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Culturelink review, Special Issue 1998/1999 - imprint - archive

Cultural Change and Development in South Africa

This collection includes a myriad of themes and views on the dynamic role of culture in the post-apartheid society. As one reads the papers presented here, it becomes clear that any review of cultural discourse, space and activity in South Africa would have to reflect upon the duality of cultural production within the former repressive state. While black and white cultures were practised largely in isolation from each other, they now provide the basis for intercultural dialogue, experimentation and the search for new forms with which to express a new social and cultural identity.

The duality of culture in South Africa arose as a result of one of the premises of apartheid, i.e., that the various racial groups were so inherently different that co-existence or even close proximity would inevitably lead to conflict. Accordingly, these groups had to be kept apart, to practise their cultural traditions and exercise their political rights in isolation. A cultural pattern similar to that found in other areas colonised by Europe followed. On the one hand, artistic forms such as ballet, opera, classical music and theatre were developed and paid for by taxpayers' money to entertain the white minority, while on the other hand the cultural traditions and aesthetic practices of the majority were dismissed as inferior or, at best, encouraged as tourist attractions, and ghettoised as a result.

Most dominant within the 'white' society were the mainly Eurocentric productions and products of the various cultural 'factories', such as the provincial arts councils, which were heavily subsidised by the state in the interest of 'satisfaction' and ideological domestication. In their attempts to prop up the minority regime, these institutions, such as the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT), the Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB) and the Natal Performing Arts Council (NAPAC), or the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurorganisasies (Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Organisations, FAK), the Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging (Afrikaans Language and Culture Association, ATKV), and the National Monuments Council, served the purpose of propagating the ideal of white supremacy and superiority and, above all, sought to maintain the supposed cultural umbilical linkages to the mythical 'European fatherlands'. At the same time, English and Afrikaans were imposed as the official languages of the country. However, even this propagation was tightly controlled by rigorous (political) censorship laws and regulations. It was, to use a German phrase, gleichgeschaltet, i.e., forced into the service of the ideological framework of apartheid.

To illustrate this point: when the film version of Bernard Malamud's celebrated novel The Fixer was released onto the South African circuit, it was initially celebrated as a clear indictment of a 'cruel, barbaric and repressive communistic [sic] system'. However, as soon as it became apparent that many blacks were flocking to the cinemas to see the film, making clear analogies with the apartheid state and its fascist tendencies, the film was promptly removed from the circuit and banned for black audiences. White audiences, it would appear, were not as susceptible to the implied message and analogies.

Although blacks were by and large excluded from participating in or attending 'mainstream' cultural events - through the segregation of cinemas, theatres, galleries, museums, etc. - these restrictions generally led to a spate of cultural activities in the townships, usually conducted in church halls or at events at sports facilities. Most of these cultural events had an overtly 'political' message of resistance to the system and/or served as a platform for boosting (black) self-awareness, especially against the backdrop of the black consciousness movement of the seventies and eighties.

Another major effect - although unintentional - of the restrictive nature of the former government's cultural policies and practices was to encourage the flourishing of cultural innovation and practice. 'Cultural practitioners' were actively engaged in a new discourse, pre-empting, as it were, the contours, policies and practices of culture in a post-apartheid society. Milestone events, such as CASA1 or meetings between exiled and internal cultural representatives, served to hone the outlines, issues and concerns of this debate.

Diverse forms of cultural artefacts and practices emerged during this period, especially in literature, theatre and performance, the plastic arts and the revival and/or renaissance of traditional modes of dance (including orature, movement, performance). The development of this counter-hegemonic discourse and practice, welded as it usually was to the political resistance movement ('the struggle'), did not go unnoticed by the authorities: works and/or their authors were censored or banned, as it was realised that culture was playing a role as a shield for political struggle. Artists were also denied passports, which prevented them from taking up international invitations, for instance.

However, despite this 'total onslaught' by the apartheid state on liberatory culture and its proponents, many cultural activists simply changed their strategy: instead of expecting visitors to attend their performances at, for example, theatres or central venues ( to their audiences, to political funerals, mass rallies, church halls in the townships, and so on. Many of these artists were members of collectives, small non-governmental organisations or associations - which in turn became part of a national cultural initiative. Such organisations also advised the then-banned ANC on the implementation of the cultural boycott, and generally assisted in promoting the anti-apartheid message abroad through exhibitions, plays and festivals focusing on South Africa. In a sense, these organisations were the precursors of the present National Arts Council.

One could, therefore, assume that the progressive, cultural practitioners of the apartheid era would feel very comfortable and satisfied under the present dispensation. That this is (currently) not so, could be explained as follows:

After the unbanning of the ANC, the umbrella cultural organisations mentioned above asserted their political independence by launching the first national, non-racial, non-partisan arts lobby - the National Arts Coalition - to lobby for new arts and culture policies. This led to some tensions with their former partner, the ANC's Department of Arts and Culture, which believed that it should be at the vanguard of transformation in the country, including cultural transformation.

By the time the elections were held in April 1994, the National Arts Coalition had developed a strong national presence, and formulated a comprehensive set of new policy recommendations. Based on public nominations, the new Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology appointed a 23-person Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG), representing all disciplines, regions and forms of art, to solicit and present recommendations for new policies with the support of the arts community. The ACTAG process culminated in 1995 with the adoption of its proposals by a national conference representing a broad cross-section of artists and cultural institutions. The Government published its White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage in 1996, which reflected many of the ACTAG's recommendations.

Several cultural activists of that period took up senior positions in government and provincial departments responsible for arts and culture, and it was hoped that this would bring about a speedy implementation of the policy recommendations. However, the momentum and enthusiasm generated through the ACTAG process has largely been dissipated through the slow process of establishing new government structures and the equally slow process of preparing and adopting legislation.

Major arts and culture-related bills passed in 1998 included the National Arts Council Act and the National Film and Video Foundation Act, which were to become bodies to channel funds to support the development and dissemination of the arts. The process of transforming the cultural institutions which were the main recipients of public funds during the apartheid era, and which largely reflected apartheid's interests in their structures, content and aesthetics, has also taken place largely in accordance with policy recommendations.

The National Arts Council receives an annual grant from the government to support the creation, development and distribution of music, dance, theatre, visual arts, crafts, literature and community art, and it does this through a system of peer review with discipline-based panels reviewing and making recommendations on applications for funding. Much of the R7.5 million (less than one million pounds) of the R10 million government grant distributed by the Council at its first allocations in February 1998, were funds which had been cut from establishment cultural institutions such as the performing arts councils.

In terms of government policy, the councils are to be downsized to serve as metropolitan theatres, with the companies and orchestras attached to them receiving declining susbsidies over three years, while diversifying their funding bases. However, the theory of the White Paper - that orchestras, ballet and opera companies could apply to the National Arts Council and its provincial equivalents like any other creative project - is not matched by the reality characterised by an absence of such mechanisms and a dire lack of funding. There has been some concern that the small size of the Council's budget will destroy its credibility. (The Council received applications in excess of fifteen times the amount it was able to allocate with its first grant.)

Accordingly, questions are being raised about the capacity of government officials to implement the vision and recommendations of the arts community as articulated in the ACTAG Report. While the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology has control over policy and resources, it appears to lack the managerial expertise, political will and vision to effect its own policies.

The National Arts Council is required to serve the arts nationally, but there is concern about its capacity to do this. The rationale for the Council was to ensure the equitable distribution of resources throughout the country, particularly to those areas which had been neglected in the past. They appear to continue to be neglected, at least in the decision-making forums of the Council. It has become increasingly clear, though, that the implementation of policy now equally requires a strong watchdog lobby from within the arts community. In this context, the "1% Campaign" is being launched to lobby for increased public funding for the arts, monitor government arts expenditure, and generally represent the interests of the arts community in this phase of policy implementation and review. The independence of the Council will also probably be closely monitored by the arts community, as it is crucial to the freedom of creative expression.

Of particular note and interest is the fact that there has been an exciting resurgence of cultural activity throughout the country. Annual festivals fulfil an important function in providing a platform for newcomers and new work: traditional and experimental dance, music and drama festivals, literary events, exhibitions, etc. all seem engaged in celebrating the vibrant opportunities and possibilities of this multi-cultural and multilingual society which is the 'new' South Africa. Although most of these events are financed with shoestring budgets, it is noteworthy that corporate (financial) support for these domains of creativity and production has shown a steady growth over the past few years.

This collection of articles seeks to reflect such changes as have occurred within the cultural space(s) of the 'new' South Africa. The authors were tasked with reflecting on the changes which may have occurred within their particular domains. The brief issued by the co-editors was succinct. It stated the following:

The article/paper should ideally reflect your perceptions of changes of cultural values and cultural identity (identities) in contemporary South Africa, i.e., what is happening currently in South African culture in terms of institutional, policy and value changes?

Although the 'field' was known to be broad and varied, it was our decision to restrict contributions to such areas that were clearly linked to, or tangential to, that of cultural practice. As such, we were pleasantly surprised by the responses received. Authors, 'cultural practitioners', reviewers, literary critics et al., all expressed their excitement at being allowed an opportunity to reflect on such changes as may have occurred during the past five years of the 'new' South Africa as this impacted upon the lives of our 'cultural practitioners'.

The most critical issues raised are nationalism, the degree and success of institutional transition, creating new historiographies of cultural production, validating the work of artists that were excluded during apartheid, and expanding access to government subsidies for artistic and literary work.

There are a number of themes and questions reiterated across several chapters.

  • What counts as legitimate cultural practice must be expanded without appeals to cultural nationalism. This is a concern which must be connected to every artistic renaissance. It is our hope that acknowledging "group identity" does not mean fostering militarism or nationalism, but may also cultivate communalism and "reciprocity, care and affect" (Sitas).
  • How does South African cultural practice confront the debates on modernity/post-modernity and colonialism/post-colonialism?
  • What are the consequences of institutional transition, namely, redistribution of state funding in the arts as well as new mission statements and visions for arts agencies?
  • Can arts policy remain a medium which can make up for the shortfalls in government revenues and party conflicts?
  • How can the arts contribute to economic revitalisation without being subjected to naked market commodification?
  • What choices have cultural activists and liberation organisations made in choosing their own cultural policies, and what new directions can be suggested for them?
  • How can the discussion of gender be made part of the debate on cultural dynamism? And how can the discussion of South African cultural dynamism inform global debates on the meaning of gender?
  • How can the media facilitate access to practitioners, artists and activists yet still consider the conditions of people previously overlooked by apartheid segregation, such as the white working class and rural female artists?

It is to such issues that the chapters turn. Alexander and Heugh argue that speaking English and Afrikaans determined the wealth and status available to South Africans in the past. Moreover, the language which people spoke, and still speak, continues to be intricately linked to economic exploitation and desires for social mobility. The authors caution that unless a multilingual national language and economic policy is implemented, the country will not be able to overcome the economic segregation of apartheid. The democratisation of language must affirm that African languages are valid media for cultural, scientific, technological, economic, political domains/practice.

Shepperson and Tomaselli reclaim 'culture' that has been simultaneously trounced by apartheid radicalisation and by the static record-keeping of modernity. Culture, they argue, is something which people do, an action forged in conflict, struggle, pluralism, and migrating theories and practices. They suggest that since culture orients people towards their responsibilities and identities in their communities, a new dynamic media must speak to people's interests/priorities across generations.

Fleishman's study is a discussion of institutional and administrative change vis-à-vis the redistribution of theatre funding and agency subsidies from the Johannesburg Performing Arts Council to the newly established National Arts Council. Since apartheid created gender and racial requirements for access to funds for producers, directors, playwrights and dramatists, the new arts councils advocate increased regional representation which will hopefully be more inclusive.

Teer-Tomaselli's piece situates public broadcasting in the context of the transformation of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to meet the requirements initiated by the regulating agency of the Independent Broadcasting Association Act (1993). Technological advancement and deregulation have made it possible and desirable for the SABC to feature more local content in its public broadcasting. The author's major concern revolves around how the SABC can promote the production of local/diverse programming (the self-image of the society, if you will) without reinforcing nationalism, since a great majority of the local content programming is provided by prime time news programmes.

Smit and van Wyk use the context of the Centre for the Study of Southern African Literature and Languages to discuss the transformation of segregationist literary studies to an integrated approach to the historical complexity of South African literature. The expanding curricula, possible in the post-apartheid era, lend themselves to a fresh analysis of class, cultural encounters and an expanded notion of what counts as literature.

Wicomb continues the literary theme with an analysis that questions the use of black female suffering as a trope that simultaneously objectifies black women and reinforces the dubious connection between whiteness and leisure and ease. Her logic in discussing familial ties and family breakdown among the white working class reveals the complexity of the betrayals of apartheid, or in other words, exactly how much of the democratic transition will require reconciliation within the institution of the white family.

Frescura's work on rural female architects rejects the notion that the iconography used by women designers should be relegated to the natural history of the past. He takes into account patterns of migration, movement and attempts at their incorporation into more powerful groups. Their work is contemporary and current and resonates with our emphasis on dynamic responses to the current situation, especially the creation of new communities and regions. Like others in this collection Frescura emphasises that these designs persist despite, and in concert with, Westernization and cross-cultural pollination.

Mufamadi makes an attempt to open up the debate on the subject of (re)affirming heroes of the struggle against the colonial rule and their symbols and rituals in the post-colonial and post-apartheid times.

Sitas' autobiography emphasises the experiences, research findings and narrations of trade unionists themselves. His findings demonstrate the methodological possibility of multiple-author narration and oral history.

An outside view of South African Cultural Communication is presented by Biserka Cvjeticanin. She concentrates in particular on the effects of structural changes in post-apartheid Africa in the field of international communication and cooperation as it enters an entirely new stage.

In summing up, Zegeye and Liebenberg propose a critical framework for exploring the complexity and diversity of the "South African Experience" within and across hitherto entrenched identificatory boundaries.

We are encouraged that, although this volume does not cover chapters on issues of oratory (rhetoric and speech making), music (composition and performance, rap and kwaito youth musicians in particular), sport (competition), and community organising, those areas are also contributing a great deal to the development of culture in South Africa. In fact, the way that such arenas advertise themselves may provide models for us on how to popularise culture without commodifying it. The conversation has only just begun.

Abebe Zegeye and Robert Kriger *



* The editors express their gratitude to Mr. Mike van Graan for valuable insights in regard to the ACTAG-NAC debates and processes.
The editors also wish to thank Ms. Elizabeth le Roux for her sterling work and assistance with various liaison tasks, copy editing and numerous re-writing exercises. Tasks well done!

1. Culture in Another South Africa: a conference hosted in Amsterdam in December 1987, which brought together South African cultural practitioners from "home" and those in exile.