On arm's length and political strangleholds in the arts

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Interviews for a new council for the National Arts Council (NAC) are taking place this week, with 72 candidates being interviewed on the Microsoft Teams platform between 1 and 3 December.

“The Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture … hereby invites members of the general public to observe the interview process of candidates nominated to serve as Council members of the National Arts Council (NAC) in terms of the National Arts Council Act, 1997,” reads the media statement put out by the department. It goes on to say that in terms of the Act, “an independent panel appointed by the Minister shall compile a shortlist of no more than 22 names from public nominations after interviewing a nominee in public”.

In a second release, the minister “invites members of the general public to comment on the longlist presented of persons nominated to serve as Council members of the National Arts Council (NAC) … as any member of the public may object in writing to the nomination of any person”.

It is interesting that in a time of COVID-19 restrictions, the minister is actually adhering to the law and the transparency required by the law when he could argue that lockdown conditions militate against implementing the law to the letter. But, then, perhaps he learned his lesson a few years ago when he tried to appoint a new National Arts Council without paying the slightest attention to what the law required. There was no public list of the nominees, no invitation to the public to observe the interviews and no encouragement of the public to object to any nominees. Civil society members objected, but the minister and the department – typically – proceeded, arrogantly claiming that there was no reason for them to redo the process. The council was duly appointed, only for the minister to have to terminate their tenure and do the whole process again when the law took its course.

There were reasons for the law being drafted as it was in 1997. Given the apartheid experience where government-controlled, publicly funded cultural institutions and the allocation of public funds generally upheld the values and worldview of the National Party regime, civil society organisations advocated strongly for a National Arts Council that would dispense public funds to the arts at “arm’s length” from government. No politician or government official was to serve on the council, which would comprise people from within the arts and culture sector who were knowledgeable about the sector and who would allocate funding not according to whether artists genuflected to the ruling party, but on the artistic merits of their applications. In this way, the constitutional right to freedom of creative expression would be protected in the allocation of public funding.

So, public nominations of potential council members, and the right to listen to nominees being interviewed in public and to object to any nominee because of factors such as past corruption, poor administration and management, political bias and the like, allowed the arts community to ensure that those appointed to the council were women and men whom they trusted and respected. In terms of the law, the minister would be presented with a shortlist by the interviewing panel, and he would be obliged to select the national council members from this shortlist, so that he or she as a politician would not simply “deploy” political lackeys to the public funding body.

In the original Act, it was also stipulated that the chairperson of the council would be elected by the council’s members, so that he or she would be accountable to the council, and so contribute to its independence.

However, the Cultural Laws Amendment Act, which was passed in the early 2000s, changed this clause and gave the minister the right to appoint the chairpersons of all publicly funded cultural institutions, including the National Arts Council.

This makes a mockery of the transparent and public participation process outlined above, as chairpersons appointed by the minister invariably owe their allegiance to the minister, rather than to the council or the institution governed by the council. The ministerially appointed chairperson is seen by fellow council members to have political authority, so that they may be more intimidated to challenge the chairperson for fear of their own positions being compromised.

At this very time, Ernestine White-Mifetu, the director of the William Humphreys Art Gallery in Kimberley, funded by the national department, is about to be fired on what many in the arts sector (who hold White in high regard) believe to be trumped up charges, allegedly driven by the powerful chairperson of the council. Similarly, the Market Theatre was wracked by conflict between a ministerially appointed chairperson of the council, who allegedly abused the institution’s resources, and the management, who allegedly attempted to prevent him from doing so.

The ideals of our early democracy as reflected in the original National Arts Council Act have been, in my view, trampled underfoot over the last two decades, so that publicly funded institutions where council members, in my opinion, are paid to serve, have become conduits to the public purse, to political influence and networks and to self-serving prestige and perks.

Will this council be different – like we always hope that a new council or new minister will be?

A glance at the list of nominees does not give one much hope that there are many there who, if they were to be appointed, would uphold the interests of the arts sector primarily and see their work as service to the sector, rather than as an opportunity for self-enrichment.

I, for one, shall not be holding my breath.

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