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Minister Mashatile's 'Teapot' Will Not Save Us!

By M Blackman on 17 September

Russell's Teapot

Russell's Teapot, 2013. Photograph

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Weekend Argus.

During the Cuban missile crisis President Kennedy was sent two contradictory telegrams from Moscow.  One stated that a solution could be negotiated, the other that, if Kennedy did not back-down immediately, he would be facing a nuclear apocalypse.  One of Kennedy’s advisors offered him a way forward; respond only to the telegram that offered a practical programme of action towards a solution. Kennedy took the advice – and ultimately the crisis was averted.

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At the Department of Arts and Culture’s (DAC) public workshop for the Revised White Paper on Arts Culture and Heritage, in Cape Town on 5 September, the audience was offered two such contradictory messages.  One, delivered by Minister Paul Mashatile, pitched the White Paper as offering a brave new direction, arguing it had been thoroughly researched and crafted to service the needs of the people of South Africa. 

The other message coming from Mashatile’s director general, Sibusiso Xaba, was less upbeat. In Xaba’s view: ‘the bottom-line is this, that there isn’t sufficient funding for the sector’.  Also that culture institutions would be closed down if they did not meet certain ‘moral, social and economic’ criteria.  Like Kennedy we should be listening to one message and be ignoring the other. But unlike Kennedy we should not be expecting a satisfactory conclusion. We would do well to brace ourselves for what is almost inevitably to come.

In truth even Minister Mashatile’s message should have put his listeners on their guard. Even the preamble was badly placed, with Mashatile kicking off by saying that ‘coming to the end of the term of the current administration I think that this is an opportune moment to review policy’.
Here there seems to be some confusion: a White Paper is not a review, it is a policy guideline.  White Papers are not produced at the end of administrations.  What would be the point? Certainly an incoming administration (and word on the street is that Mr Mashatile could soon be redeployed to other pastures of governance) would be unlikely to simply adopt the policy of its predecessor, looking instead to put its own stamp on the portfolio.

Another issue came into focus when the minister confirmed that the Paper sought ‘to reposition arts culture and heritage so that it can drive development in the country…contribute towards sustainable development, the creation of jobs and the development of skills.’

Certainly the White Paper’s focus does fall on creating a “Cultural and Creative Industry”. Unaccountably, however, it then goes on to say it wants to: ‘steer clear of the debates regarding the contribution of the Cultural and Creative Industries to economic development.’

So are we expected to make some kind of a leap of blind faith, implementing cultural creative industries, but, like Brahmins, declining to consider their economic effects?

In philosophy it is an injunction of the kind that was famously caricatured in the example of “Russell’s Teapot”. Imagine, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, said, the argument being advanced that the earth is circled by a great and wonderous celestial teapot. Such a postulation cannot rationally be sustained or entertained, Russell concludes without the backup of some scientific proof that such a remarkable object does in fact exist.

Now, the burden of proof that a sustainable Cultural and Creative Industry can function within South Africa lies with the minster and the drafters of the paper.  Perhaps there is proof out there that this is in fact the case, proof that could be used to direct policy, but both the Minister and the White Paper remain curiously coy on the subject and seem somehow reluctant to even mention it.

Such wishful ‘teapot’ thinking at the level of policy is very much in line with Mashatile’s other announcement to the effect that ‘in every ward in South Africa there must be a library, an arts centre and a sports field.’

Here, however and sadly, the proof is all too readily available. In the 1996 White Paper, recommendations were made to build arts centres. As a result at least fifty of these were in fact constructed around the country. However, as Prof Andries Oliphant pointed out last year, almost all of these arts centres have subsequently closed down or now find themselves dysfunctional due to a lack of funding. 

But the White Paper offers no reasoned response or research into why this happened, nor what a definitive solution to this problem might be.  To be sure the minister did talk of the fact that arts centres cannot exist without sustainable arts programmes. He also said that an implementation plan was essential to the process.  The intimation was that such would be funded projects. All of this was warmly received by the scattered audience. (Have we really got so used to such obtuse, bizarre and cockamamie comments coming from our ministers, that we must greet the painfully obvious with such applause?)

However - in direct contradiction to these warmly applauded ideas - came the director general’s announcements on funding at the end of the session. Xaba said the new funding strategy the will only fund projects in three-year cycles. Thereafter they must be self-sufficient. 

As well as seemingly undercutting Mashatile’s policy projection, what Xaba’s statement reveals is a complete failure to understand the nature of institutions like arts centres and development projects. In general, it is extremely unlikely that such projects will become commercially sustainable after three years. By their nature, they offer a list of services that do not generate money, and as such require public funding on a long-term if not permanent basis.

The department’s solution to many of these funding problems lies in the proposed creation of a Creative Industry Fund (CIF). This, according to the Minister, will come with a budget of one billion rand. It sounds impressive, but, more closely examined, is less so.  Actually what Mashatile is talking about appears to be hardly more than a merging of the arts, culture and heritage allocations from the Lotto added together with the public funding already allocated to the National Film and Video Foundation, the National Arts Council, and the National Heritage Council.

The fact is that with the creation of CIF nothing will have actually changed.  There is nothing in the speeches at the workshop or the White Paper to suggest there will be any increase in government funding. It will just be that the very same amount of money that is already there that will go into one organization instead of four. 

The idea is of course that CIF will be more efficient.  But again here the available evidence does not support the argument.  Internationally, larger administrations - and the CIF will be very large one - have a history of being more bureaucratic and less efficient than smaller ones. 

And one would venture to predict, such a restructuring will solve none of the problems that the four organizations aren’t already facing: understaffing, a lack of sufficient funding and corruption.  Lumping several ‘problems’ into one is not a solution, it’s just trying to hide a collapsing wall from view by putting one big painting on it instead of four smaller ones.

The art historian Kenneth Clark said: ‘If I had to say which was telling the truth about a society, a speech by the Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.’ 

Despite all the fine words of the Minister - who has been in the department for the last five years - arts and culture institutions all over the country are now in a state of crisis and many of them are closing down as we speak. So brace yourselves, for the arts and culture apocalypse is getting dangerously close and there is not a policy in this White Paper that will save us.