Georgina Guedes

South Africa needs the arts

2014-10-24 09:02

Georgina Guedes

A few years ago, when I was covering The Loerie Awards, they awarded a special scholarship to Siyabonga Ntamela, a young learner that had applied for their Creative Future Scholarship, but didn’t meet the requirements of all the criteria.

He had, however, been drawing exciting, unsettling sketches in ball point pen on whatever scraps of paper he could find in his township school. So the Loeries team found the funding to put him through college where he could learn to be an illustrator.

Nothing in Siyabonga’s environment nurtured his talent. His materials were limited to whatever he could find, and he had no formal instruction in fine arts. Nonetheless, the desire to create was inside of him, and so he did.

A loss of support

The reason that I’m telling Siyabonga’s story so long after it was in the news is that he is one of countless South Africans who are driven to create, to make things, to express themselves through the arts. And yet, in this country, where we have stories to tell and struggles to overcome, this type of expression is increasingly being negated by those in authority.

The organisers of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown have spoken out against draft regulations for the National Lottery Board to restrict funding for the arts in favour of sports and charities over the next two years. What a devastating blow to such a powerful force for expressing South Africa’s culture.

I also do a fair bit of reporting on big companies’ corporate social investment activities, and I’ve seen the recent tendency to cut arts funding in many of their strategies. I don’t know if this is simply a prevailing trend or whether there’s pressure from government, but it’s a tragedy for the expression of South African culture, now and in the future.

A fractured country needs art

The arts are also instrumental in dealing with and moving on from individual and national trauma. South Africa, which has a proud history of protest theatre documenting the outrages of apartheid and the horrors of living in those terrible times, has not moved on, and the powerful media of theatre, fine arts, dance, singing and music can help us to make sense of our past, our future and each other.

NGOs like Khulisa Social Services use theatre in prisons to support prison rehabilitation, because of its innate capacity to help people to get in touch with their own moral code through storytelling.

There are thousands of organisations and programmes like this all around the country, but for them to continue, for there to be a confluence of talent and recognition that allows these initiatives to succeed, the arts need to be a respected – and funded – resource.

A growing industry, a source of pride

The arts also allow for expansion of business and job creation. The film industry is one of the fastest growing industries in South Africa, attracting foreign investment and tourism. The latest season of Homeland and the trailer for Avengers 2 have all South Africans glued to their screens looking for familiar skylines or buildings.

In Australia, government film and television financing of and tax breaks for the film industry has led to exceptional movies coming out of that country. World-class productions that tell their stories, win awards and create a positive association with brand Australia.

When Tsotsi won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, the sense of national pride was overwhelming. We had told an African story, complex and beautiful, and the whole world took notice. It was a good day, and with the right sort of funding and support, we could have more of those, rather than making artists and actors struggle to beat a system to dead set against them (because the dog show that is the SABC management is no help to them either).

A living record

The greatest epochs in history are remembered not for what sporting team won the discus throwing, but for the art that was created at that time. Very few people can name any sporting champions from Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, but the living record of those times is their art. We’re all familiar with Sophocles, Homer, Leonardo or Michelangelo.

So while we certainly need to educate and clothe people, the arts have a relevant and important place in the funding mix. For the people driven to create, and for the jobs that can be created, please, South Africa, look beyond who the Springboks beat or Bafana Bafana lost to, and channel funding into creating a powerful, lasting record of a nation’s soul.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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