By Geoff Sifrin
GIVEN HIS HISTORY, one doesn’t want to give former president Jacob Zuma credit for anything at all, but you must admit he can dance, with his trademark chuckle. The nation watched horrified for a decade as he boogied on the deck of the South African Titanic as it went down due to his thievery. He had been handed the steering wheel by his predecessors, but merrily ran it onto the rocks.
Dancing in post-Zuma South Africa can be a mournful trudge around a loved-one’s grave, or a hop of freedom from a heavy load. Now, despite being the welcome bearer of hope to this beleaguered nation, our sober President Cyril Ramaphosa can hardly be imagined skipping in front of his people. His State of the Nation Address earlier this month gave scant attention to Arts and Culture, which is part of a nation’s soul.
An abiding image of our beloved Nelson Mandela emblazoned in our memories is of him dancing with the people, smiling and wearing his familiar colourful shirts. Everyone scrambled to join in.
As we try to rescue the South African ship from the ocean’s gloom, can we make it a jazzy get-together? Looking to government for support is often futile: the ministerial post of arts has historically been seen as a ‘soft’ job, or a demotion. Consider how Nathi Mthetwa became minister of arts and culture after the Marikana massacre, when he had formerly been minister of police.
Neglect of the arts is reflected by Johannesburg’s inner city. Despite some token gestures towards arts support, what would make you, the average theatre patron, wish to drive there at night? A show of Nina Simone’s work? A spot of Shakespeare? An exhibition of work by South Africa’s most prominent and respected visual artist William Kentridge? Or would wild horses not be able to drag you there?
The inner city has become a threatening place. It wasn’t always so. In 1976, at the height of apartheid, the Newtown Market was repurposed into the Market Theatre by Barney Simon and Mannie Manim. It was the city’s gem, the place to be. Protest theatre was in its heyday, attracting the brightest, most passionate people. Some of the great theatres, galleries and restaurants of those days, which the older generation will remember, including The Coliseum, His Majesty’s, the City Hall, and others, were the grand dames of South African performance venues, and you’d dress up in your finery to go there.
Today, sadly the city is so fraught with crime, hijacked buildings and dirt that its beauty – including the magnificent collection of Art Deco buildings, among the world’s largest – has been badly sullied. The walk between the Newtown Junxion, where you park for the Market Theatre and the theatre complex itself, on a quiet theatre night, is one fraught with possibilities of opportunitistic crime: the alleyway is home to many aggressive beggars. The once majestic Johannesburg Art Gallery is today a no-go area. This is a metaphor for bigger things in our society.
Does neglect of the arts stem from the leadership, or the society? South Africa once nourished such great talent as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, John Kani, Johnny Clegg, William Kentridge, Robyn Orlin, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Phyllis Spira, and others who grew to maturity on the horrors of apartheid. Now the arts feels beleaguered. Almost every newspaper has diminished or given up arts coverage.
But creativity is essential to society. As the older generation of artists reach their careers’ end, new ones arise with new passions. However, if they lack formal places to nourish them, they will go underground or overseas, as many already have.
Other countries don’t subscribe to this: Israel, the UK, America, Europe, hold onto their artists with an iron grip. Even Nigeria and Ghana have thriving film industries: Nollywood and Gollywood respectively. Are they all wrong? Perhaps in his next Sona, President Ramaphosa will be able to dance (at least metaphorically) about progress in arts support.
Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog sifrintakingissue.wordpress.com