The H-word: local content and the Hlaudi legacy

Local content is in the news again. First, arts & sport minister Nathi Mthetwa declared on May 4 that “we are pleading for local content to dominate on radio and television” during the Covid period. Then, on May 6, ICASA granted broadcasters an exemption https://www.icasa.org.za/news/2020/compliance-exemption-to-television-and-radio-services from local content programming quotas (excluding music on radio) during the National State of Disaster and for three months thereafter. Those with an eye for contradictions might spot one here.

Mthetwa’s plea came in the context of a speech explaining the scale (60%), and reasons for the failure of artists to successfully access DACS Covid relief. As artists themselves have explained (most recently, theatre practitioner Thami ka Mbongo in the context of the Western Cape https://www.artlink.co.za/news_article.htm?contentID=46222) the true reason is that the relief is surrounded by a thicket of obscure bureaucratic requirements, structured in ways that just cannot accommodate the working lives of most artists.

The Minister isn’t wrong

Nevertheless, (this time) Mthetwa isn’t wrong. First, locally-commissioned content is likely to be far better at speaking about South Africa’s Covid dilemmas and solutions than generic international TV. Second, artists’ desperate need for relief might have been slightly mitigated if broadcasters had been consistently commissioning local productions over recent years – and paying for them on time. The SABC, which brought the appeal for rule relaxation before ICASA, has historically been one of the worst offenders in that latter respect (and has been allowed by government to get away with it).

The furious online response to the minister’s plea, however, reveals the extent to which we’re still living with the legacy of Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s lunatic 90% local content diktat. (Some publications and Tweeps went so far as to declare that despite his fall from grace, Motsoeneng might be getting his way at last.) The responders didn’t parse what Mthetwa actually said, but simply invoked the dreaded H-word to damn it.

Giving quotas a bad name

Motsoeneng’s irrational 90% plans gave local content quotas a wholly undeserved bad rap that persists. They routed advertisers, alienated listeners, made it harder for the national broadcaster to fulfil its information mandate by narrowing content – and, after all that, brought no extra revenue to most local musicians either.

It’s not stretching things to suggest they also made it far easier for the current SABC to persuade ICASA. With local content already in the reputational doghouse because of the Motsoeneng farce, it might seem like common sense to say yes to loosening the rules.

But it’s not. Local content at the right level builds jobs and culture. The commercial stations’ current required 35% for music, for example, is a joke; it should be at least 50%; SABC’s 60% could rise to 70% without anybody suffering. That won’t happen because everybody’s now scared of the H-effect.

In any case, enforcing rational quotas in any genre can’t happen overnight. It requires solid, appropriate investment over years, including from a government department that has taken time to understand how artists can work and thrive, and how to engage with broadcasters. That hasn’t happened, which makes the May 4 plea feel rather like belated tokenism.

For the same reason, relaxing those ICASA quota requirements not only for the disaster period but for three full months after, could kill many small local production houses for good. ( When actually, as my post earlier this week reported, high quality local music programming is being created right now that broadcasters could already buy.) What’s the point of even conceptualising productions now, when the broadcasters will not feel the slightest pressure to use them for possibly close to a year? After that, with other concerns much higher on the political agenda, how much impetus will there really be to restore the quotas? Why bother, when re-treads of imported media garbage remain available at close-to-dumping prices?

Are there better policies out there?

DACS should rather be looking right now at the example of the post-Great Depression WPA Federal Art Project ( part of the New Deal reconstruction programme: see https://livingnewdeal.org/what-was-the-new-deal/). That provided government funding for public art and performance, with a percentage of funding allocated to training and bringing in community members. Around three million arts-related  jobs were created. (If you’re wondering, the murals illustrating this blog were painted by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, some under the auspices of FAP.)

Invest in a National Art Project now in preparation for post-Covid reconstruction. Keep official hands off content; leave that to creators and their communities. That’ll give Minister Mthetwa his local programmes, give artists jobs, and give broadcasters shows faster than they believe possible. Meanwhile, ICASA should keep a firmer grip on broadcasters. Let them use more imported content, but require a solid quid pro quo right now in parallel investment in, or guaranteed commissions for, local productions for the future. And don’t offer carte blanche for Disaster+3 months. Instead, review the situation and adjust the policy at every stage as lockdown eases. (One doubts ICASA has too much else to do these days, and they’re still getting paid…)

The only way we can escape the zombie hands of the Hlaudi legacy is to make a completely fresh start on local content policies. We don’t want to return to ‘normal’ when ‘normal’ never served artists well before. There could hardly be a better time to begin the changes than now.

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