Stop killing our artists
In (thinking about) writing this article, I did something that made me glad and sad. Glad, because it helped to focus my thinking about what it is I need to say, but incredibly sad because it led to the discovery that another gifted artist had silently slipped through the cracks, buried by a society determined to neglect its artists.
I dared to remember Zolile Myeni, who my mind had for many years pushed to the unwritten margins of my memory, mostly because I was overwhelmed by my simultaneous desire/inability to help her.
Myeni was an imbongi, often imperfectly translated into English as “praise poet”. For a few months in 2006, before I fled the place (suffocated by the stench of corruption that permeated every office of the government complex in Nelspruit where I worked, but that’s a story for another day), I had lived in the small neighbouring town of Barberton, or as the locals there call it, eBhaptin.
Small, forgotten Barberton, unbearably hot and, surrounded by mountains, impossibly beautiful. Beautiful and tragic, like the history of every place like it that was blessed with deposits of gold in its soil. Home of the now infamous Lily mine and its three buried miners. It was during this time that I met the imbongi Zolile Myeni.
A friend from the township of eMjindini had invited me to the opening of a community crèche by the local municipality.
After reciting the praises of the mayor and his love for the people, the imbongi closed with: “iyabonga imbongi, ibonga kukhunjulwa nakunebantfu kunenjabulo, akufani nalelite lekwentiwa ngatsi umuntfu uyahlanya.” I was not the only one stunned into silence by those closing lines. “The poet is thankful to be remembered, even if only when there is jubilation and a gathering, because even that is better than nothing at all. Better than being only an oddity.”
Adding to my confusion was that the young lady delivering those sucker punches had a face that looked familiar.
I sought her out and discovered that she was a shelf-packer at the Pick n Pay in Barberton where I bought groceries. Soon I knew the backroom in eMjindini where she lived, the five-year-old daughter she never stopped talking about (who lived with Myeni’s older sister, a teacher in Ermelo) and the hours she put into practising her craft every day after work. And her refrain, “I do this poetry thing because it is something that springs from deep within me, not because anyone really cares.”
I learnt about her passions, most notably her love for her Xhosa mother, who she said had been hounded into an early grave by her drunken, abusive and eventually absent father. I learnt that I, just like the society that birthed and abandoned her, could not quite grasp the breadth and depth of Myeni’s gift.
In daring to remember Myeni, I reached out to some old contacts and found that she died some time in 2012, after “a short illness”. I may not know the finer details of her demise, but I am sure that she died as she lived — despised. Because this society, this country, despises artists and the arts.
In thinking about writing an article on the enduring neglect of the arts, I dared to remember Myeni and was reminded that, even though everything that can be said has already been said — and said many times — on this subject, not enough has been said because we are talking of life and death struggles.
We can never say enough or too much about the neglect of artists and the arts in this country. The real face of that story is littered with too much human debris, wasted potential, broken dreams and buried gifts. Mind you, the architects of this neglect have mastered the deceptive game of appearances, of seeming to care.
A few prominent practitioners are chosen, they become the repeat recipients of whatever pittances the government has thrown the way of the arts. These are the annually regurgitated examples of an alleged support for the arts. But the thing cannot be faked, no matter how determined the performance.
Artists must understand their struggles in the sense-making context of the broader political and socioeconomic challenges of the day, but this struggle to survive in a hostile environment also means engaging robustly with everyday bread-and-butter issues.
A narrow focus on popular art forms is not what “support for the arts” looks like. Throwing sporadic sums of money at “projects” is not what “supporting artists” looks like. The raw material of artists’ output is their lives, not carefully laid-out project plans justifying every cent that is to be spent. This is not what support for the arts looks like. Plying select cliques of cultural practitioners (who have advanced networking skills and exposure to the right social circles) with funding is not what “supporting the arts” looks like. Projects this and projects that.
What of the book it has taken me five years to write? Is that not art? Is that not “project” enough for you? Is that not deserving of “support”? What do funding and material assistance for writers look like and, more importantly, have these questions even occurred to our government-appointed administrators of the arts?
This narrow focus on “popular” art forms is a thing all serious lovers of our wonderfully various art forms should reject with fury and contempt. Forgetting who and what we are, privileging certain art forms above others because that is the reality shoved down our throats in every metropolis we call home, is not what “supporting the arts” looks like. The thing can’t be faked. It can only be authentic and intentional.
We can and must insist that those who are appointed to preside over our miserable lot in the arts sector must, at the very least, be people with an understanding of the challenges artists face.
We must continue to demand a public audit of every cent that has allegedly been spent on the arts, including every single rand allocated under all the recent Covid-19 relief packages. Every single one. The time to account is now. Artists are starving now. Artists are losing their homes and their hopes now. The demand for accountability is urgent and actionable. Now.
We can and we must demand that the government department that oversees the arts sector must be headed by someone with more than a passing interest in the arts. We will not wait for some future consciousness or uprising to address in the present moment the folly of bunching the arts with sports and recreation, as if the disregard and disrespect were being spelt out to our faces.
We will talk about it now. We will be heard on these matters now. Whether you want to attribute it to the desperation unleashed by a pandemic, or whatever else, the truth is that the artists have risen up and they are no longer begging. No more smiling in the face of insult.
Every day artists are going to bed hungry. We cannot defer to the vagaries of the age, reciting our insightful analyses to ourselves, because every day artists are dying. We cannot be paralysed in the face of this continued neglect because too many artists are seeking their solace at the bottom of a bottle, robbed of all hope and dignity by a society that stubbornly insists the artist does not matter. “Yes, I hear that you’re an artist, but what do you actually do for a living?” This is an inexcusable, unbearable condition we find ourselves in.
It is the duty and the responsibility of the department and the council to move this state towards a more committed, more involved support of the arts. Every drive to promote opportunities and provide resources for artists, be it at the local, municipal, regional, provincial or national level, must be championed by the department and by the council. Otherwise, what are they there for?
As things stand, the people with a true passion for organising in the arts, who are driven by their love for the various art forms, are pushed aside while politically connected individuals hold a monopoly over the allocated resources.
The present state of affairs, without a shadow of doubt, is designed to kill artists and the arts. To rob artists of the substance and sustenance of their souls, because what can you create of lasting import and beauty when your everyday concern is whether you will have a piece of bread for your children and for yourself?
✼ Perfect Hlongwane is a writer and editor who lives and works in Johannesburg. His debut novel, Jozi, was shortlisted for the 2014 University of Johannesburg Writing in English Prize and chosen as part of the limited Picador African Classics eBooks series. His second novel, Sanity Prevail, is due to be released in July