The arts and public policy in contemporary South Africa

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The arts and public policy in contemporary South Africa
By Mike van Graan

People in the arts often make bold claims for the arts: they can change society, they can generate economic growth, they can drive development, and so on. This is often the case when needing to justify or advocate for public or corporate funding for music, theatre, dance, film, literature and visual arts, or when defending the arts against the perception that they are an unnecessary luxury and an elitist practice, particularly in the context of societies grappling with unemployment, poverty and inequality.

So, for example, the National Arts Festival often cites its most recent economic impact study (2013) to show that the Festival contributes more than R350 million and nearly R100 million to the economies of the Eastern Cape and Grahamstown respectively, not least to advocate for continued public sector support of the Festival. Notwithstanding this, the Eastern Cape remains the poorest province in the country and Grahamstown still has an excruciatingly high unemployment rate in excess of 65%, despite the Festival’s presence and contribution in the city for more than 40 years.

While I believe that we need to be more modest about what the arts can do and not place burdens and expectations on the sector that it cannot deliver, I also believe that access to, and participation in the arts, is a fundamental human right, as per Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts”.

Interestingly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not have a hierarchy of rights and freedoms; the rights enshrined in the Declaration are to be the experience of all human beings, placing an obligation on governments to create the social, political, economic and cultural conditions in which these rights and freedoms may be exercised.

This fundamental human right – and the Freedom Charter’s clause about “the doors of learning and culture shall be open” – informed the first White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage (1996), a policy that sought to address the inequitable distribution of skills, resources, infrastructure and access to the arts that we had inherited from the apartheid era. To make this right a reality, the state would be obliged to make available funds to build cultural infrastructure where this had been denied before, to train teachers and provide resources at all levels of education to ensure that learners had skills in and knowledge about the arts, to make available public funds to support artists to create and distribute their work, to support strategies that allowed everyone to have access to the arts, and that they were not excluded on the basis of “race” as in the past, or by their ability to afford such access.

With poverty and unemployment being key challenges in our country coupled with their attendant social problems, government has revised the arts and culture policy so that the “creative industries” assume greater importance than the fundamental human right to the arts. The “creative industries” approach essentially means investing in and driving economic growth through market-driven arts enterprises and events, the idea being that this would contribute to economic growth, and provide the state with the resources needed to facilitate human and social development (while such enterprises would also provide jobs).

Since creative enterprises require markets with disposable income to sustain and grow them, the irony is that this approach – allegedly aimed at helping the poor and indigent – will in fact exclude them from access to the arts, precisely because they are poor and do not have the resources to pay for such access; those excluded in the past on the basis of race by virtue of government policy, will thus remain excluded on the basis of class under the current government’s policy.

Rather than a “human rights versus creative industries” approach to policy-making, a new arts and culture policy needs to embrace the full gamut of lived experience in South Africa, and develop a nuanced policy that speaks to, and across these conditions, to ensure that everyone does indeed have the right to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts.

(The public and the creative sector have been invited to comment on the revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage till 31 July: see