What has gone wrong at the Centre for Creative Arts, the organiser of four major Durban arts festivals? Niren Tolsi heads to the coastal town to find out
‘We have been an orchestra without a conductor,” said former Durban International Film Festival (Diff) manager Sarah Dawson with a sigh.
The “orchestra” is the Centre for Creative Arts, based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It has established itself as one of the continent’s foremost cultural hubs through its four annual festivals: Diff; the Jomba dance festival; Poetry Africa; and Time of the Writer, which has attracted authors such as Chris Abani and Arundhati Roy.
The centre has been without a permanent director since Peter Rorvik left more than three years ago. This, according to the six former and current Centre for Creative Arts employees who spoke to City Press on condition of anonymity, has been one of the main reasons the centre has been struggling. They say it has degenerated. It was a tightly run unit with systems in place, and where creativity and independent-mindedness was encouraged, especially in programming content for festivals. Staff were groomed – alumni include Nashen Moodley, the current director of the Sydney Film Festival – and institutional memory was built.
It is now a place of despondence, where its young and energetic staff, many of whom have remained on contracts for years, are consistently “asked to perform duties outside their skills set”, according to one employee.
The university’s inability to fill the director’s position is attributed in some part to its insistence that applicants have, at minimum, a master’s degree, a qualification that prevented Ismail Mahomed, director of the National Arts Festival, from considering the position – despite the university having attempted to head-hunt him in 2014.
“The Centre for Creative Arts needs someone with extensive contacts in the arts sector, both locally and internationally, a director with experience of organising budgets and fundraising,” he said.
According to insiders, fundraising has almost ground to a halt. Long-term sponsors such as the eThekwini Municipality are still on board, but sponsorship from organisations such as the National Lottery are unsigned because the director’s position has remained vacant.
Carol Coetzee, CEO of the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission, which has enjoyed a close working relationship with Diff, said there had been “a leadership gap”, which affected the film festival’s “strategic future positioning”.
She said that “due to the lack of response” and the “late submission of a funding request”, the commission was in discussions with the university about a “reduced contribution for Diff this year”.
The neoliberalisation of the university, which started in earnest in the mid-2000s under the stewardship of the former vicechancellor, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, is another factor that has contributed to the state of the Centre for Creative Arts, according to several former employees.
At the time, Makgoba had been accused of stifling academic freedom at the university, causing several respected academics to leave as it streamlined, corporatised and placed further emphasis on money-making courses.
The corporate mind-set, said one former Centre for Creative Arts employee, meant university management “never really understood the centre’s role” outside of the festivals serving as a branding exercise.
“We were not bringing in research points, nor were we educating students who would bring in money...”