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Ben Ngubane and Piekniek by Dingaan

Ben Ngubane – till recently the chairperson of the perpetually dysfunctional SABC board – was appointed as the first minister of arts, culture, science and technology after the historic 1994 elections. It was a euphoric time for the arts sector. The right to freedom of creative expression was guaranteed in the interim Constitution. Apartheid’s censorship boards were abolished. A department that actually featured “arts” and “culture” in its title was established for the first time. Artists, cultural workers and other stakeholders in the broader cultural sector were consulted – through the Arts and Culture Task Group comprising knowledgeable practitioners rather than government officials or politicians – about what a post-apartheid arts and culture dispensation should look like.

At that time, I served as the general secretary of the National Arts Coalition, a coalition of civil society NGOs and individual practitioners that sought to influence the development of a new arts and culture policy for the country. It was in that capacity that I was appointed as a Special Adviser by Ngubane, with Cabinet having agreed that each minister could appoint such advisers to help formulate new policies consistent with the non-racial, non-sexist, democratic mantra of the time.

Many of the policy recommendations made by civil society were based on research into how other democratic societies supported and protected the arts. But some recommendations – particularly to do with the protection of freedom of creative expression – were rooted in our experience of the apartheid era.

We believed that in a democratic society, public funding for the arts and culture needed to be channelled through an independent body comprising experts in the arts, who would make decisions about the allocation of such funding based on the artistic merit of the proposals, rather than on whether they served the interests of whoever happened to be in political authority. Freedom of expression, including the right to speak truth to power wherever it was manifested, was to be protected from political appointees who would use public funding to ensure the political hegemony of those who appointed them.

It was for this reason that the National Arts Council was established, a body that existed at “arm’s length” to government, a body that would be governed by a Council whose members were nominated by the public and then interviewed in public by an independent panel, who would then present a shortlist of candidates from which the minister would be obliged to select the Council’s members. The appointed Council members would then elect a chairperson and deputy chairperson from among themselves, ensuring accountability and trust within the board.

During the apartheid era, there were four performing arts councils, one per province. The Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB) was based in Cape Town at the then Nico Malan Theatre (now ARTSCAPE). In 1988, the theatre company produced a cabaret, Piekniek by Dingaan, written by Andre le Toit and Johannes Kerkorrel and featuring people like Marthinus Basson, Marion Holm, Nataniel, Gustav Geldenhuys, Mark Hoeben and Willie Fritz, some of whom have become icons of the local theatre world.

This work aimed its critical barbs at the apartheid regime and at the white Afrikaner establishment generally; part of its “threat” was that such criticism emanated from within the Afrikaner community itself. Piekniek by Dingaan won an award at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, but on its return to Cape Town, the board chairperson demanded that changes be made to the text before it could be staged at the venue (and even then, it was downgraded from the main theatre to the “experimental” theatre). The cast refused, and it was subsequently performed at the Baxter Theatre to great acclaim. For declining to conform to the board’s demand that the work be censored and for speaking to the media, the head of CAPAB’s drama department, Johan Esterhuizen, was fired.

At least three things about this episode were instructive as a post-apartheid cultural policy was being devised:

a. while the apartheid government had a censorship board in place that – among other things – censored and banned creative work such as plays, films and literature that did not conform to its political or moral vision, the appointments of boards – and in particular, the chairpersons of such boards – of publicly-funded institutions were further means to exercise political control within and through cultural institutions

b. because the institution was paying the salaries of the actors and the head of the drama department, it believed that it could tell them what to do, and more importantly, what they could not do when it came to exercising freedom of creative expression and

c. the chairperson on the board was not necessarily an arts person who would make decisions on the artistic merits of the work, but was first and foremost a political appointment to ensure the interests of the National Party government within the cultural institution

These lessons were instructive in formulating a post-apartheid culture policy in which cultural stakeholders strongly lobbied for, and achieved in the adopted White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage, the principle of “arm’s length” public funding for the arts. This was better to secure the political independence of the arts sector and its ability to exercise the Constitutional right to freedom of creative expression without looking over their shoulders.

Soon after the adoption of the White Paper by Cabinet in 1996, Ben Ngubane was redeployed by his party, the IFP, to become the premier of KwaZulu-Natal. A few years later, he was redeployed back to the position of Minister of Arts and Culture, by which time the sector had declined significantly, with much of the sector’s earlier euphoria dissipating in the wake of the poor implementation of the cultural policy and the concomitantly poor management and governance of cultural institutions.

It was then that Ngubane – rather than addressing the primary challenges of governance and management of cultural institutions – assaulted the arm’s length principle and changed the laws so that he – as minister – now had the power to appoint and to remove the chairpersons of publicly-funded cultural institutions as well as agencies that distributed public funding to the arts and culture sector. The effect of this was to grant enormous political power to the chairpersons of such boards, to intimidate discussion and debate within the respective boards whose chairpersons were deemed to have the ear and blessing of the minister, and to encourage the chairpersons to act with a degree of impunity in the belief that they were “above” the board.

The National Arts Council that first enjoyed this new dispensation, eventually had its board fired by the new minister, Pallo Jordan, because of the mounting evidence of abuse of power, corruption and abuse of public funds.

Having fought hard for post-apartheid publicly-funded cultural institutions and agencies that distributed public funds to be politically independent so as to ensure the best interests of the organisation as a vehicle best to serve the public and that more adequately promoted and defended freedom of creative expression, thanks to Ben Ngubane, the culture sector now has publicly-funded and public funding cultural institutions that, in terms of their governance, bear a similar resemblance to the cultural institutions of the apartheid era. These boards – and the minister-appointed chairpersons in particular – may be viewed as aligned to the political, social and economic status quo.

The media reports about Ngubane’s leadership of the SABC board, his unilateral actions, his decisions to make key appointments without the approval of his board and his going against the decisions of his board, reflect exactly the dangers of such politically-appointed chairpersons, that are not elected by, and do not necessarily have the trust or respect of their board colleagues.

In the process, the public service institution that they are required to govern, suffers immeasurable damage, and even more importantly, the services that the institution are required to provide to the public, are severely compromised.

Ngubane was both responsible for introducing this state of affairs to cultural sector, and exemplifies its dangers through his own actions at the SABC board.

Rather than learning from history (which we are so often exhorted to do), our political leaders repeat history, and condemn us – the governed – to accept the adverse consequences.

Or to go back to the trenches.