‘The Spear’ and the silence of the National Arts Council

FEATURE: The National Arts Council is legally required, among other things, to “uphold and promote the right of any person to freedom in the practice of the arts”. Yet on ‘The Spear’ we have heard not a word from it. How is that possible? How is an entire organisation dedicated to upholding, protecting and promoting the rights of artists able to sit idly by while the right to freedom of artistic expression is under such a direct and wide-ranging assault? It is an indictment and there should be consequences.

The Spear’ and the silence of the National Arts Council

By: Gareth van Onselen

26 May 2012

The National Arts Council (NAC) was established in terms of the National Arts Council Act [1997] and its mandate, as set out on its website, is as follows:

• To provide, and encourage the provision of, opportunities for persons to practice the arts
• To promote the appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the arts
• To promote the general application of the arts in the community
• To foster the expression of a national identity and consciousness by means of the arts
• To uphold and promote the right of any person to freedom in the practice of the arts
• To give the historically disadvantaged such additional help and resources as are required to give them greater access to the arts
• To address historical imbalances in the provision of infrastructure for the promotion of the arts
• To promote and facilitate national and international liaison between individuals and institutions in respect of the arts
• To develop and promote the arts and to encourage excellence in regard to these.

Key among those provisions, and in light of the furore surrounding ‘The Spear’, its condemnation and defacement, is the fifth point: “To uphold and promote the right of any person to freedom in the practice of the arts”. And to be clear, that is not a nicety, it is a legal requirement, prescribed by the law.

Yet, the NAC has said nothing, not a word, about ‘The Spear’ or its artist – Brett Murray – or made any attempt to intervene, to uphold his rights or to speak out in defence of him. Can there be a more profound dereliction of duty? More to the point, is this not a matter for some intense public interrogation? Certainly it is something that should be put before to the minister of arts and culture and brought before the portfolio committee. It is in direction violation of its mandate.

What you have here is a government institution that has failed profoundly to uphold its legal obligation. Will any consequences follow?

Who sits on the Council?

According to the NAC Act, it consists of nine provincial representatives and no fewer than nine but no more than 14 other persons, all appointed by the minister.

At present, and according to the NAC’s website, its council comprises the following people:

• Chairperson of NAC Council: Ms Angelina Makwetla
• Deputy Chairperson: Mr Mohau Mphomela
• Executive Committee Members
HR Chair: Dr. Nanga Lidovho
ARC Chair: Mr Zamindlela Bhengu
• Member: Ms Seipati Dichabe
• Provincial Committee
• Chairperson: Mr Tsoarelo Malakoane (Free State)
KZN: Mr Ndela Ntshangase
• E Cape: Prof. Dominic Thorburn
• N Cape: Mr Manne Thebe
• Gauteng: Mr Meshack Mavuso
• Limpopo: Mr Andrew Nhlangwini
• Northwest: Mr Johnny Masilela in the interim
• Mpumalanga: Mr Chikapa Phiri
• Appointment of Panel Chairs
• Music: Mr Shadrack Bokaba
• Visual Art: Prof. Dominic Thorburn
• Craft: Ms Erica Elk
• Theatre: Mr Meshack Mavuso
• Dance: Ms Phyllis Klotz
• Literature: Mr Johnny Masilela
• Multi discipline: Mr Bongani Tembe
• Research Committee
• Ms Nakedi Ribane
• Ms Erica Elk

How is it that not a single one of these individuals nor the institution as a whole has thought to issue even a statement on ‘The Spear’ and the controversy surrounding it? They have a legal duty, one which gives life to a specific constitutional clause in the Bill of Rights – the right to freedom of expression – and yet they have said nothing while a nation works itself into hysteria and that very right is reduced to a farce?

It is, as I say, a fundamental failure and, in my opinion, someone needs to face some serious consequences. Certainly the public and those artists that look to it t protect their interests deserve an explanation.

The media would do well to approach the chairperson and ask for a statement. On whose side is the NAC? The side of artists and the constitution or the side of the ANC and intolerance? The DA would do well to request the NAC to appear before the portfolio committee.

What is the point of a National Arts Council is it sits idly by while South African art is under the most brutal attack?