[intro]President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address promises “a new dawn”. The announcement of his cabinet this week was a let down for some. But when you take the temperature of a battered nation eager for a fresh start, you have to put your finger firstly on the pulse of The Arts. We explore what exactly renewal means in this arena where the soul of the nation resides.[/intro]

We should put all the negativity that has dogged our country behind us because a new dawn is upon us. – President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2018 State of the Nation address

Mahlamba Ndlopfu is the official residence of the President. In Xitsonga it means the washing of the elephants. Something they always do in the morning. When we liberate ourselves from the confines of literal translation, the name of the president’s home promises a dawn cleansing.

As the head of a government rolling up it’s sleeves, I would say it’s incumbent upon the new President to claim common cause with the elephants. And, there is no arena more vital to national renewal than The Arts. But what kind of dawn is breaking in Mzansi?

Mike van Graan, seasoned activist and playwright responds succinctly: “I will wait for the sun to rise a bit further before I get excited.”

After a very tired looking President announced the new “interim cabinet” late on Monday night, like Van Graan many optimistic bubbles were burst.

CEO of the National Arts Council (NAC), Rosemary Mangope, says the reality that set in after the initial rumblings of new beginnings is “very discouraging”.

“I’m not seeing people outside of the usual industries being part and parcel of driving the national imperatives. I suspect it’s going to be business as usual which I find very discouraging. But I think there is a huge opportunity for us to make our voices heard by making sure that government gets to realise that it is the creative industries that are going to turn our economy around.”

Multi award winning playwright and arts activist Mike van Graan says his cautious optimism has a very solid basis…

“The irony is they are saying that the creative industries will drive economic growth. The reality is that a creative industry requires a market to sustain itself… in a country where more than 60% of our people are living close to or below the poverty line.”

Tired and frustrated

Van Graan is sitting in the foyer of Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre where his latest play When Swallows Cry is running. Recently he won the R 1-million 2018 Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture award. But he confides that he has lost money on his play’s Cape Town run after a state-funded theatre pulled out.

“I am not one of those who is going to be jumping up and down saying, ‘Yay! Cyril’. I am tired, I am frustrated.”

Mike van Graan, multi award winning playwright and arts activist.

But Rosemary Mangope of the NAC, a statutory body, says Van Graan has a narrow understanding of the market for the arts.

“I see markets where people buy functional art by purchasing craft, by purchasing high fashion. When you look at the clothing industry and who dominates the market you will realise that it is actually African ideas. Look at what is on the runway these days. It’s African inspired prints. So I would view markets very, very differently.”

In Cape Town the State of the Nation address brings all traffic to a complete standstill for hours. A country waiting to exhale after a long nightmare. At the end of his speech the President quotes the lyrics of Thuma Mina, the Send Me Jesus hymn reworked into a popular song by Hugh Masakela.

In a solemn voice the President whose career has been defined mainly by his work with the trade unions, his vital role in negotiating South Africa’s future in the 90s, swapping politics for business in the new SA and his notorious Marikana decision, quotes the Masekela lyrics:

I wanna be there for the victims of violence and abuse I wanna lend a hand Send me


“This is a direct display of borrowing on the creativity that exists in this country which we must now consciously and very deliberately exploit and give to humanity,” says Mongane Wally Serote, the renowned poet, sangoma and one time parliamentarian who is also former CEO of the Freedom Park Trust.

The original hymn Thuma Mina is inspired by the Christian Prophet Isaiah responding to a Divine request — ‘Whom shall I send [as a messenger] and who will go’. The Prophet replies: “Here am I. Send me”.

Rosemary Mangope who is also on the board of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies, says the President was illustrating the power of the arts “to rally troops to work together”.

But Mike van Graan who was instrumental in the early policy development for the fledgeling Department of Arts and Culture is not moved by the President’s almost Biblical solemnity at the end of SONA 2018.

“For the last 10 or 15 years there have been many of us who are saying; ‘Send me, send me’. But we have been marginalised.

“Our continent has been one of the major points of economic growth despite the recession in the global north. Economic growth has basically benefited an elite. It is an elite with disposable income who will be the beneficiaries of a policy premised on the creative industries approach.”

Cultural industries have great potential for growth, but require closer attention and backing from government. – President Cyril Ramaphosa Replying to the SONA 2018 debate

The canary in the mine

Another leading figure in the arts disagrees with Van Graan’s disillusionment. The feisty CEO of the Market Theatre, Ismail Mahomed who remoulded the modern National Arts Festival, says:

“It is quite significant that he ended his address with an artist especially one who has been a national icon and one who when he needed to be, has been quite critical of our past administrations.

“The arts have always been a barometer it has been the canary in the mine for us.”

Ismail Mahomed, CEO of the Market Theatre.

Poet Mongane Wally Serote says the canary has been singing ever since the dawn of democracy. It’s just that nobody in government is attuned to its song.

“From 1994 until now none of the ministers of culture have understood that South Africa is a poetic nation. Ben Ngubane thought that it was a demotion because he was a scientist. Ministers who came after him had the same attitude. However, if you look at the struggle, intense cultural content was always there. How did we lose this when we are now a free people? It is because right from Mandela up to today we have lost the vision… we delinked from the people.”

Ismail Mahomed only partly agrees that the choice of number one in the Department of Arts and Culture has been problematic for every post apartheid administration.

“I think we have sometimes had glimmers of hope.

“When I worked in my previous position as the director of the National Arts Festival I had the opportunity of taking the ministers of Arts and Culture on a walkabout. Much to my surprise, the only one of those ministers who seemed to have been engaged with the arts, who could talk about the arts, is the current minister Nathi Mthethwa. I was blown away. I had not experienced that with any of the previous ministers. Lulu Xingwana was completely disengaged. Paul Mashatile was wonderful but he was not fully invested in the arts. Pallo Jordan we all thought would probably be a gem for the arts but he was completely disengaged.”

We don’t just want to run with the President, we also want to play with the President. We want him to come and dance with us, we want him to sing with us, we want him to be on the stage with us. – Mike van Graan, playwright and arts activist

State has to intervene

Perhaps it is a good sign for the arts fraternity that Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa has held onto his job after this week’s cabinet reshuffle.

Mike van Graan is adamant that state interventions in the arts need an overhaul.

“The poorest provinces continue to be marginalised because government’s policy is to leave the market to correct the imbalance and it is never going to be corrected because the state has to intervene.

“The state has intervened in terms of renovating Artscape [Theatre Centre in Cape Town] and the people who benefit is somebody like Pieter Toerien who can take his big musicals there. He didn’t really care about the cultural boycott but now the state is looking after his interests because he’s the only one who can afford to rent the theatre.”

The NAC’s Rosemary Mangope does not hail Nathi Mthethwa’s surviving the axe this week as a sign of hope.

“The arts have never been given the priority that it deserves by finding somebody who really is a performer in the sector. In Belgium for instance that portfolio is headed by high performers and people of note who are young who understand the sector, who understand the vibrancy. In countries where it’s combined with education it’s given the priority that education is given.”

Rosemary Mangope, CEO of the National Arts Council.

Putting aside for a moment the new dawn optimism or disappointment, the heady aroma of elephants washing in the morning sun and the allure of Prophets laying themselves down before the Divine… What exactly do leaders of the arts fraternity expect from a Ramaphosa presidency?

Learn from the KhoeSan

Recipient of the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) Literature Lifetime Achiever Award, Mongane Wally Serote who is a deeply spiritual man says we should begin by understanding the poetic nature of South Africans. Throughout the interview he quotes a proverb of the KhoeSan people.

“There is a return to the source that we have to do. We thought other countries would teach us more. We forgot that there is a people here who experienced genocide, who fought for decades and decades, who were determined to define what is freedom.

“There has been no other nation which has displayed an understanding of the quality of life and freedom as the Khoesan have done of this country. That’s where we should return.

“You cannot live in a country like this and not understand its spirituality and that spirituality will always express itself in deep poetic form. That is why the First People of this country said: ‘A dream is not a dream until it is a dream of a nation’.”

Looking to the future, the Market Theatre’s Ismail Mahomed says:

“I am hoping that there would be a thorough review of the funding processes. Presently a lot of funding that comes towards cultural institutions is geared towards infrastructure and operations. We need to see a shift in funding or at least a review of the current lottery policies which will allow cultural institutions to be able to benefit from funding development of content.”

The soul of our nation echoes when there is music, when there is theatre, when there is dance, when the artists are at work. – Ismail Mahomed, CEO Market Theatre

Mainstream Arts Education

Rosemary Mangope says the establishment of the SA Cultural Observatory has provided a “scientific instrument for us to begin to measure the value of the arts” and that this will assist with “making an argument for a worthy champion as a minister”. In addition, she would like to see…

“The introduction of arts education in mainstream education. There are schools now that are using project based learning, driven mostly through the medium of the arts.”

And finally what about that Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage (third draft sigh!) that has been lounging around like an ageing suitor not allowed out on a date:

“We’ve been going around in circles. Enough talking now let’s just adopt what we have currently. It will never be an exceptionally great model. It will never have everything we would like to see but let’s have an instrument on the table that we can begin to work on,” says Mangope.

Mike van Graan says the revised White Paper (see summary in side bar) should not neglect the 1996 vision:

“It starts with a provision which is in the 1996 White Paper that everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the country and to enjoy the arts.

“That vision has been completely subverted to say that our starting point is, how does the arts serve the key political imperatives of eliminating poverty, reducing unemployment and reducing inequalities. If this is the starting point you have a complete re-orientation towards the arts. You’re then simply using it for utilitarian purposes in a very narrow kind of way.

“We are not just physical beings we don’t only have physical needs, we are also emotional beings, and spiritual beings, psychological beings and that’s really where the arts come in. Until our politicians see that we are just going to limp along.

“We don’t just want to run with the President we also want to play with the President. We want him to come and dance with us, we want him to sing with us, we want him to be on stage with us.”

So there you have it Mr President when the honeymoon of relief is over (any day now) we demand to see that New Dawn, washing elephants and all. And then you also have to sing and dance… no, not that legendary jive shuffle.