Nathi Mthethwa, minister of sport, arts and culture – mockingly known as the minister of congratulations and condolences for his numerous photo opportunities with achievers in the arts generally, without his department having contributed to such achievements, and for his media releases bemoaning some artist’s demise – is the subject of a petition launched by artists calling on him to resign by the end of January or be replaced by the president in February.
The petition is in response to a tweet by the minister on 15 January, in which he stated that “South African theatre is alive and well”, mentioning the five theatres subsidised by his department as his “proof”.
In the petition, the artists write in response: “Not only is this tweet patently untrue – these theatres have generally had dark stages for months due to lockdown regulations, with some offering filmed recordings of productions – the tweet reflects how ignorant the minister is of the theatre landscape in the country and underscores his lack of understanding of, and empathy with, the enormous losses within the arts sector over the last ten months.”
The tweet was quickly removed, and in response to the petition, Mthethwa issued a media release in which he expressed his “heartfelt remorse for the tweet”, particularly “in light of the fact that the creative sector has been the hardest hit by the pandemic”.
At the time of writing, the petition had been signed by more than 1 900 artists, no mean feat for a sector that is normally quite apathetic in taking any kind of action in relation to the numerous challenges they face, and about which they are generally vocal. There has been the usual pushback within the sector, with statements such as that the petition won’t achieve anything and that the petition will cause division within the sector, and questions about whom he will be replaced by, in that it may be better to have the devil we know.
The petition has already achieved an apology from the minister, which is more than he gave after the Marikana massacre, in which more than 30 miners were mowed down by the police for whom he was politically responsible. The minister responsible for drenching a queue of elderly people waiting for their SASSA grants, and who were not “socially distanced”, has still not apologised for this outrageous act, as far as I’m aware.
Given that the minister was appointed to the arts position after the Marikana massacre, the drafters of the petition are fully aware that it is unlikely that he will resign or be forced to step down after “only” an offensive tweet, even if it spits on the graves of numerous performing artists who have succumbed to COVID-19.
The petition itself states: “There is little in our post-1994 history to make us believe that those in positions of political power who do not deliver on, or who fail dismally in executing, their responsibilities, resign or are replaced. That Nathi Mthethwa, who was the minister of police responsible for the Marikana massacre, a massive blot on our post-apartheid democracy, still occupies a ministerial position, confirms this lack of belief in democratic accountability in our country. But this will not deter us from asserting our democratic rights, raising our voice and acting in our collective interests as a sector.”
The minister’s apology is not good enough for the signatories to the petition, because for them, “the tweet reflects our long experience of the minister as incompetent, aloof and out of touch”.
Signatories to the petition include some of the country’s most well-known artists and administrators, including Sylvaine Strike, Gregory Maqoma, Faniswa Yisa, Pedro Kruger, Marion Holm, Khutjo Green, Vinette Ebrahim, Saartjie Botha, James Borthwick, Jay Pather, Mannie Manim, Mamela Nyamza, Ismail Mahomed and Bianca Amato.
Some within the theatre and dance sector are seeing this as an opportunity to organise a more representative structure to advocate and defend the interests of the sector. Whether this happens or not remains to be seen.
In the meantime, and until 31 January at least, the industry is calling on members to share the petition under the hashtag #NathiMustGo and to continue to show support for the petition by signing the form at https://forms.gle/KroXWRVpgc6GEZTU7.
There have been numerous articles in newspapers, on online platforms and in radio and television interviews about the petition. The Sunday Times also named Mthethwa its “Mampara of the Week”.
With such widespread rejection and ridicule, why would the minister stay?