Making arts policy talk to arts practice

The inaugural Arts and National Development Imbizo began to map the landscape of problems, issues and options the arts industry faces.

Just one election manifesto – that of the ANC – offers more than a few lines about the arts. For the rest, party manifestos have ignored them, uttered pious generalities or issued random arts-related fiats. Even the ruling party’s half-page appears not as “arts” or “culture”, but in the document’s economy section, under the heading “creative industries”.

Perhaps none of this is surprising. In the wake of the liberatory visions of the pre- and immediately post-1994 years, the arts are now both neglected and contested political terrain. Where the fault lines lie was clear at the Arts and National Development Imbizo, convened by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) in Johannesburg last month.

Planned as the first of a series of arts policy dialogues and other activities that will culminate in a final publication, the imbizo presented five panel debates across two days. Topics ranged from artistic freedom to the government’s National Development Plan, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and arts diplomacy in Africa.

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Few speakers, however, stayed within the limits of their allotted theme, and even fewer drew distinctions between the arts and “culture”, or policy and implementation. Rather, the debates illuminated a three-way tension within and across two categories: policy and praxis.

Do the arts exist predominantly as something to be harnessed for some other goal, such as social cohesion or development – or, indeed, marketing? Are they predominantly commodities, with artistic endeavour reducible to cultural entrepreneurship?

Or are they predominantly an expression of humanity, and their creation and enjoyment a human right, as the 1955 Freedom Charter asserts: “The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened! The government shall discover, develop and encourage national talent for the enhancement of our cultural life. All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands.”

National poet laureate Mongane Wally Serote’s opening address veered between emphasis on the first and the third of those views, lauding both free will and freedom and “the conscious creation of a national consensus”. It became clear from the reflections of cultural policy scholars Lance Nawa and Avril Joffe that such oscillation reflected swings in national policy manifested by a succession of Department of Arts and Culture white papers and drafts on the arts, culture and heritage.

White papers

Joffe described how the 1996 white paper, in the spirit of the Freedom Charter, emphasised redress. However, its silence about local government institutions in favour of what she called a “hard to implement” participatory planning model erased important spaces for praxis.

The next draft white paper, in 2013, was prepared by external consultants, met a storm of criticism and was withdrawn. It lacked, she noted, any “recognition of the role of culture, as opposed to just [discussing] social cohesion and employment”.

The current draft, after four iterations, has not yet received final government assent. However, it foregrounds the role of the arts in “imagining a different social order. We can’t only think about the economy,” said Joffe, we need to consider inclusivity, the social rights of communities and artists, and the role of African knowledge systems.

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Joffe, Nawa and several others concurred on the imperative for, as Nawa put it, “policy intelligence”. That is, the communication and integration of activities across silo-bound government departments. (Evidenced, said Nawa, by the grandiose fortress the department had once proposed for its new headquarters.)

But those were not the only silos discussed. The lived experiences of many participants implied alternative ontologies and epistemologies, and asserted counter-narratives to those of the globalised capitalist arts world. If arts curricula, practices and policies are to be decolonised, some speakers urged, policy space must be created for these.

Community cultural work

Wits lecturer Kholeka Shange, who studies the representation of Zulu women, doesn’t “like talking about decolonising theory. I prefer to do it.” For Shange, “conversations in our own languages are in themselves a decolonising practice” and the “gendered kinship categories” imposed by conducting research in English – for example, “Princess Magogo, we don’t have princesses in that sense” – erase culture, history and experience.

Shange’s themes re-emerged on the second day of the conference, when the opening panel presented reflections on community cultural work: Mistra researcher Njabulo Zwane on the Fingo Festival (part of the National Arts Festival) in Makhanda; Wits lecturer and organiser Rangoato Hlasane on the Keleketla Media Arts Project in Johannesburg, “Culture is what we do”; and mentor, DJ and poet Thabo Lehlongwa on the conditions in which most artists work: “Poverty is a huge industry in development circles … but my reality is never covered on TV.”

“It is important,” said Zwane, “for those who do the work to do the theorising around the work.”

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In the “Manichean town” of Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), the Fingo Festival, built through the collective efforts of women in the townships, pointed towards “a different kind of development, moving away from the growth orientation of current policies, the boundaries of the ‘tribe’” and the elitism of the university and the National Arts Festival.

Hlasane concurred: “There are many Grahamstowns, some of them are in Johannesburg.” Such spaces demand collective work that is “recuperative, and challenges the notion of ‘the traditional’” as unchanging and separatist. The tick boxes of government policy, said Hlasane “have no spaces for you to show that … In dance education, for example, the CAPS [Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement] document requires sprung floors, but pantsula choreography demands dust.”

“So why,” followed up a questioner from the floor, “are we still trying to convince [policymakers] about the value of our activities in their terms?”

Map of the landscape

This first Mistra arts imbizo was not designed to finalise solutions but to begin mapping the landscape of problems, issues and options. In some areas, such as digital, it was very thin. Timely warnings about privacy, control and the ownership of intellectual property were not balanced by discussion of the quarter-century of scholarship extant on the concrete impact of digital technology in specific arts genres. It remained for Mistra executive director Joel Netshitenzhe to ask the global policy question about “the kind of capitalism” into which arts policy would be inserting itself.

However, a strategy for approaching solutions did began to emerge. Dismantling policy silos was one component, drawing policy from practitioners and communities, in their languages and employing their ontologies, was another.

Consultant Michelle Constant urged policymakers to “forget binaries”, and playwright and organiser Mike van Graan built on that. Policy, he suggested, must consider a continuum of arts practices, from those liberating access for creators and audiences via social support, to those operating in the commercial market. Given its failures and biases, he could only see foregrounding the neoliberal cultural industries model as “ironic”.

Rather, participants suggested, the creative economy demands redefinition, to prioritise social and cultural capital. Rather than a value chain that starts with supporting the arts for an end product of “social cohesion”, invest in decolonisation and poverty reduction to build flourishing arts and social cohesion. “It begins,” said Lehlongwa, “with closing the development gap.”

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