of learners do not complete matric, and hundreds of thousands more do not qualify academically to enter tertiary education.

According to Equal Education’s website, STATS SA indicates that two-thirds of people without education live in poverty, reducing to 55% of those with primary school education and 24% of those who matriculate. 58% of whites enter some form of tertiary education, along with 51% of Indians, 14,3% of “coloureds” and 12% of black Africans.

Surely then, our collective efforts – if we are to deal decisively with poverty in our country – need to be expended on ensuring that everyone does indeed have access to decent, quality education at pre-tertiary levels?

Which brings me to the second question: is our primary struggle really against racism and white privilege?

Doron Isaacs is a young, white man. He helped to start Equal Education (EE), a national, community-based advocacy organisation, campaigning for quality education for all, with their campaigns rooted in research and policy analysis. Having initially served as Deputy Secretary General, he is now the treasurer of EE, the only white person in a national council of nineteen people.

Equal Education does outstanding work in seeking to address the systemic problems that plague our education system. Isaacs is using some of the benefits of his privilege – his education, his networks, his access to resources – to be part of addressing one of the key problems inherited from our apartheid past. There are many – privileged, white – “woke” individuals like him, working in trade unions, social movements, community-based structures, advocacy groups and think tanks, who have made life and career choices to help transform our society, in partnership with and under the leadership of black people, to ensure the better life for all that is the stuff of electoral promises. (There are also numerous privileged Indian, black African and “coloured” people who choose to apply their educational, economic and other unearned advantages in this way, so that privileging structures and systems do not have, or do not necessarily have, deterministic outcomes that rob individuals of agency).

There are other white people who may not choose to work in these system-changing organisations but who, with the privileges and benefits they enjoy from the prevailing and historical structures, seek to make a difference in the lives of individuals whom they know or with whom they have some relationship. They do things like pay for the Model-C schooling of the children of their domestic workers, and in some cases, for their tertiary education. They assist their domestic workers to acquire more skills and qualifications to help advance their social and career positions and they may help them to purchase a house, paying them well above the paltry minimum rates.  Others support educational funds, charities that address symptoms and organisations that deal with causes of social ills, while still others – generally not those who gripe about paying too much tax that government steals anyway – give away 5% of their gross annual income to address poverty as part of the Five-Plus Project.

Some may dismiss these as “liberal”, conscience-salving and ineffectual with regard to changing the structures from which the privileged continue to benefit, but the beneficiaries of such actions might have quite different perspectives. Besides, what is the point of demanding that people check their privilege and face up to the benefits that they enjoy simply by virtue of their colour, if their attempts – whether genuine or conscience-salving (does it matter?) – to employ their privileges to help change the lives of those who do not enjoy such privileges, are summarily dismissed? Surely the number and scale of the challenges in our country require the collective efforts of as many as possible, and of those who are privileged in particular (who, it may be argued, have a moral responsibility to “give something back”), beyond white students being asked to form a barrier between black students and security personnel?

There can be no equivocation about racism being called out, about conscious or unconscious “white privilege” actions and behaviour that adversely affect others being exposed, but we need to move beyond discourses that disempower progressive action or that are ideologically pessimistic. To say, for example, that all whites are racists by virtue of benefiting from structural and systemic racism, is to declare that people have little agency, and that they are obliged to act in the ways that their structural privilege dictates. By the same logic, in our patriarchal society, all men are sexists and given the overwhelming structural bias against gay people, all straight people are homophobic. Similarly, all South Africans are xenophobic because the employment laws, visa regulations and funding structures favour South African citizens, rather than African nationals from other countries.

While they are just about on par with whites in terms of education levels and income, are Indians less racist – like being less pregnant – than whites, because they have not benefited from structural racism as much as whites? And, are coloureds who share many poverty and education indicators with black Africans, not racists, because they are victims rather than beneficiaries of systemic racism?

Can men be part of a struggle against sexism? Can straight people help to advance gay rights? Can white people – and Indians and coloureds – fight racism? Can able-bodied people actively promote and defend the interests of physically- challenged people?

Is there a hierarchy of struggles against oppression? Does the struggle against racism take precedence over the struggle against the oppression of women, or over the marginalisation of gay people? Theoretical paradigms emerging through the student struggles, particularly from the more resourced tertiary institutions, emphasise intersectionality, the multiplicity and inter-relatedness of oppressions. At UCT, a leading – woman – member of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, faced the wrath of some of her colleagues when she queried gay relationships in terms of her religious beliefs on her Facebook page.

Does one have to be passionate about opposing all oppression before one can legitimately engage in opposition to one form of oppression? Is it possible for a white gay activist to be racist? Can black male leaders against racism be sexists? Could a disability activist be homophobic? The nature of our current discourse is such that while it is of course possible for all of these scenarios to exist, it would be best for individuals not to declare it.

Privilege theory – imported largely from the USA and the UK – has helped to make us more conscious of unearned advantages that inform our actions when our particular race, gender, sexual orientation, etc is dominant within society, but it has also contributed to polarisation that does not always take into account the multiplicity of forms and practices of discrimination and oppression in our country.

The need and goal to change our society into one that is more equitable, that does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc; a society that reflects the ideals of the Constitution, are clear. However, the process of doing so, is less clear, is less pure, is complex and messy, filled with contradictions and tensions. What does our middle-class discourse and point-scoring about “white privilege” really mean for the non-delivery of school text books in Limpopo, or for the lack of clean water in the North West, or for the poor school facilities in parts of the Eastern Cape?

Rather than attempt to reach a state of theoretical purity, perhaps we should be harnessing available and interested expertise, networks and resources to address our key challenges of inequality and poverty, and the ways in which these violate the dignity of people. Through participating in such struggle, we would constantly educate ourselves and each other about our shortcomings and our failures to face up to, and address our unearned advantages, but always with our efforts geared towards eliminating inequality and poverty.

The third question has to do with the limitations of the discourse of “decolonisation”. There are those who feel under threat and typically respond to this language of decolonisation defensively with statements such as “universities are the result of colonisation, so should we take away your university?”. However, I understand the “decolonisation” project to be saying that practices, language, symbols and educational content that resonate with the colonial project of denigrating indigenous knowledge, that preferences one – often non-indigenous – culture above others, and that violates the dignity or undermines the humanity of historically oppressed people, should be revisited, and be contextualised, amended or removed as the specifics may require.

But while the “decolonisation discourse” has informed student activism on historically white universities in particular, it is now common cause that our economy is increasingly integrated with that of China, that much of our energy future will be linked to Russia and that a family from India has captured a faction of the ruling party, and with it, has compromised many of our state institutions, purely for the financial gain of elites, rather than to improve the lives of the majority of South Africans. At the same time, our country has itself become a neo-colonising force on the African continent through the tentacles of our corporates, our media organisations, our military capability (relative to most other African countries) and our proxy and facilitative roles in structures such as BRICS.

In a globalised world, with capital extending both to and from South Africa and with direct implications for addressing our key inequality, unemployment and poverty challenges, we need to devise new, re-affirm old, or create hybrid discourses that speak to the overarching narrative that would reflect the needs and interests of our country’s majority, while multiple other narratives are devised and applied to their specific conditions.

Finally, to the issue of structural and systemic violence. We live in a world where economic, political, military/security and cultural power intersect at global, regional, national and even institutional levels to allow those who wield, or who best have access to such power, to prevail. The irony of our continued human existence is that it is maintained and secured by the threat of its very violent obliteration – the so-called “nuclear deterrent”.

Struggles to change oppressive systems then require strategies that take account of the ways in which power is exercised and maintained, with an evaluation of the balance of forces – the relative strengths and weaknesses of those in power and those seeking change – informing tactics. Given the nature of systemic violence and the ability of those in power to wield coercive force, it is seldom a good tactic simply to “meet violence with violence”. There are indeed times when the use of force and violence to counter violence is necessary and appropriate, and our own struggle against apartheid is replete with lessons in this regard.

The occupation of Tahrir Square by activists in Cairo ultimately brought about the decline of the thirty-year-long Mubarak dictatorship. Egypt had one of the strongest military forces in the world, so that for the activists to take on the military would have been foolhardy. The sustained occupation of a public space combined with massive national and international media coverage that helped to shift public and political opinion in favour of the activists, eventually contributed to the overthrow of a regime that few would have thought possible. Despite extreme provocation from government security forces, the activists stuck to their tactics in order to win and sustain broad support.

Murder in the Cathedral, a play by T.S. Eliot, tells of the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket, an opponent of the King, perceived to be an unjust authority, in 1170. The Archbishop faces four temptations: to seek his physical safety, to serve the king and gain power and riches, to form a coalition with the elites against the king, and finally, to embrace the glory of martyrdom. The play speaks to the temptation to act selfishly, to appear to be acting for the right, moral reasons, but actually, the real motivations are more egotistical, even if they have to do with death and martyrdom.

Sometimes, we are tempted to be revolutionaries, we fall in love with the idea of being a revolutionary, and we act as we believe revolutionaries should act. The correctness and the goals of the cause take second place to “revolutionary acts” which for some are best expressed through violence. Others are tempted to be counted among the revolutionaries, the self-sacrificing martyrs, the “cool kids” and to stand in solidarity with them, with anyone in a position of authority or power, regarded as the enemy, or collaborators with the enemy. In particular contexts, this may very well be the case; in the case of a university in contemporary South Africa, this singular approach is questionable, more particularly when the aims of student activism – affordable or free access to tertiary education, accommodation for students accepted to study, but who cannot afford such accommodation, changes to the university curriculum and public symbols, and the insourcing of vulnerable workers – may generate (in some cases, reluctant or grudging) broad public sympathy and potential political support.

In conclusion, while it is only right that struggles for progressive change occur on a number of fronts, we should guard against one struggle assuming importance and dictating the overarching struggle narrative, which should be shaped first and foremost by the needs, interests and aspirations of the majority of our citizens who are poor, black, under the age of 35 and mostly (by a slim majority) women. It is a narrative that as many of us as possible should seek to understand, and engage with as contributors to progressive change, not in a happy, clappy “rainbow nation” way, but with rigour and constant self-reflection. We do not have to be fully evolved in our politics to make a constructive contribution; if we believe in social justice and accept that the dignity of all human beings requires an approach that is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-xenophobic (even if we have not fully reached these states ourselves yet) , that would be a good start.


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Barbarism, Burnings and Beckett 2

Barbarism, Burnings and Beckett 2


Our social media and public discourse has become increasingly polarised and polarising; there is little room for nuance, for reflection rather than point-scoring between “us” and “them”. This is the second in a series of three articles to be published on three consecutive days, in an attempt to negotiate this minefield. They are stand-alone articles, but they need to be read in their totality.

The “rainbow nation” is a myth. It is not dead. It has never existed. The sooner we get over it and drop the term from our discourse, the less disappointed we will be about the increasing evidence to the contrary, and perhaps we’ll get on with building a truly inclusive nation.

If ever we needed a metaphor to expose the myth of the “rainbow nation”, the recent Varsity Cup rugby match between the University of Free State (UFS) and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) painfully obliged.

Imagine for a moment that rugby represents contemporary South African society or our economy. Once a playground reserved for a white minority, rugby – through the Varsity Cup – now seeks to be inclusive, representative of the “rainbow nation” created in the image of the Mandela, Tutu and De Klerk trinity.

The players on both sides in Bloemfontein were probably all younger than the twenty-seven years spent in jail by our country’s first “post-apartheid” President. All “born free”, but not all born equal.

According to the official Varsity Cup website, the UFS team has a squad of 35, with 29 white players and 6 black players, while the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s squad attempts to pay homage to its name-giver by including 17 white and 10 black players. Even within the relatively privileged tertiary education sector, there are sharp differences with formerly white universities being significantly more resourced than others.

Even though all the players may have been born after 1989, and while everyone now has access to rugby, it is young white players with the benefits of better schools, better training and coaching facilities, greater rugby networks and a longer rugby history and culture that are best able to participate and excel in the “rugby economy”.

There are indeed black players, some of whom have made it on merit because of sheer talent (the individual examples of exceptionalism which often mask the structural restraints that limit broader participation and achievement), or by virtue of having had access to the country’s better rugby schools, or both. Other black players participate because of affirmative action regulations that require each match-day squad of 23 to include 7 players “of colour”, with at least 3 of these in the starting line-up (20% of fifteen).

It is not surprising then that the (historically white) University of Free State “thumped” Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (a “merged” institution) 46-19 in “their most convincing win of the year” as one reporter put it. (Picture the irony…a mostly white squad of players “thumping” a more non-racial – rainbow – squad nicknamed Madibaz!)

Let’s further indulge the rugby metaphor. As we now all know, the UFS win came after a 50-minute break during which the match was interrupted by protestors who sang and danced their way onto the field in support of outsourced workers, who are at the university, but not of it. Their student supporters draw the links between their own struggles on campus (feeling marginalised in a system and a culture that are alien to their life experiences) and those of the outsourced workers who are not full participants in, or beneficiaries of university employment, and are poorly paid to boot.

These outsiders wanted to let the “rainbow nation” – the privileged insiders, the mainly white and some black participants in the rugby eco-system – know that they wanted to be “inside” too.

The response of the insiders was to unleash violence on the outsiders. Hordes of white students (and parents and lecturers, apparently) descended onto the pitch, not content only with chasing away the protestors, but assaulting them physically, with verbal abuse further violating the dignity of the protestors.

In his post-match interview, the Shimlas coach – Hendro Scholtz – opined “The main thing should stay the main thing and that is playing rugby and enjoying”. This goes to the very heart of the “rainbow nation” myth. For a few with the means to do so, the “main thing” is about “playing rugby and enjoying”. For most others in the country though, as represented by the protesting outsourced workers, the “main thing” is about daily survival, about making ends meet, with their children unlikely to attend a decent school, so that their chances of a university education – let alone a place in the rugby team – are virtually nil.

This rugby metaphor speaks to the realities of our broader society, with the Marikana massacre being the ultimate expression of how the “rainbow nation” – at best, a “multi-racial” elite – deals with disruption to the status quo.

There is a general middle-class abhorrence of violence, with many believing that the Marikana miners got what they deserved for carrying traditional weapons, and for – somehow – collectively being responsible for the deaths of two policemen and other miners in the days before the massacre. Yet, what of the violence done to the miners – human beings – who lived in conditions that even Cyril Ramaphosa described to the Farlam Commission as “appalling and inhumane”?

From behind electric fences, beams and armed response fortresses, we pontificate about communities who take the law into their own hands and mete out their version of justice to criminals preying on locals. Yet, a reporter at the rugby match stated “With a lack of adequate security at the game, spectators took matters into their own hands and violence broke out”. What makes these – white – spectators any less “barbaric”, any more “civilised” than vigilantes acting against criminals?

Still, some argue that the protestors forced their way into the stadium, and, in the process, physically assaulted people – including women – so that they got what they deserved. By this argument, our country should have been in flames long ago, and should constantly be in flames for the daily violence done against the majority of people through institutions, systems and structures on the one hand, and personal interactions on the other that treat them as less than human.

While there is horror and outrage at T-shirts and graffiti that shout “fuck whites” or “kill all whites”, the physical attacks on black protestors by white youths, their parents and lecturers and the reported subsequent arming of white men on the UFS campus, shows not just intent, but actual capacity for doing harm to black people.

It is telling that black workers and students at the University of Free State were arrested with various charges laid against them; yet, at the time of writing, no white person who assaulted workers and students at the rugby match has been arrested. How is that possible? Marikana miners too were arrested after the massacre by the police, and were charged with the deaths of their colleagues (the charges have since been dropped), while no-one has been found criminally responsible for the shooting of 34 miners!! And then we would still like to believe that we have a rainbow nation, a constitutional democracy that works for all?

When 20% of our population earns in excess of 65% of the national income, with more than 30% of our economically active people being unemployed, when 11 million plus people keep their heads above the poverty line only because of government grants, we do not stand a chance of being an inclusive, socially cohesive “rainbow nation”. Even the top 20%, those who have the best chance of “living the rainbow”, how many of us actually have sustained social interaction, genuine friendships that cross apartheid’s old divides within the middle-class, let alone across class boundaries? We have no right to bemoan the decline of our “rainbow nation” dream if we make so little effort to live it on a daily basis.

Until we acknowledge and begin to address the fundamental inequities in our society, and the manifold ways in which the majority of our fellow citizens have been, and continue to be dehumanised and have their dignity violated in physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual and other forms, we will always be wondering about the increasing radicalisation of the language and protests of discontent, and we damn ourselves and our country by judging and responding to symptoms, rather than causes.


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Barbarism, Burnings and Beckett 1

On art, statues, language and other burning issues

Our social media and public discourse has become increasingly polarised and polarising; there is little room for nuance, for reflection rather than point-scoring between “us” and “them”. This is the first in a series of three articles to be published on three consecutive days, in an attempt to negotiate this minefield. They are stand-alone articles, but they need to be read in their totality.

“Send these barbarians to jail”, was one impassioned plea that probably represented many a middle-class viewpoint in response to the burning of art works, photographs and portraits at UCT recently. Implicitly, those deemed responsible for this lack of “art appreciation”, were deemed to be “uncivilised”, not worthy of being at a university.

Yet, the Rhodes Must Fall student activists – generally regarded as having been engaged in this “bonfire of colonial vanities” – clearly do have an appreciation of symbols and metaphor; they had built a shack to highlight the lack of accommodation for black students.

One of the leading RMF activists is a doctoral student employed by Iziko Museum, and serves on the National Arts Council. RMF will itself host an exhibition in March to mark its year-old anniversary.

So it is not that RMF activists are “uncivilised barbarians” unschooled in, or unappreciative of the value and meaning of art; on the contrary, it might be that precisely because they are conscious of how art, images and monuments can exert soft power, that “colonial symbols” on the walls of various UCT buildings were the target of their activism.

There were others who deemed the burnings in the same light as the destruction of heritage sites and antiquities by the world’s favourite “barbarians”, ISIL. I would bet that not many of these voices were raised in opposition to the tearing down of statues of Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. I still remember the television images of American troops helping Iraqis to topple a huge statue of the latter dictator; I do not remember any arguments in favour of keeping those statues in order that future generations would learn from history. Is it that that one’s ideological or political position informs one’s sense of the value of history, culture and symbols?

Then there were still others who pulled out the hoary favourite – the Nazis and their burning of books – to imply the fascist tendencies of the student activists. Just last week though, “civilised” German people set fire to a building that was being converted into a hostel to house Syrian refugees fleeing the devastation of their war-ravaged country. People cheered as the building burned; some even tried to prevent the firefighters from doing their jobs.

A few stated that they supported the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, but that the burning of art had gone too far. So, they were happy for the Rhodes statue to be removed (but not destroyed?), but not for the portraits of other white men (and women) to be removed (and destroyed). Or was it the burning of artworks produced by a black artist that was particularly incendiary?

Generally, much like throwing excrement at statues, the middle-classes do not take too kindly to burning things (other than at braais, perhaps). And yet, not only has the statue of Rhodes been removed, but its symbolic falling has highlighted legitimate grievances about the university curriculum, staffing and governance at UCT, and inspired unprecedented national student protests around access to tertiary education.

When the Tunisian street vendor, Tarek Bouazizi, set himself alight in protest against his mistreatment by municipal authorities, it is unlikely that many middle-class westerners would have applauded his action. And yet, it led to large scale protests, fondly known as the Arab Spring, and resulted in the downfall of at least three long-serving dictators. Bouazizi was eventually named as “Person of 2011” by The Times in the United Kingdom!

Over the long weekend or the period connecting Freedom Day to Workers Day, thousands of mainly white folk make their way to the Tankwa Karoo for Afrikaburn, where the most spectacular sculptures are built. And then, they are burned. Is that what the “civilised”, the culturally-evolved do? Purpose-build creativity for the purpose of destroying it?

This is not to assign “rightness” and “wrongness” to burning art, or destroying symbols or images; this is about interrogating the values and the perspectives that inform our respective responses to such destruction. Is burning art wrong, because there is something intrinsically valuable in art that needs to be protected? Is the destruction of statues and sites that have historical value, always unacceptable because of the implicit loss to our collective history, or does this depend on our political or ideological dispositions in relation to those statues and sites? Are black people who burn buildings more “barbaric” than white Germans who burn buildings?

Perhaps it is that violence is being done, that we are witnessing acts of physical destruction, which we abhor? We are often blind though to the violence that is done to human beings psychologically, emotionally, intellectually and in other ways in which we may be complicit by omission (failing to do something about it) or as beneficiaries (benefiting from systems and structures that violate other people’s dignity and humanity).

In a society, power and influence are not only wielded through coercive means such as legislation, the judicial system, imprisonment, the police and the army; it is also exerted through “soft” means such as the education system, religious institutions, cultural practices, economic structures, the arts and media. “Soft power” inculcates values, nurtures ways of seeing or interpreting the world, introduces and consolidates belief systems. The UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions promotes trade in creative goods such as films, television series, literature, etc not only because such trade potentially contributes to economic growth, but also to encourage greater equity in the global distribution of ideas, worldviews and values. Should we only consume films and television series, or news from international networks based in a few economically dominant countries, we generally imbibe – whether consciously or unconsciously – the values, ideas and worldviews embedded within these. In this way, hearts and minds are won (it is no coincidence that there is more funding for the arts in the US military, than there is through the National Endowment for the Arts, the US equivalent of our National Arts Council).

Artworks are not only political in that they have values, ideas, cultural perspectives, aesthetic tastes, embedded within, or expressed by them, but they also have a political dimension through their associations: who selected the works? For what purpose? What stories do they tell? Whose stories do they tell? For whom? Who had the means to create and distribute the work? Who has the means to access such work? What do these works say to, or mean for, people who may not share the historical, cultural, economic or educational backgrounds of the artists? The arts communicate ideas, tastes, perspectives; they are a form of language. Whose language is being spoken? For many students whose language may not be English or Afrikaans – the only languages of instruction at tertiary level – what additional meanings are being conveyed to them through portraits, statues, the names of buildings, art works, monuments and photographs that adorn such institutions?

Let’s face it. We do not erect monuments and statues in order to learn from history, or to honour those who made some significant contribution to our collective well-being; we do so to celebrate political victories and to assert political hegemony in public spaces. Why else would we have so many statues and monuments to Nelson Mandela, and yet we now have a political leadership so far removed from the self-sacrificing and service-oriented values he espoused; a venal, corrupt set of politicians that “honour” Mandela with a bust in the parliamentary precinct, but only metres away engage in the collective rape of the public purse? The reported neglect of the monument to the Cradock Four – built to honour the teachers Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata and Sicelo Mhlauli as well as unionist Sparrow Mkonto who were assassinated by the apartheid government – is itself a metaphor for a teacher union that is now more in the news for its corrupt allocation of jobs, than for its contribution to the education of learners.

If public art, symbols and monuments are to play a role in building “social cohesion”, we will need to adopt different approaches. In the case of UCT which has an extensive art collection, perhaps it might be an idea for the art, portraits and other symbols in its public spaces to be re-curated every four to five years (with a curatorial committee comprising staff, students and others), so that these works reflect, and help to make meaning of the times in which they are displayed, for the university community.

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