Transformational Glitches: The New South Africa's Cultural Policy

Cultural Policy in South Africa: how was it developed? how does it function?  Where has its implementation created challenges for the project of bringing to being democratization and non racialism?  

One of South Africa's most important musicians, who made his mark globally:  Hugh Masekela . 4 April 1939 -  23 January 2018. Bra Hugh was a vocal cultural activist as much as he was an artist.  This is his views on  decolonising the mind   which speaks to the issues in this article.  Image from the cover of his newest album:  No Borders

One of South Africa's most important musicians, who made his mark globally: Hugh Masekela. 4 April 1939 -  23 January 2018. Bra Hugh was a vocal cultural activist as much as he was an artist.  This is his views on decolonising the mind  which speaks to the issues in this article.  Image from the cover of his newest album: No Borders

Last week we looked at three things. First  how oppressive laws in Apartheid South were normalised by creating a set of fictions about race and the supremacy of whiteness, thus mobilizing culture in a project of exploitation. Second a claim was made that the post-apartheid South Africa state has failed in developing a clear project to bring about a post racial, intercultural society.  Thirdly it was proposed that working with  symbolic restitution could be a way for South Africans to come to terms with the past and to bring to consciousness an intercultural future.  

The BLAC project, a discourse building arts initaitive, was grappling with these issues between 1998-2003 in Cape Town, at a time the cracks in the South African transformation project first started to show.  This it attributed in part to a failure in the implementation of cultural policy in the country at the time.  What was this failure?  Why did it happen?  Lets start at the beginning of the New South Africa's cultural policy development journey.

The Development of the SA Cultural Policy

South Africa achieved political independence in 1994: a time of great optimism,  goodwill and possibility.  The speed at which change happened was not expected for a number of reasons.  However, because many social movements were active on the ground, activists were able, in the lead up to 1994 and in the first few years thereafter, to organize around key issues relevant for the new democracy.  One of these was working towards establishing an enabling cultural policy which fostered cultural development.  Cultural workers were committed to a policy which significantly expanded, and ideologically transformed, the infrastructure that had been developed during Apartheid, in order to support the arts and the heritage of those who had been marginalized. 


Two key processes related to cultural policy development happened in the lead up to the elections.  The first was the development of the National Arts Policy Plenary, which later morphed into the National Arts Coalition (NAC), an independent, nationwide, membership based network for those involved in the arts. This was established through the work of Mike Van Graan in his role as coordinator of COSAW (the Congress of SA Writers), an Anti Apartheid organisation which supported writers. The new network would have numerous meetings around the country culminating in an important conference in Johannesburg on 29 and 30 September 1994, themed Bringing Cinderella to the Ball.  Clearly artists saw themselves as step-children to the bigger and pressing debates in the country, and were hoping for the opportunity to change this through advocacy.  Broader heritage issues, present in debates, took a backseat, while "cultural development" was relegated to the area of education.  This was so because the NAC was essentially an arts lobby.

The second big initiative was a process to define the African National Congress's manifesto for change - The Reconstruction and Development Programme  (RDP).  As the leading liberation party at the time there was a great deal of support for its activities.  The RDP  was meant to be an integrated, "people driven" program to ensure national building.  It was developed through months of engagement and consultation between the ANC, religious bodies, trade unions, and other civil society bodies in South Africa.   The final policy statement says all the right things about culture and its role in society, and a large proportion of its stated goals did get met in some form.  However there are subtle but important differences in what got implemented and what didn’t.  These can be attributed to the diminished role culture was given in the process for change.  This its argued is the result of the tight coupling of culture with arts, and how arts was valued or understood by the new political leadership.

The conflation of arts and culture

The arts, globally, have been conflated with culture in policy making for some time. The challenge this creates is that cultural development considerations have to compete with arts management and promotion imperatives.  Culture (understood as values, beliefs, wisdoms and creativity) is cross cutting issues relevant in all aspects of life - social, economic and environmental.  Cultural workers want to see it become the glue that connected the new nation, working with it on all areas of development.  The arts is understood as the theory and physical expression of creativity found in human societies and cultures.  Thus the arts is a component of culture, and a particularly complex one at that in the postcolonial world.  After all the arts, as it is often understood and mobilised, is a western concept and a postcolonial perspective on it is still developing. 

One of the most important and provocative of South African artworks -  the Butcher Boy s, by Jane Alexander,  in the collections of the South African National Gallery 

One of the most important and provocative of South African artworks - the Butcher Boys, by Jane Alexander,  in the collections of the South African National Gallery 

One of the key concerns of the arts lobby is that the arts will get instrumentalised and so artists push heavily for the protection of an art for arts sake approach, demanding total freedom for the artist. Taken to its furtherest ends however art for arts sake can become elitist and incomprehensible for the majority.  Using creativity for development, is a functionalist approach. Taken to extremes it can become populist to the extent that the necessary aspects of art making - as way to challenge and shift - can be threatened.  Ideally a good cultural policy should be able to accommodate incentives and support to grow the arts, while also addressing, if need be, critical issues related to a societies developmental needs, by drawing on culture in its broadest sense.  Balance is vital but rarely does it happen. 

Deborah Mills for example, talking about local cultural policy in Australia, bemoans the Arts Plus Swindle, where arts lobbies invariably hijack process  leading to reinforced marginalization of culture for development.

In South Africa this challenge is made harder in the context of limited budgets.  In 1994 a decision had to be taken how to spend the same amount of money used to serve a small white minority, primarily to support the high arts, to the reach the rest of the 80%, whose access to engaging in the cultural practises of their choice had been curtailed by Apartheid. In this context, cultural policy needed clarity of purpose and its implementation framework needed political will and administrative discipline to be successful. 

Culture, as we saw last week, was central to the Apartheid project, which affirmed through symbolism the idea of a superior "white nation".  But Culture in the  post-apartheid project was increasingly, in hindsight, being relegated to the edges of the States plan to transform the country.  By being attached to arts, its significance was steadily lost.  As a concept Art in its western modernist perspective, was alien to the vast majority of Black South Africans.  Not well understood, it was seen as entertainment and thus was given little value.  As a result culture (with its coupling to the arts) was relegated to the lowest rung of government priorities and its implementation compromised. 

Arts and Culture: Compromises and Collapses

Researcher, Lebogang L. Nawa in his doctoral  study on Municipal Cultural Policy and Development in South Africa (2012) suggests, culture was increasingly relegated to a lesser area of governmental priority despite its central potential for addressing divisions and hurts.  This happened throughout the negotiation process and was sealed in decisions made when the country first cabinet was established.

Nelson Mandela's first cabinet was a compromise deal. It did not need to, yet it gave positions to all major parties involved in the elections, as part of a commitment to reconciliation.  This was an important and magnanimous gesture.  During this moment arts and culture were packaged off as a ministry to the Zulu Nationalist party, Inkatha.  As a result many investments in the first few years of the country were made in projects that furthered Zulu nationalism. These happened at the expense of other potential investments to foster diversity, such as the support of the community arts sector which had played a critical role in the apartheid struggle.  This anti-apartheid community arts sector post 1994 was under great stress as international donors started to look elsewhere, however no funds were made available for them in the new dispensation. 

Robben Island with Table Mountain in the background - two international heritage sites in Cape Town 

Robben Island with Table Mountain in the background - two international heritage sites in Cape Town 

Historically significant bodies could have played a significant role in the management and activation of community arts centers, proposed in the RDP and later in the white paper, but they were bypassed, eventually many would close down.  At the same time the four apartheid era performing arts  councils continued to receive an, albeit reduced, lions share of funding from the ministry.  The savings were used to fund new national monuments and heritage projects which aggrandized the ruling party, including Robben Island Museum and Freedom Park. 

A Role for the Arts and Culture Sector?

Initially there were signs that the Ministry would engage with the arts and culture sector and listen to its concerns. The new minister took on Mike Van Graan as his advisor and mobilised the arts and culture communities in yet another policy making process - The Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG).  This took many months and required significant voluntary engagement.  However by the end, the final White Paper developed by government was a shadow of the far reaching recommendations proposed by ACTAG.  Its challenged implementation would lead to a financially exhausted and alienated cultural sector. Many artists and cultural workers lost faith in the government's commitment to support culture and to engage meaningfully.  Government on the other hand turned inwards and stopped engaging, except in specific instances,  Thus the goodwill developed during the lead up to and in the development of the cultural policy was lost.  

Mike Van Graan :  Image  Rapport/Christiaan Kotze/ Gallo Images 

Mike Van Graan: Image  Rapport/Christiaan Kotze/ Gallo Images 

Van Graan, disillusioned, left his position with the ministry and became a vocal critic through his regular Cultural Weapon writings:  

The new dispensation was – is - characterized by government officials not having the skills, vision and capacity to manage the sector; by the retreat of government from participatory democracy to a top-down democracy; by numerous episodes of corruption; by government departments and politicians who refusing to accept any criticism; on increasing bureaucratization, and by – ironically (given the post-apartheid order) – increasing polarization along racial lines as the necessary moral and political imperatives of transformation that favored black people in particular, took their tolls on relationships, institutions and artistic practice.

Not all Bad?

Advisors on the new White paper argue that there is sufficient money in the system, that the sector is not efficient in its use. They suggest a greater professionalism and entrepreneurialism is needed in the cultural sector together with improved upskilling in arts and culture management. They point to successes such as the growing design sector, an upsurge in township theatre and a flowering of youth culture.  


In recent years there has been a strong focus on creative industries through governments Mzani Golden Economy program,  This  has had mixed responses - some positive and some challenging.  There is increased music, films and literature, improved quality in crafts and an increase in non traditional art making.  Some sectors are growing economically, despite lack of government investment, notably the visual arts sector which has tapped into a global art market.  New arts institutions such as the Zeitz MOCAA funded by a range of partners and the private sector have emerged.  Transformation of the cultural institutions have been slow, but the old performing arts bodies seem to have finally reached some level of change.  These are delivering some valuable services beyond privileged communities, while at the same time providing mass entertainment though major international blockbusters to the middle classes. 

But there are significant challenges. There is potentially large sums of money for the arts available through the National Lottery.  However accessing it has been highly problematic.  There are constant processing mistakes, slow payouts and changing rules, all making  planning and long term growth difficult.  State museums (visual arts and heritage)  argue that there is little budget for collections and for developing new permanent and temporary exhibitions.  This can be borne out by visiting major institutions and confirmed by studies into the heritage sector, such as the book Mounting Queen Victoria - Curating Cultural Change by Steven S. Dubin.  This crisis in building national collections, has effectively impoverished future generations by creating huge gaps in the countries patrimony. 

Moreover some areas have been perennial problems - the community arts  centers in particular have been challenged for some time, with little real progress in almost two decades following the specular failure of its first and only attempt to build arts centers in communities.  This challenge has been taken up by some provinces, but on the whole, most South Africans have little access to arts or heritage institutions and activities close to where they live. 

Democratisation of Culture Vs Cultural Democracy

The Artscape Theatre in Cape Town, once known as the Nico Malan Theatre.  One of the four Performing Arts Councils built as whites only theatre complexes.   Photograph from the web  

The Artscape Theatre in Cape Town, once known as the Nico Malan Theatre.  One of the four Performing Arts Councils built as whites only theatre complexes.  Photograph from the web  

To understand what may have gone wrong we need to recognize the two key strands of cultural policy and the distinctions between the "democratization of culture" and "cultural democracy". 

Democratization of culture is about spreading what is understood by the state  as a public good, to a broader group of people. In this way "making an idea of culture accessible to the masses who were seen as not having cultural capital" (Mulcahy 2006).  This is a top down approach. It has beginnings with western culture and thus it is often about spreading benefits related to the high arts (such as classical arts) to the masses.  However it is also associated with spreading ideas around nationhood, and about how citizens engage with the identity of the country via major museums, monuments and national festivals.  

Cultural democracy on the other hand is a more participatory approach to both the provision of cultural opportunities and how these are defined.  It allows for a wider palate of responses from a broader grouping of people.  It is more horizontal, inclusive, equitable and often more bottom up.  It is focussed on giving the right to practise a culture to all individuals. 

Neither approaches are better or worse,  and both can be elitist or populist with attendant opportunities or challenges. In fact a number of countries have elements of both in their polices at a national, regional and local level - this is true for South Africa as well. The key challenge in  South Africa is that the state has focussed more heavily on the former approach and has not fully supported a cultural democracy approach, which was central to the earliest cultural policy proposals made in the lead up to the White Paper on Arts and Culture.  This was where many cultural workers of the country felt attention and investment was most needed.  A cultural democracy approach enables people to make choices, gives them tools to tell their own stories and  helps them shape their identities differently.  The Minister for Culture from Colombia, Mariana Garcés Córdoba, describes this approach best in a new Unesco report:  Re|shaping Cultural Policies

Culture is key to building a new country. A community that reads, knows its origins, has cultural spaces to enjoy and support artists, is a society that is proud of its cultural diversity and is equipped with more tools to build peace. 

The Arts and Culture Department of South Africa focused its investment most heavily on some forms of western high arts, ring-fencing budgets for classical arts (orchestras and opera companies in particular) and for 5 theatre houses in major cities.  Community arts centres, education to foster individual creativity, support to  jazz legends and to community museums were some of the many areas that did not get adequate support.  The message was given that first, certain forms of western arts were more important than others (including those known as vernacular creativity- the practices of the everyday), and second that the kinds of spaces that were prioritised were those relevant to middle class sensibilities.

Not building on a bottom up cultural democracy approach severely impacted on government's Social Cohesion program  Working towards non racialism  and inter-culturalism does not feature sufficiently in this lacklustre programmes.  Its not surprising it has had so few successes, that racism and xenophobia are so strong, that suspicions of the Other high.  A cultural democracy approach could have built a network of culturally minded activists at grassroots level.  These would have been able to channel their creativity for neighborhood change.  Working with others around their cities and towns could have helped usher in community pride and cross cultural understanding between localities.  Out of this a strong culture of participatory democracy would have been possible which have positively influenced all aspects of society.

Zen Marie's postcard for the  Returning the Gaze  Public Art Project 2000, speaks to the so called "Bushman Diorama" at the Iziko Museum's of South Africa, and the dubious ethics behind its making and display. 

Zen Marie's postcard for the Returning the Gaze Public Art Project 2000, speaks to the so called "Bushman Diorama" at the Iziko Museum's of South Africa, and the dubious ethics behind its making and display. 


The failures of South Africas policy then are several.  Firstly an overemphasis on art (one that was without a postcolonial critique) and a lack of support for cultural development.  Culture lost value and became insignificant to the change process. Second an overemphasis on a top down democratization of culture approach over a cultural democracy one.  This did not give access to knowledge about local  heritage and opportunities at a neighborhood level to foster creativity.  Instead a system emerged that privileges those who were middle class and already have access. Third, there was a severe challenge of implementation, which continues today   Finally and most importantly, there was a lack of ongoing dialogue with the cultural sector.  Participation is critical for the diversity of creative expression and forms a key feature in the framework proposed by UNESCO's Re|shaping Cultural Policies.

In our next week's article we will look at the BLAC, and how it responded to the failures of policy identified above. 


*All uncredited pics were sourced off the web.