I once caught a glimpse of the TV series, Disenchantment – an animated fantasy geared toward adults which takes place in the crumbling medieval kingdom of Dreamland. It’s from this television series that I first heard the variation of the expression, “I will not dignify that with a response”. In this TV series, a character uttered the words, “I won’t dignify that with an upward glance.”
This resonated with me because, at times, critics’ chatter and noise are often a method of “attention seeking”, that requires those from whom attention is being solicited to take their eyes off the goals they have set out to achieve, by giving the attention seeker an “upward glance”. It is this upward glance that causes us to lose focus and become distracted from the tasks and goals at hand. Ironically, the opinion piece that has resulted in this response makes the allegation that “…the Department of Arts and Culture and the minister, in particular, are not inclined to listen to the sector…”
My response, even though it is targeted at the individual who penned the piece in Daily Maverick last week, is proof enough that the assertion made by the writer cannot possibly be true, as here I am, taking my eyes off the innumerable tasks and goals of the department I serve to “offer an upward glance” to criticism that is unfounded at best and entirely off the mark and inaccurate at worst.
This time last week, Mike van Graan wrote these words for this publication: “If ever there was an indication of just how elitist and out of touch the ruling party is with its electorate, it was Minister Tito Mboweni ending his maiden Budget speech with a pledge to ‘consider proposals for a new national theatre, a new national museum… a national orchestra and ballet troupe’.”
Contrary to the article’s headline, it actually makes the point of a large amount of work done and money spent by the government through the Department of Arts and Culture to execute its mandate to protect, preserve, develop and promote our heritage for an empowered, creative and inclusive nation. Notwithstanding these efforts, we know that we have barely scratched the surface in decolonising and transforming the heritage landscape.
Shortly after the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela on 27 April 1994, the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology and the Office of the President were inundated with requests from diverse sources for official approval for the erection of monuments, museums, statues, commemorations of great leaders and historic events.
Almost all the requests came from communities, leaders and individuals whose heritage was neglected during the previous political dispensation in the country. Notably, the requests came from women, sections of the black community and other non-racial progressive organisations in South Africa.
In order to provide for co-ordinated and coherent implementation of these requests to correct the imbalances of the past, Cabinet approved the National Legacy Project in 1998. Projects completed under the National legacy project include the Samora Machel Monument in Mbuzini, Mpumalanga, opened in 1998, Centenary of the Anglo-Boer/South African War of 1899-1902 in 1999, Freedom Park, Pretoria, Gauteng, Women’s Monument, Union Buildings, Pretoria, Gauteng, Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha, opened in 2002, Luthuli Museum, Groutville, KwaZulu-Natal, opened in 2004, Centenary Anniversary of the SS Mendi, in Cape Town, Western Cape in 2007, repatriation and reburial of Sarah Baartman in Hankey, Eastern Cape in 2002, the Ncome Museum in Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal, Nelson Mandela Statue, Union Buildings, Gauteng, unveiled in 2013, repatriation and reburial of Trooi and Klaas Pienaar, Northern Cape, repatriation and reburial of Moses Kotane and JB Marx, Matola Museum, Matola, Mozambique, opened in 2015, to name a few.
We were quickly reminded that these efforts were not enough when from an isolated protest by students at the University of Cape Town, the “Rhodes Must Fall” morphed into a movement that spread throughout the country. Statues of pre-1994 figures became subjects of popular fury; protesters demanded their removal, even defacing some of them, accompanied by scenes of confrontation.
The Task Team I appointed to advise me on strategies to accelerate the decolonisation and transformation of the heritage landscape observes in its report that these public symbols are not innocent pieces of architectural and artistic work. They embody a strong symbolical power. What we are witnessing is a tension between our foundational values as a country, on the one hand, and the meaning of the colonial/apartheid project, on the other.
It is important to continue to create public symbols that are aligned to our foundational values of affirmation, inclusivity, nation-building, and a coherent and cohesive society as stipulated in the preamble of the Constitution. Until these objectives are achieved, the government will continue to invest resources in previously disadvantaged elements of heritage. The suffering of large sections of our society cannot be measured in monetary terms, hence as government, we need to continue to provide for the financial implications of our efforts to heal our society, address those imbalances and develop our communities.
That is why it is important for the 2019/20 Budget to allocate nearly two-thirds of the Arts and Culture Department’s R4.617-billion allocation to heritage and cultural preservation. That is why it is important, after creating Robben Island Museum and Freedom Park; these entities are supported by the department’s allocation. That is why the department continues to unapologetically “litter the country with monuments, street names and buildings that celebrate Struggle heroes”.
In our efforts to heal, transform and build a cohesive nation we are moving away from communal enclaves towards creating communities and institutions that talk to one South African national identity. The article’s concept of “living museums” that are shaped and “owned” by local communities’ don’t seem to take into consideration aspirations of the country as expressed in the constitution and the National Development Programme.
The National Archives and Records Services of South Africa (Narssa) is a valuable, essential and irreplaceable resource that houses the memory of our nation. This resource is not only essential for research and knowledge production for academic and intellectual development, but also for good governance and development of the country.
The modernised Narssa will serve as a centre of excellence for research and an information/knowledge management powerhouse that will lead in the training and development of archivists and related professionals in South Africa and the rest of the African continent. The allocated funding for the Narssa will assist in: Digitisation of the collection so that the fourth industrial revolution is realised. The Rivonia Trial Dictabelt project kick-started the move towards digitising the collections within Narssa. As we speak the final training on this between archivists from France and South Africa is happening.
We are in the process of unlocking a wealth of information that will be contributing to the collective memory of our nation; space to house all public and relevant non-public and related records of government and relevant and related industries irrespective of genre. The envisaged new state-of-the-art archival building that was approved by Treasury will enable us to take custody of the records generated by South Africa’s first democratic government, in addition to creating enabling spaces and technology for the digitisation of the records in Narssa.
This initiative will fast track the archives into the fourth industrial revolution with the result that all South Africans and the world at large will one day be able to access all aspects of our collective memory as a nation by simply pressing a button on any of their electronic devices; and the digitisation of the archival collections within the Narssa is the ideal space for partnerships and job creation opportunities for the youth of South Africa, new technologies and old technologies meet here to create unique opportunities and challenges for the youth to learn and explore within the realm of the fourth industrial revolution to benefit all South Africans in having access to their history.
Last, to ensure good governance the new National Archives database will be developed with the functionality to simplify the acceptance of electronic records created within the various governmental bodies and their associated institutions. This is the initial step in the implementation of electronic records management systems that will provide for the long-term preservation of records selected in terms of the National Archives Act and Records Management policies that will provide for transparent, accountable and good governance throughout government.
The stark disingenuousness of what Mr van Graan has written is his claim of the “the department’s sheer incompetence and negligence”. The claim is disingenuous in that in his write-up he omits to mention that at the time he acted as “special adviser”, the ministry was forced to contend with an open letter by the “editors and all concerned in issues affecting the arts and culture industry”, which indicted the department in the administration of the PACT/State Theatre, and the Public Protector’s report thereof, among a host of other challenges faced by the department’s administration at the time.
It is true that as the department, we subscribe to the belief, as articulately put by Amilcar Cabral, to “…hide nothing from the masses, mask no difficulties, and claim no easy victories”.
We are proud that in scrutinising ourselves in our performance in the past five years, we have remained true to this adage. The same cannot be said of the writer of the opinion piece last Sunday, and his omission of the difficulties faced during his time as an adviser in the ministry at some point is a testament to this.
I owe Mike van Graan an apology, for not agreeing with him to form an advisory body for myself as the Minister of Arts and Culture, from which I would have been expected to take instructions and report to. It is apparent that my refusal to report and be accountable to him and his advisory body, instead of the public that has placed this government in power, remains a sore point. Where he states that ours is a department and a minister that do not listen, he means that the department and minister do not listen to him.
Had he declared this from the outset in his opinion piece; readers would have enjoyed some perspective where his grievances are concerned. I am making this apology because perhaps, had I, as the Minister of Arts and Culture, given him an upward glance (at the expense of hundreds of thousands of the department’s stakeholders) – he might not have resorted to the attention-seeking and insulting posture he has taken by writing his opinion piece.
In the opening paragraph of this piece, I cite a quote from a TV series set against the backdrop of a crumbling medieval kingdom. It is my view, that Mr van Graan is upset by the reality that since the advent of democracy, the pool of experts in the arts, culture and heritage sector, whose counsel I enjoy, has grown to such an extent that his is not the only authoritative voice in the sector. To the Department of Arts and Culture, this signals success, but to Mr van Graan, this seems to mean an obsession to make the loudest noise at whatever cost, including reputational harm to the department and myself at its head.
Be that as it may, in the almost five years that I have led the Department of Arts and Culture, I and my team of officials remain resolute that indeed, we have experienced many difficulties, which we have not concealed, as was demonstrated in the press statement that Mr van Graan quotes.
However, at the same time, we have attained victories that he has chosen to be blind to or ignore, and indeed, we are proud of the department we have contributed to building in the past five years of this current administration. With my “upward glance” as I dignify Mr van Graan’s unfair criticism, it is my hope that he can take a wider glance instead of his narrow view at the overall impact and successes of the Department of Arts and Culture.
Since he has displayed his unwillingness to do so in order to advance a nefarious agenda, I will assist him thus, mindful of the word limit I must adhere to in this response: Phenomenal strides have been made by the department in the provision of library and information services since the advent of the conditional grant in 2007. The impact thereof is the creating of a culture of reading in the rural, urban and peri-urban areas. The provision of ICT in areas that were previously ignored has significantly bridged the urban-rural divide.
Today, we are also able to boast of significant transformation in the heritage landscape of South Africa, which contrary to van Graan’s beliefs, is a source of significant pride to South Africans whose geographical location names have been changed to correctly recast the rightful heroes of South Africa’s liberation from colonialism and apartheid and to undo the unjust catapulting into significance of villains whose legacies are those of systematic violence and oppression and a barrier to the progress and indeed the freedom of the majority of South Africans.
In this way, the DAC is facilitating skills development in the creative arts industry through the various academies it has contributed towards building —ensuring that youths who live outside the main centres are able to experience training in their respective provinces.
I could also tell Mr van Graan of the initiatives such as the State Publishing House, the Art Bank, and the widened scope where funding of arts, culture and heritage projects, which had previously been enjoyed by a few, is now a benefit that is available to a far greater number of initiatives throughout the country.
It would serve Mr van Graan well to not attempt to portray himself as the sole custodian of knowledge and institutional memory of how the department ought to be run, to the extent of questioning the Minister of Finance, my colleague Mr Tito Mboweni’s budgetary pledge to this department.
We take Mr van Graan’s criticism, but it is unfortunately not too helpful in our attempts to ensure that the department continues on its path of improvement over the years and successive administrations. Were Mr van Graan to be honest, he would realise that the department in its current form is supremely better than the one he boasts of having played a “special adviser” in.
- Nathi Mthethwa is SA arts and culture minister