ALONGSIDE AN ALL-ABIDING fear of social interaction on every conceivable level, the coronavirus pandemic has brought us – particularly us in the arts industries – dire concerns about the very income that keeps body and soul together. On 15 January 2021, South Africa’s current minister of sports, arts and culture, Nathi Mthethwa deemed it appropriate to post a throwaway comment, replete with mindless – and hurtfully untrue – platitudes about the industry, on Twitter. The comment has since been deleted, but Ismail Mahomed, who has more than 35 years’ experience in leadership in the arts sector, wrote an open letter in response, which he has given My View permission to republish in full here.
“I should certainly not be the one writing to you about African customs about grieving because, by all accounts, you are far more African than I can imagine to be, even though I am a fifth generation South African.
“In African custom, the loss of our brothers and sisters is not a passing event. It is a deeply spiritual moment that extends over a period of days so that it allows us to take stock of ourselves, heal the wounds left by the passing of our loved ones, and it is about how we unite our collective forces to show love and pastoral care to the families who have become so much the poorer by the death of their loved ones.
“Just yesterday, the South African theatre community was sorrowfully mourning the untimely passing of Andrew Makhaya, a humble man who grew up from the ranks of community theatre to hold a position in the Gauteng Department of Arts and Culture. Despite his rise to a significant position, he continued to serve the community arts sector with passion, loyalty and dedication. During his tenure, he may not have been able to realise all his aspirations, because like most dedicated officials who work for government, he became burdened by government’s failure to deliver effectively. Nevertheless, he earned huge respect across all sectors of South African society. Social media was ablaze with messages about his diligence, humility and his commitment to the arts.
“A few days ago, the arts sector mourned the sad passing of dancer and choreographer Portia Mashigo. Again, social media was ablaze with sorrow and disbelief. We have lost a giant whose contribution to the art form and to dance education has transformed so many lives. Her passing will be felt for years to come.
“Late last year, social media was again ablaze when we learnt that theatre legend, Dawn Lindberg, had succumbed to Covid-19. Her death continues to be mourned by the broadest sector of South African society.
“Lindberg, who was a recipient of your Living Legends award, was a South African stalwart who fought for non-racism in South African theatre and against State censorship of the arts during the apartheid regime. Post-1994, she continued to fight for access for all in the theatre industry and founded and led the Naledi Theatre Awards with deep passion. She catapulted the careers of thousands of artists; and the sector has not yet ended its mourning for her.
“We continue to mourn for Dawn, for Portia, for Andrew and for so many more people from our sector who have passed on or who have lost loved ones, in this difficult time. In some cases, families in our sector have lost their breadwinners. Every day on social media, list of people from the arts sector who have died grows longer. Theatre is not well and it is not alive! It is suffering. It is in crisis and it is dying!
“When a sister from the theatre sector is left so destitute that she has to literally beg on the IAm4TheArts facebook page for people to help her with sanitary pads, then all is not well in our theatre sector.
“When a brother from our sector has to post that he is willing to do anything to earn a living so that he can someday tell his children that he tried everything that he possibly could for them, then theatre is not alive and well. It is in crisis!
“When a fellow actor can beg for assistance because he is going to be evicted from his home because the lockdown has deprived him of earning a living and he is unable pay his rent, then theatre is not alive and well.
“When actors are forming little support groups to provide fellow actors with food parcels because they have been left destitute, then theatre is not well. We have an enormous crisis on our hands but thank God this crisis has not yet deprived us of our humanity and our compassion. It has united us not to protest and throw political slogans at a Department of Sports, Arts & Culture that is failing us in our moment of need but instead it has united us to act with compassion and be our brothers’ keeper! They are our priority at this moment.
“South Africa has not only lost some of its artists to Covid-19. We have also witnessed the closing down of some of our theatres and production companies which would have offered employment to many artists. The future for theatre workers is filled with gloom.
“It is in view of our mourning for the loss of our loved ones from our sector and their families, the increasing poverty that we are witness to each day that your Tweet posted today boasting that the Department of Sports, Arts & Culture’s theatres are “alive and well”. These theatres essentially are funded by tax-payers — these very people who have died, who are mourning and who face a gloomy future —- that your Tweet today is so very hugely insensitive, cruel and massively shocking!
“Soon after an uproar from the theatre sector you deleted your Tweet without an apology. This is where you fail so dismally with Ubuntu — the ability to show human compassion or even the humility to apologise.
“Your shameful Tweet amidst so much deaths in our sector and amidst our mourning reminds me of that moment when South Africans mourned the death of Steve Bantu Biko and the Minister of Police, Jimmy Kruger, could all but say, “His death leaves me cold”.
God! If there was such power in irony why are we reminded that you too were once a Minister of Police; and with the whole fallout at Marikana we are not surprised that death leaves you too so cold even when you should be embraced under a different cloak as Minister of Sports, Arts & Culture.
“With sadness, Ismail Mahomed.”