The un­sung hero?

Sup­port­ing the arts in SA could be just as im­por­tant as build­ing roads and sta­di­ums

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - BY SIZWEKAZI JEKWA sizwekazij@fin­week.co.za

MY FRIEND MICHEL and I re­cently had the plea­sure of watch­ing the latest big bud­get South African mu­si­cal pro­duc­tion – Soweto Story – at Jo­han­nes­burg’s Civic Theatre. We thor­oughly en­joyed it and were struck by the pro­fes­sion­al­ism and cre­ativ­ity of this au­then­ti­cally African pro­duc­tion, which was writ­ten, di­rected, per­formed, pro­duced and fi­nanced by South Africans.

This mu­si­cal is likely to join the ranks of other world-renowned South African pro­duc­tions Umoja and Sara­fina. I was also im­pressed by the con­tin­ued sup­port that Absa has given South African arts and cul­ture by re­new­ing its com­mit­ment to spon­sor fur­ther top qual­ity mu­si­cal pro­duc­tions.

A Parisian friend once com­mented on the over­whelm­ing sup­port that South African big busi­ness gave to the arts. And though I agreed with her whole­heart­edly, I also said that the arts thrived in France due to its gov­ern­ment’s un­re­strained will­ing­ness and un­end­ing ca­pac­ity to fund and sup­port cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties – a role our Gov­ern­ment isn’t in­clined to play.

I also noted that on the rare oc­ca­sion that our Gov­ern­ment did try to sup­port the arts, it usu­ally ended in a scan­dal or dis­as­ter, as was the case with Bo­gani Ngema’s Sara­fina 2 pro­duc­tion some years ago. More im­por­tantly, our Gov­ern­ment’s fi­nan­cial sup­port of the arts is cer­tainly not com­pa­ra­ble in scale or fre­quency to that of Euro­pean gov­ern­ments.

Es­sen­tially, big busi­ness in SA has been pick­ing up the slack for Gov­ern­ment for some time by fi­nanc­ing arts and cul­ture – and in­deed it’s their duty and priv­i­lege to do so.

But I do think it’s high time Gov­ern­ment stopped re­gard­ing cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties as a lux­ury or an “ex­trav­a­gance” and started giv­ing them the at­ten­tion and fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance they rightly de­serve.

I un­der­stand that as a na­tion we have some ma­jor prob­lems and per­haps some of us might be in­clined to think that is­sues such as fi­nanc­ing the arts and cul­ture are far less im­por­tant than other chal­lenges like HIV/Aids or poverty alle­vi­a­tion. But that may very well be a short­sighted point of view. If any­thing, arts and cul­ture have an in­te­gral role to play in solv­ing SA’s big­gest chal­lenges even though its in­flu­ence isn’t im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent.

I went to a school that pro­moted the im­por­tance of cul­tural as well as aca­demic ed­u­ca­tion. All stu­dents were re­quired to join at least two clubs and so­ci­eties and were en­cour­aged to par­tic­i­pate in most cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties, such as the Gra­ham­stown Arts Fes­ti­val and the Eisteddfod.

Fur­ther­more, ev­ery year the Stan­dard 9 class (Grade 11 as it’s now called) of each res­i­dence would com­pete by di­rect­ing, per­form­ing and pro­duc­ing two full-scale theatre pro­duc­tions.

I re­mem­ber that our teach­ers gave us zero as­sis­tance with those projects. In fact, teach­ers were ex­pressly for­bid­den to help; they could only ad­vise. Stu­dents had to work hard to achieve suc­cess.

I re­mem­ber how char­ac­ter mould­ing that ex­pe­ri­ence was for us as young women and I also re­mem­ber how much fun it was. Even those who weren’t mu­si­cians, dancers or ac­tresses were in­volved in set de­sign, scripts, cast­ing and other ad­min work. And de­spite all the at­ten­tion paid to arts and cul­ture by the school, it pro­duced some of the best ma­tric re­sults in the coun­try, with a 100% pass rate.

It’s a well-re­searched and es­tab­lished fact that chil­dren in dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties in­volved in ex­tra cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties are sta­tis­ti­cally less likely to fall into a num­ber of preva­lent so­ci­etal “traps” – like teenage preg­nancy, gang vi­o­lence, crime, drugs and pros­ti­tu­tion.

I know as sure as I’m here to­day that many of the dreams I have for my­self were cre­ated by my in­ter­ac­tions with the arts and much of the con­fi­dence I gained to pur­sue them was de­rived from cul­tural achieve­ments that had noth­ing to do with maths, bi­ol­ogy or chem­istry.

What I’m try­ing to il­lus­trate in very sim­ple terms is the value arts and cul­ture can have for young peo­ple. It acts as fa­cil­i­ta­tor in their aca­demic progress, it en­gages and ex­cites them while dis­tract­ing them from other haz­ardous ac­tiv­i­ties. It can also em­ploy peo­ple who would oth­er­wise be on the streets com­mit­ting crimes.

It can give the young who may not have had ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion an op­por­tu­nity to use the wealth of their in­her­ent creative knowl­edge and tal­ent that so many young South Africans are blessed with.

But if I have to be fair in my as­sess­ments, Gov­ern­ment isn’t alone in ne­glect­ing the arts in SA.

Many South Africans (and I hate to say it) – in par­tic­u­lar black South Africans – aren’t sup­port­ers of the arts. There are of course a few events that black South Africans like to sup­port but they’re usu­ally jazz fes­ti­vals, such as the Cape Town Jazz Fest and Mamelodi, and in­volve down­ing co­pi­ous amounts of liquor.

It seems black South Africans – even the ones that can af­ford the lux­ury of buy­ing the oc­ca­sional theatre or con­cert ticket – rarely do so, es­pe­cially if the artists are lo­cal. I’d like to see more black South Africans sup­port­ing all the var­i­ous art forms in our richly di­verse na­tion, not just jazz and in­ter­na­tional mu­si­cal acts.

It is a huge in­dict­ment on our coun­try that multi-Grammy award-win­ning artists such as Lady­smith Black Mam­baza can sell out con­certs six months be­fore their first per­for­mance over­seas while they strug­gle to fill a hall in their home coun­try.

Creative arts have an amaz­ing ca­pac­ity to ed­u­cate peo­ple about var­i­ous so­cial is­sues, to en­lighten and en­cour­age nec­es­sary di­a­logue and de­bate, to build bridges be­tween en­e­mies and even to heal pain and suf­fer­ing.

How then can we even doubt the im­por­tance of arts and cul­ture in our so­ci­ety when it has so much to of­fer a de­vel­op­ing econ­omy and fledg­ling democ­racy? But to thrive, the in­dus­try needs sup­port – both from the pub­lic sec­tor and or­di­nary peo­ple like you and me.

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