The unsung hero?
Supporting the arts in SA could be just as important as building roads and stadiums
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.