Between the lines of the address by Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa at the official opening of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown


Programme director, I am honoured and pleased to be opening this year’s festival and to discover that we actually have an event like this. As a festival virgin, I would have loved to spend more time here because of its extensive jazz programme, but as you know, I have to prepare for my own show – Marikana: The Denial – which I will be performing at the Farlam Commission next week.

The festival celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and it surprises me that after 20 years of democracy, it is still called the Nationalist Arts Festival. In this regard, I hope the organisers will consider our proposal to rename this the Jacob Zuma Festival of Culture and Heritage. This will allow us to declare the festival a National Key Point and provide it with substantial public funding.

This year, the festival offers about 3 000 performances – excluding this staged reading of my speechwriter’s script − in 50 venues all over Grahamstown, except, of course, in the townships. This is part of a progressive strategy to integrate township dwellers into the rest of the city rather than the other way around.

Last year the festival contributed R349 million to the GDP of the Eastern Cape, and R90 million to the GDP of Grahamstown, which helped to stabilise unemployment in the city at around 75%. The festival created numerous work opportunities for locals – though not necessarily income-generating opportunities – as car guards.

This has encouraged us as government to continue to strengthen the contribution of arts and culture to the growth of the economy through the implementation of the Mzansi Golden Economy strategy, which we expect to create more than 25 000 work opportunities for prospective car protectors around the country.

The festival, in partnership with Makana Municipality, has launched a project to establish Grahamstown as “South Africa’s creative capital” just to piss off Cape Town and the DA. Central to this is the establishment of the Makana Arts Academy (MAA). Such training is an absolute priority for my department, which is why the academy is being funded through a partnership with the European Union. The creative capital project aims to make creativity, rather than people, Grahamstown’s primary export.

We are a multicultural society that speaks many languages. This festival started in 1974 as a celebration of English and Shakespeare, which is why at this 40th anniversary it is staging Macbeth, in Afrikaans. We will have a campaign to promote multilingualism; in this regard, we will soon be issuing tenders for companies owned by staff in my department to run this campaign.

Through this festival and beyond, we encourage all South Africans to tell their – good – stories of the past 20 years, and we will make available funding for such good stories to be told, as we do with the SABC. Accordingly, we will be revisiting the funding of the State Theatre, which has chosen to present counterrevolutionary and derogatory work at this festival in the form of Marikana: The Musical and Protest. We need to tell our people good stories, which is why we will be making available R25 million for Mbongeni Ngema to write Nkandla: The Opera.

The festival offers everything from traditional and historical performances of dance, music and theatre to recent and cutting-edge avant-garde performances. This wide diversity of arts brings us closer together as a force of social cohesion and nation building. I am not sure how the diversity of ballet, isipantsula and sakkie sakkie actually bring us together as I am new to this portfolio, but I look forward to learning more about the practicalities of this from my speechwriter. Art closes the gap that has seen us divided for centuries by politicians, economists, religious zealots, generals and Steve Hofmeyr. But art is on the cutting edge of change in this country − when change happens, arts and culture are cut.

I would encourage everyone to use the arts to foster our new post-ubuntu values, for we have moved forward from “I am because you are” to “I am, so get out of my way”.

This festival has moved forward; it used to be only up on the hill. It has become a magnet that draws people from all over the world. (I understand we even have one or two Zimbabweans here this year). More than 200 000 attendees are expected at the festival, which would more than triple the population of Grahamstown, but do forgive the hyperbole − we are, after all, dealing in the realm of the creative imagination.

Through the festival’s partnership with the World Fringe Alliance, dozens of South African shows travel each year to festivals in Amsterdam, New York, Perth, Prague, Brighton and Edinburgh. This places our artists on the world stage and gives them the opportunity to earn dollars, euros and pounds. By taxing our artists on these earnings, we are able to give back to our international partners by purchasing German sedans, British weapons and American KFC.

South African artists are among the best in the world, scooping major awards everywhere they go. That is a great achievement and it is worth celebrating as artists generally do this by themselves, without any support from us.

It requires intellectual strength and a family trust fund – or government connections − to pursue a career in the arts. The arts can thrive only in a democratic and enabling environment − as we know from the apartheid era when the Market Theatre, Hugh Masekela, Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer and others grew their international brands.  This is why we support this and other festivals in our country − a sure kiss of death, which will then inspire great art work. For there is artistic freedom of expression and production in this country despite our marching on galleries, despite our calls for derogatory art to be destroyed, despite our intimidation of artists by labelling them racists if they criticise us, and despite the secrecy bill.

To help organise and strengthen the arts fraternity, government will support the work of the Interim Committee of the Creative Industries Federation, which we unilaterally appointed in March 2014 to lay the groundwork for a national representative body – because we prefer a representative body that we, rather than artists themselves, set up.

The advantage of being in a town where the university prides itself in providing one of the best counterrevolutionary journalism degrees is that it puts out a newspaper during the festival, called Cue, which is run largely by students. This provides an opportunity for students to hone their skills through a critical overview of the offerings available. As for the artists who have to suffer from the students honing their skills, sorry for you.

The work of our artists should inspire and encourage active citizenry – so go out there, reflect our society back to itself, and inspire more protests! The songs of celebration – like Umshini Wam − should ring from every village and every city of our nation.

We have come a long way – from Pretoria to Grahamstown – and we have further to go (onwards to Cape Town). But we still have much to celebrate, like the Ministerial Handbook. Thanks to Daimler Chrysler – and Johnnie Walker Blue Label − we keep moving forward.

We are free! The arts and culture sector has been in the forefront of this, doing things for free! Like the doors of learning and culture, I declare this festival open − for those who can afford it.


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