French cultural workers and students are occupying more than 20 theatres and other cultural sites across the country at the moment in protest against the closure of these institutions and the loss of income for people who make their livelihoods within the cultural sector.
At the time of writing, artists have entered their thirteenth day of occupation of the National Arts Council (NAC) offices in Johannesburg in protest against the NAC’s poor management of the allocation of funds from the Presidential Employment Stimulation Package (PESP) to the sector. At the same time, artists have occupied the PACOFS building in Bloemfontein for more than five days, demanding that the council act on the allegations of corruption against the acting CEO. There is growing discussion about similar occupations in the Northern Cape around issues pertaining to their Department of Sport, Arts and Culture.
As one of the sectors most adversely impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, arts and culture broadly and theatre and dance in particular have seen already fragile incomes decline even further. Little wonder then that those with little to lose are resorting to desperate and radical acts of protest to draw attention to their plight and to provoke more empathetic state responses.
This last Sunday, social media was abuzz with the news from Sibongile Mngoma, leader of the NAC occupation, that the minister, Nathi Mthethwa, had called for a meeting with the striking artists and with the NAC at 18:00 to respond to the questions that the artists wanted answered satisfactorily before leaving the NAC offices. Apparently the minister wanted to meet the artists at the Market Theatre across the way from the NAC, but the artists refused as this could have been a ploy to have them removed from the NAC building. The minister also apparently requested that it be a closed meeting, but the artists insisted on the meeting’s being broadcast publicly through social media as it was not only they, but the broader arts community that needed answers.
The demands that led to the occupation included demands for the list of beneficiaries of the PESP funding and the amounts they were to receive to be made public, for all those who were to be allocated funding (about 1 300 potential beneficiaries) to be made known and for confirmation of when those who had been contracted would be paid. Questions that could be answered relatively simply, one would think.
Late last year the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture made available R300 million in PESP funding to the NAC to distribute in order to maintain existing jobs and to stimulate new jobs, with these funds having to be spent by the end of March 2021.
The NAC agreed on 600 plus applications and sent out contracts stipulating the amounts that these beneficiaries would receive. With the promise of funding and with the tight deadline by which to spend it, numerous companies initiated projects and arranged bridging finance to cover the costs of their projects while they awaited the transfer of the funds promised by the NAC.
A new council was appointed to the NAC and took office in January 2021. They allegedly “discovered” an additional 700 plus applicants who were eligible for funding and so decided unilaterally to annul the contracts sent to beneficiaries by the previous council, and radically to reduce the funding promised them, in order to spread the available funds more widely (and thinly). This led to an outcry from the arts sector, which resulted in the council’s suspending the CEO and CFO in an apparent attempt to blame them for the mismanagement of the decision-making process and the delays in distributing the funds.
Having called the meeting to resolve the situation, the minister failed to show up as he had to attend to other business, according to the acting Director-General, who hosted the online meeting on Sunday evening. This was yet another example of the minister missing in action, of his perceived ineptness and inability to show leadership in a crisis that needs urgent intervention.
The two-hour meeting ended in a stalemate with the NAC believing that they had answered the questions, and the artist occupiers stating that they had not answered the questions, with other questions raised during the meeting about alleged conflicts of interest with new council members being beneficiaries of the PESP funding, alleged exaggerated payments to one or two artists, and payments to be made to companies that allegedly had no record of engagement in the arts not being satisfactorily addressed.
The NAC and the DSAC officials kept apologising for the state of affairs and had clearly aimed for a more conciliatory approach, but such has been their perceived incompetence, their arrogance, their lack of empathy and the delays in responding to artists that even their valid explanations went unheard or were treated with disdain by many attending the meeting.
Artists have begun to take the NAC to court for reneging on the original contracts, and the NAC suggested that by going to court, artists would prevent the funds being paid out, leading to greater despair within the sector. Despite an organisation like Im4theArts advising artists not to sign the new contracts as this would allegedly annul the original contracts in which they had been promised more funding, many have signed the new contracts in order to get at least some money.
These are desperate times. People who are desperate, do desperate things.
And the minister responsible for arts and culture maintains his 100 kilometre social distance from it all.