OPINION | Non-payment of Covid-19 funds exacerbates art sector's problems

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Adequate government funding, which is administered on time, is important to support the art industry and save it from total ruin. A group of artists from OpenArt Studios in Mfuleni. From left are: Amos Retyu, Lonwabo Baliso, Xolani Sivunda, Sive Tinzi and Lihle Matinii. ’Seated is Lelethu Fundakubi. Photo: Thulani Magazi.
Adequate government funding, which is administered on time, is important to support the art industry and save it from total ruin. A group of artists from OpenArt Studios in Mfuleni. From left are: Amos Retyu, Lonwabo Baliso, Xolani Sivunda, Sive Tinzi and Lihle Matinii. ’Seated is Lelethu Fundakubi. Photo: Thulani Magazi.

Adequate government funding, which is administered on time, is important to support the art industry and save it from total ruin, yet the arts and culture department underperforms in terms of funding to the sector, writes Veronica van Dyk.


The Covid-19 pandemic posed enormous global challenges for the creative sector and affected the entire creative value chain – creation, production, distribution and access.

While creative and cultural industries are sometimes seen as a luxury, the value that the arts sector adds to the economy is greatly underestimated. The creative sector forms essential components of human life with the potential to reverse economic decline and address the unemployment crisis, while also contributing to democratic growth.

Since April 2020, cultural institutions have been completely closed in 128 countries and partially closed in 32 countries. A loss of revenue of US$7 billion was recorded worldwide by the film industry.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated the problems that already existed and is not the cause of it.

The downward spiral of the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, for example, originated long before Covid-19. The decline in ticket sales is a result of excessive accommodation costs, travel costs, unreliable service delivery, as well as poor economic activities that take place and affect tourists, sellers and artists, according to industry expert Mike da Silva.

Nightmare 

It is disastrous not to address issues in the cultural sector in South Africa, as well as other sectors that intersect with it, including the tourism sector. The petition currently being driven by artists to remove Nathi Mthethwa, Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, shows artists are desperate and discouraged.

The application process for funding was a nightmare for most artists, as well as inaccessible. The application process should be easy to understand, with clear and achievable goals by the applicant and an easy way to supply corroborative documentation to support the application.

But according to artists, the endemic framework pattern has greatly prevented access to existing funding unless they are politically connected.

The arts economy needs to be strengthened with a substantial stimulus package which is accompanied by controls and excludes corruption. Adequate government funding, which is administered on time, is important to support the industry and save it from total ruin, yet the department underperforms in terms of funding to the sector.

The latest failure is the National Arts Council's (NAC) late payment and non-payment of the Presidential Employment Stimulus Package (PESP) of R300 million – announced in October 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many of the artists who have successfully applied for grants from PESP have not been paid. Yet they are on track to meet their 31 March deadline but are unable to cover the costs of their projects, with the NAC seemingly unable to address the industry's concerns and questions regarding relief aid.

READ | NAC puts out a call for partners to assist with distribution of Covid-19 funds to artists

Arts and culture are integral to the well-being of people and the sector deserves government's full support in ensuring its survival.

Arts and culture, as part of the school curriculum, are key to helping develop children's empathic skills and should receive the same support as sport.

It is also a useful tool for nation building. The exchange of cultural ideas takes place naturally and children learn to respect differences and seek similarities in the arts. Appreciation for the arts in children leads to paying adult audiences, and children learn that the arts is a valid career that in turn cultivates industry practitioners and creative entrepreneurs.

The department should become more directly involved in art schools through, among other things, funding, and support with experts.

The Department of Education should consider establishing more art schools to develop talent and skills at grassroots level. Educational arts centres can collaborate with centres that expand youth skills and prepare them to create a source of income through the creative sector.

Art appreciation must be cultivated through stories that are relevant to the target audience. More local content in indigenous languages needs to be generated.

It is worrying that the department's annual underspending is increasing, with 7 out of 9 provincial community arts programmes only partially funded. The annual report shows that only 62.5% of the arts and culture promotion and development outcomes have been achieved despite 94.4% of the funding being used here.

Three-quarters of the programmes' expenditure does not correlate with the performance targets, even though fees to consultants increased by almost R16 million in the 2019/2020 financial year. Fruitless expenditure has almost doubled to R67.9 million – 51% of it by the NAC, according to the Auditor-General's (AG) report.

Deteriorating audits

It is therefore worrying that this entity, together with the National Film and Video Foundation, whose audit results have deteriorated according to the AG over the past financial year, and BASA (Business Arts South Africa) are responsible for the disbursement of government funds to the arts sector.

The high cost of giving life to art is a major obstacle – all the more so during the pandemic – and most of the costs are recovered through ticket sales. This puts a lot of pressure on the viability of art productions that at the moment cannot pull enough feet in a safe way.

READ | The upside of art investment during a pandemic

Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed, with input from social development, education, arts and culture, economic development (small business portfolio) and the tourism portfolios in Parliament, in order to support and expand the arts sector. All three spheres of government play a role, especially local government.

Resources should be invested in well-managed community initiatives and not in cadre enrichment. Amateur drama communities that promote new talent and arouse interest in the art form not only help build communities in terms of community structures, but also lead to increased use. Prison art therapy programmes offer healing and rehabilitation and a skill for inmates to enter the market. All forms of art have an enormous impact on mental health.

A diplomatic strategy with other nations that exchange quality films, artworks and productions and give international exposure is important. For example, a musical theatre of outstanding quality should be presented on Broadway. A government that supports its film industry will benefit from economic growth and market the country, which will bring money back to the country. The industry must be used to address unemployment by e.g. in-service training that flows into other sectors in the arts industry.

Expensive data 

During the pandemic, there is a huge increase in access to cultural content online that emphasises the fundamental role of the digital medium. However, data is expensive in SA and not everyone has the knowledge or equipment to stream content and the digital space is not accessible to everyone.

The government must play a greater supporting role. Community radios and media need to be better utilised to support the sector, especially with the help of the Media Diversity Development Agency.

Urgent issues affecting the social and economic rights of artists – copyright protection, digitalisation of content and freedom of artists and of expression – need to be addressed politically.

The department will do well by conducting in-depth consultations with all parts of the sector and also learning from other countries' successful implementation of plans to safely reopen their industries. UNESCO has released a report highlighting, among other things, the innovation of various countries.

The arts are essential, and we need a government that sees it that way. Until the attitude of the government – as reflected in the thoughtless tweets of Mthethwa and the president's one line contribution around the arts in the State of the Nation Address – has changed, we will never be able to reap the benefits of this enormous potential.

- Veronica van Dyk is a DA MP.


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