Elections & culture: commoditisation made manifest(o)

The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!

  • The government shall discover, develop and encourage national talent for the enhancement of our cultural life
  • All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands – 26 June 1955
KLiptown crowd.jpg
Making the Freedom Charter: Kliptown 1955

Sixty-four years ago, after a popular consultation policy that shames the past two decades, the Freedom Charter of the ANC was adopted in Kliptown. Current election manifestos often ignore culture, hide it away in passing generalities, or re-label it as something else (see below). But in the Freedom Charter, the pillars of a decent, humane cultural policy –  freedom to both create and enjoy culture– had equal status to the policy pillars on land, economy and trade.

Those principles should not have changed. And they apply, with no weaselling about migrants, to “all those who live in” South Africa.

For voters who care about culture, it’s worth looking at whether and how the parties plan to treat it – because that’ll impact on the climate of freedom and creativity we’ll all be living in for the next five years. The ANC manifesto was the first out, so I’ll start there. The EFF’s is due on Feb 2, the UDM’s on Feb 16 and the DA’s on Feb 23. Where they outline distinctive policies, I’ll look at them too. If they just echo similar generalities, I won’t. So, with a leader nicknamed from a Hugh Masekela lyric, what does the party of Thuma Mina have to say about culture?

Market rules

Actually, nothing. ANC manifestos have always had an arts and culture section. This time, the six points are tucked into a section on the economy labelled “creative industries”. That’s a positive acknowledgment of the role of the arts as economic drivers. But it’s also worryingly reductionist – because that’s never all they are. Our artists matter for what we were, are, and can become, even if they never make a cent – precisely why President Ramaphosa sang that song. Reducing the arts to “industries” gives civil servants the nod to sideline anything that can’t be commoditised.

“We will promote and support the diverse creative industries, from folk art, festivals, music, books, paintings and performing art to the film industry, broadcasting and video games.”

As a general statement, this is fine – but so general that any party mentioning culture at all is likely to say something similar. But if books are to be promoted and supported, why has more notice not been taken of the continuing copyright law debates – or the punitive VAT rate? If broadcasting is, can we please look again at the perilous state of SABC?

The devil’s in the detail, and we have to ask – as of every clause in every party’s manifesto – ‘How?’ What forms will promotion and support take? What will be the budget allocations, criteria and benchmarks. Where will the money come from, and who will decide where it goes, with what safeguards?

FC text.jpgFunding

“We will ensure public funding schemes do not exclude the creative industries and work with the private sector to increase investment in the sector.”

Might that include structuring greater flexibility into funding conditionalities? Creative projects – as repeated studies worldwide have established https://unctad.org/en/pages/publications/Creative-Economy-Report-(Series).aspx – are often short-term, non-hierarchical and project-based. They thus often fail to fit with rigid government or corporate funding bureaucracies.


“We will develop and implement cultural projects in schools and communities that raise awareness of career opportunities in the creative industries.”

Only “of career opportunities”? How about raising awareness of the joy of making art, theatre and music, and the right to access the resources to do it? Community arts projects already exist – look, for example, at the Moses Molelekwa Art Foundation in Tembisa https://en-gb.facebook.com/mosesmolelekwaarts/ – and they struggle or fall. The need is not for governments to fabricate new projects from above, but to listen and learn from what works at the grassroots to unleash creativity.

fc posterHeritage

We will promote and invest more in museums, archives, heritage and cultural projects. This will include support to conserve, protect and promote the country’s Liberation History and Heritage archives, struggle sites, values, ideas, movements, veterans and networks.”

How much more will be invested and with what strings? How will access be made easy and affordable for those with low or no income? Who will be defining “values and ideas” and how? If memorialising the struggle involves vast expenditure on, for example, statues (as it has: see https://artthrob.co.za/2015/11/20/heritage-for-sale-bronze-casting-and-the-colonial-imagination/ ), could we open the debate on heritage landscapes to voices outside the elite heritage “industry”?


“We will work with stakeholders to ensure that innovators and artists are justly rewarded for their labour in the digital age and protect the copyrights of artists.”

That’s an unarguable goal – and, btw, there’s a mountain of unpaid invoices from “innovators and artists” still sitting at the SABC. But justly rewarding creators goes further; it isn’t only about the digital age. Musicians, for example, face punitive taxes on the tools of their trade and tiny performance fees after promoters’ or club-owners’ cuts. Rehearsal time, and wear and tear on instruments, never feature in their rewards. The service workers who support the entertainment industry are casualised and work highly unsocial hours, sometimes forced to exist on tips. Action to interrogate all creative labour conditions, taxation and benefits is needed.


Not tourists: the people of Sophiatown share the music of trombonist Jonas Gwangwa

“We will ensure demand for creative goods and services by tourists by supporting the development of creative industries.”

Creative goods and services and the workers who make them don’t exist for tourists. They exist to give people a voice and to enrich sociality and soul: “the enhancement of our cultural life”. Putting tourism first favours some of the most egregious aspects of the creative industries: the super-exploitation of craft workers; the divisive and archaic ethnography of the ‘cultural village’ concept, and more. The primary concern of any government should be ensuring the best possible support for creativity and access to it.

Arts policy doesn’t stand alone. If the ANC keeps its promises on settlement, infrastructure, social benefits and education, those can all potentially nourish creativity too. But, as Elvis might have said, we need a little less marketisation and much more action.

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