A Day in the Life of an Arts Minister


Yunus Momoniat

As soon as former police minister Nathi Mthethwa was appointed minister of arts and culture, creative types throughout the land began speculating about their chances of qualifying for those grants government dishes out, more often than not through the national lottery. The Mandela opera has had its run cut to a drastic three days because of funding problems, and talk doing the rounds is that an Nkandla opera, in collaboration with a women’s empowerment project, is in the pipeline. Unlike the Mandela opera (which The Con has not seen), it allows for at least four soprano parts, and cows mooing.

More to the point, the artistic community (that freeloading bunch that pitches up at openings where free booze and snacks are funded by German or French cultural outposts) is analysing the meaning of Mthethwa’s appointment. Everyone knows that ministers need not have any knowledge of their portfolios, and even when they do, it is no guarantee their constituencies will flourish. More ominously, concerns have been voiced about artistic parallels of the Marikana scenario (the word massacre seems hyperbolic in this context, if not in the other).

A recent paper published by researchers at the University of Sudden[R1] , based on the outskirts of the Karoo, on “capacity transference” might shed some light on the subject. Defined as the transfer of knowledge and skills from one occupation to an apparently unrelated activity, capacity transference has been lauded as the answer to the disease of the global era: poor schmucks who lose their jobs can reinvent themselves by repackaging already acquired skills.

The Sudden lot aver that these transfers can lead to both stark innovations as well as absolutely inappropriate hybrids. Which of these is the direct result of the transfer depends, they say, on a great number of variables.

The Con knew that.

Some (not the researchers) argue that the two fields − policing and the arts − are not as far apart as one might think. The Con is sometimes inclined to agree; at others, to disagree.

But let us imagine the former police minister at work in his new ministry, transferring his skills. He settles in at his new desk, probably topped with mahogany (crafts). He now has to imitate his boss’ arch-foe – one Thabo Mbeki – as he trawls the internet, searching for wiki definitions of art. But his computer (the same one he had as police minister) leads him astray, gravitating to earlier searches, definitions of policing, crowd control and suchlike. In a fog of differentiations, he decides that art is what the state (the A&C department) decides is art, a realm that must be policed. It is an activity that has a precedent in his own experience, when he was confronted by that vile image, that Brett Murray’s The Spear.

The minister makes a few notes: 1. Draw up an inventory of artists in the country and the nature of their works – black, white, cubist, impressionist, ghetto, realist, magic realist, classical, and all possible combinations thereof. 2. List the various forms of art, categorise them. Music: jazz, classical, kwaito, hip-hop, marching band music. Literature: novels, plays, poetry, prose, police manuals. Art: painting, sculpture, portraits, identikits.

He mulls over the functions of an arts ministry: to unify the nation. But first he has to try getting artists to attend meetings before 12.30pm. Second function: to edify the nation. Lock up the naysayers, if not in jail, in poverty or opprobrium. Or leave them to the markets. Third function: portraits of the president, perhaps for a new series of stamps. They will have to be small. Fourth function: forge links between business, the arts, and the state − a veritable Nedlac of the creative sectors. Perhaps call it Basa? Fifth function: discover more functions. To be continued…

The minister springs into action. He mobilises his forces, ordering a meeting of the department. The DG springs into action, ordering a meeting of his minions. The minions spring into action − they lunch with artists at Café 45, ordering the most exotic lunches, more aesthetic than flavoursome.

Months later, a national development plan for the arts emerges, the work of countless consultants, many of whom have subedited previous publications of the A&C department. Genuine specialists. They talk of linking up with the dti. And with the new posts and telegraph department (some say P&T, others dpt).

Meanwhile, the minister summons his inner circle, which engages in scenario planning. What if the artists go on strike? Cut off their funding, one expert suggests. A technocrat answers that that’s already been done, a move that itself might precipitate a strike, he cautiously ventures. Negotiate, says another. But what if negotiations fail, pipes up the union man. Isolate them, the aforementioned expert suggests. It would be dangerous if other unions sympathetically join in.

Exhausted, the minister winds up the meeting. He is driven home in a blue-light convoy, passing by craftsmen selling their intricate wire creations at strategic street corners. Home, he settles in for the night in front of his TV. He scrolls through the DStv channels, half hoping to find something artistic. Nothing. He settles for CSI. It’s been a long day.

Photograph by Delwyn Verasamy

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