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Major Rebellion brewing in arts and culture sector

David Forbes
28 JANUARY 2020, 20h00

PRESS RELEASE, facebook wall post

It took a courageous and talented woman with integrity to call out the failures of the South African government in the arts and culture sector.

Sowetan-born natural diva Sibongile Mngoma, who began her career as an OK Bazaars cashier in Hillbrow, is a singer of prodigious talent, ranging from opera to jazz and gospel.

But, having studied in the global arena, and performed at prestigious international venues, such as London’s Royal Albert Hall, she could not understand why the Department of Sport, Arts & Culture (DSAC) treated her and her many fellow artists with such disrespect.

After much agonising, she took a brave decision and put her career on the line. She wrote an open letter to Nkosinathi “Nathi” Mthethwa, the relevant minister since 2014. Then, on 19 January, having had no response, she put it on facebook, starting a group called Im4theArts, which exploded to more than 5 000 members in a week. The resonances within the group’s posts, and its rapid growth have surprised her.

“After my letter was ignored, I got a brainwave to find out if there were other Artists who had similar issues. Within 3 hours we hit 500 members and I was blocked,” said Mngoma.

“Immediately after setting up the page, I shared my letter to the Minister again. That is when things changed and suddenly I was blocked from inviting more people until the 4th of February. The reason being I was ‘a menace’.”

Sibongile’s Open Letter to Mthethwa followed two separate public complaints published some time earlier by other prominent SA actresses. Vatiswa Ndara had written an Open Letter setting out her grievances against film production companies. Rami Chuene had posted on twitter about conditions on film sets.

“Both addressed issues concerning actors and their working conditions,” said Mngoma, “I have no contact with either lady. I started my group . . . (and) . . . (W)ithin three hours we hit 500 members.”

Posts on the page reflect a deep anger that has been simmering in the arts and culture sectors for decades. The former Minister of Safety and Security during the time of the Marikana Massacre, Nathi Mthethwa, is not generally liked by the artistic community. Some of the stories on the page detailing their abuse are heartbreaking.

Although Mthethwa holds only three certificates and no other tertiary qualifications, he has failed to bring highly qualified people on board to unify and develop the sector. The DSAC staff often do not even answer the phone or e-mails. Complaints take a long time to be resolved, often unsatisfactorily. People are ignored. Others have accused Mthethwa and others in the sector of corruption, looting, mismanagement, nepotism and criminal behaviour, although none of these allegations have been proved yet. There is also pushback against the term “social cohesion”, viewed as retrogressive.

To facilitate both the “coming out” of stories about how badly artists have been treated, and also to prevent litigation, the group created a private “Members Only” page to ensure that whistleblowers were protected. People can vent on the Members page and share documents and other evidence.

Lawyers are now scrutinising these documents with a view to one or more class actions against the DSAC to force a review of how the arts and culture sector is run. “We have had enough,” is a common cry on the page.

Despite the rancour expressed on the page, people are very positive about the movement that Mngoma and other brave artists are creating to ensure a proper growth and development of the arts in South Africa.

Solutions being discussed are private arts funding initiatives (with private business support), a comprehensive database, formation of unions, new provincial representatives independent of DSAC, and the dissolution of the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of SA (CCIFSA). This official DSAC-sponsored “official voice” of the sector, has been widely discredited after a funding scandal within CCIFSA to the tune of R100m broke in July 2019.(1) There have also been allegations of suspensions, and other rumblings in the DSAC, but the department is tight-lipped and appears to deny everything.

A senior arts administrator who did not want to be named said: “Putting the more than 5k members who joined Im4theArts in one week (!) into perspective … the facebook page for CCIFSA (last post March 2015) records 1.9k likes; the page for Arterial Network SA (last post May 2019) records 3.3k likes. CCIFSA is of course funded by the DAC as the self-declared ‘controlling body’ for arts and culture . . . (T)his is clear evidence that Im4theArts enjoys an unprecedented level of support and should be taken seriously.”

Mthethwa himself responded to Mngoma’s Open Letter almost immediately with a press release on 22 January 2020 which “noted” the Open Letters and claimed that many of the issues had been “patiently responded to in great deal”. While refusing to address any issues specifically, he claimed to have “fulfilled his obligation”, and referred remuneration and other issues to the Department of Employment and Labour. He asked Mngoma to report her allegations directly to the ministry and asked for details. Mthethwa also expressed “sympathy and understanding” to members of the creative and cultural industries, and assured them of his commitment to bring about change.

Mthethwa’s response drew an angry and dismayed response from Chuene and Ndara, according to an article in The Star. Chuene, who was axed from a television production, said Mthethwa’s statement left them with more questions than answers. She tweeted: “Did you just pass the artists onto the Dept of Employment & Labour? With all due respect sir, you’re heading OUR department. This is still in your jurisdiction before it even gets to DEL. Do better Sir.” (sic). Ndara said she was disappointed: “It’s almost as if the minister does not want to be accountable. Minister the industry is falling apart please act.”

Mngoma said: “The Minister’s response putting us all together reflects his own character and how he views women in the space, in general.”

Mngoma then addressed a new Open Letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, asking him to step in because there was clearly a problem with the DSAC: “You are the highest power in South Africa. The top executive. We have a big problem.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, we responded to the call to serve South Africa and liberate our country. When utata uMadiba asked us to stay and help him reconstruct and develop, we did. When you told us to Thuma Mina, we believed you and responded positively.

“Our problem is this: we are struggling to help you rebuild a Capable State. Our way is currently blocked and frustrated at every turn by DSAC. All our routes to recourse are exhausted.

“Malum’ uMatamela, please help us to help you rebuild this beautiful vibrant, country. I, Sibongile Mngoma, and currently around 4 000 arts and culture practitioners and allies, are at a total dead-end with the Department of Sports, Arts & Culture. They disrespect us. They ignore us. They talk down to us, the creators of meaning for arts, culture and music.

“Today many of us are hungry, homeless, and wordless to the questioning eyes of our children. Our work has been interrupted, sabotaged and blocked, and the resources allocated for it stolen and consumed by others. Many others have died penniless.

“What was fought for, and built lovingly in the 1990s, authoring the missions of the NAC, has transformed into a bureaucratic nightmare, out of touch with the country’s artists, creators and cultural practitioners. We have become victims of faceless box-ticking bureaucrats, many of whom don’t even answer the telephone nor our e-mails. The Freedom Charter instructed “The Doors of Learning and Of Culture to be open for ALL, including us. Yet cadre deployment has turned the DSAC into a patronage machine.”

The Open Letter told the President the artistic community felt DSAC had lost legitimacy, and asked him to “clearly, explicitly and visibly answer our question: What is the mandate of the DSAC? The lack of transparency, plainly written rules and processes and of accountability, and of engagement at any level, is appalling, intolerable and, at worst, illegal,” the letter said.

“Rather than discovering, developing and encouraging national talent, the DSAC is concerned with Social Cohesion, an empty term reminiscent of the apartheid era,” said the letter, pointing out that “(W)e are a community of people, not a collection of objects to be ‘glued together’. It is the artistic community that is responsible for highlighting the diversity of our nation. We continue to achieve globally, attracting millions of visitors to interact with our artists, musicians, crafters and cultural creators.

“We are now organizing from ground up, once more, to take back our power as creative people who can contribute meaningly to our country and the health and well-being of our people and communities. We are for the country. FINISH ‘n KLAAR!

“We are mobilising. We will march in every corner of our beautiful Mzansi, the Azanian shores, onse Suid-Afrika, Afrika Borwa yarona, Izwe lethu. . . . (W)e will force more accountability and transparency, bring thieves to account, end the culture of impunity and the careless disrespect for the artistic community. Most of us have more integrity in our little fingers than entire floors of the DSAC.

“We have given up on DSAC. We call on you to dissolve the DSAC immediately. Work with us to create an authentic, new structure that speaks for and represents all sectors and areas of South African Arts, Culture and Heritage. A society without culture is a society without soul.”

The letter exhorted Ramaphosa: “Mr President. Hear our call. Answer our key question. Engage us. Listen to us. Our lives and livelihoods are at stake. Our nation’s soul is in the balance. Call us! Artists have always been in the frontlines of battle. Raising the battle cry. We are the nation’s torchbearers and carriers of the national banner, and the creative solution. . . . We call on you to start by answering our key question and replacing the Minister with a person of integrity – and an Arts administrator who understands us and what we can contribute to the country if we all work together. We are asking you to accelerate the process of . . . action. If not, then you will be failing us even as we say “yes, call us!”

Almost immediately after Mngoma formed the page, fake accounts began to appear with news and posts designed to divide and confuse, but were quickly shut down by administrators. By Tuesday 28 January, Mngoma reported that her phone was being “jammed”. She later said it may have been cloned, because a drone had “visited” her during the night, and she had lost all her data, airtime and signal.

To date neither the President nor the Presidency has responded. The DSAC has remained silent. More than 5000 people from the arts, culture and heritage sectors are growing more vocal by the hour. “We are not going to stop until we have changed this thing,” said Mngoma. She has assumed a humble position within the group, which has a flat leadership structure, and is planning its next campaign.

“They can do their worst,” said Mngoma tonight, “I’m ready for them.”

1. https://city-press.news24.com/News/the-r100m-arts-funding-scandal-20190715-2