New minister of arts and culture Nathi Mthethwa is sworn in.

A more contrary figure for the arts and culture portfolio would be hard to find, writes Janet Smith.

Johannesburg - There were times when it seemed former arts minister Paul Mashatile had warmed to his brief. During his stay in the cabinet, he was more often in the news for his activities as ANC provincial chairman and his dominance of the party’s affairs in Joburg than he was for being a cultural tsar. Yet he was indeed out there, trading in long hours particularly for heritage and history – his favourite parts of an ill-favoured job.

Mashatile – who last year said culture had “become the soft power of nations” – made it a bit of a personal mission to convince South Africans to cherish their past. He feared we had lost the graceful dreams of a quiet revolution.

But the fact is, those words “ill-favoured” were also correct, for that is what the arts portfolio had indeed become by the time Mashatile got there in 2011.

His predecessor Lulu Xingwana, who made her entrance into her portfolio by storming out of an exhibition of Zanele Muholi’s photographs of black lesbians, had made sure of that.

Her predecessor Pallo Jordan, who headed Radio Freedom and worked for the ANC’s publicity department in exile, at least had the reputation of being a scholar and intellectual. Even if we remember Jordan best for championing manuscripts in Timbuktu – a particular interest of Thabo Mbeki, who appointed him – at least we connect him with something in his brief.

Xingwana was an insult. Mashatile, who was clearly hoping for something more high-profile, wasn’t what the arts and culture community had in mind, but he tried. On Sunday, however, the disbelief which reverberated through the arts community on social media at President Jacob Zuma’s appointment of ex-police minister Nathi Mthethwa, was not unusual. There was disappointment that Zuma – a man who loves dancing, at the very least – seemed to be using the ministry again to keep political movers on ice.

That felt unjust – and, worse, Mthethwa came with a reputation for having an iron fist. A more contrary figure for arts and culture would surely have been tough to find. And so his appointment, like that of Xingwana and Mashatile, made no sense beyond containing a president’s personal power.

Mike van Graan, executive director of the African Arts Institute, says no one saw it coming. “The main issue for me is that he had had ultimate political responsibility for the massacre of the Marikana miners and the death of Andries Tatane, all of whom were exercising their constitutional right to protest, to express their views, to gather as they wished.

“Now, he has been made responsible for promoting and defending the fundamental and constitutional right of artists to exercise freedom of creative expression. It’s absurd!

“The manner in which he has defended the hugely problematic expenditure on Nkandla as part of the former security cluster does not exactly encourage artists who wish to access public funding to be critical of Nkandla or of the president to which Mthethwa is clearly loyal.”

Speaking in Joburg before last night’s public debate at the Goethe Institut to discuss Mthethwa’s appointment, Van Graan said: “There is little to have me believe that he will act in the broader interests of society and of the arts and culture sector, rather than in defence of the president, the ruling party or ‘national interests’ as narrowly defined to protect those in power.”

This wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction.

These were the heartfelt words of a South African who has devoted his life to arts and culture.

Like so many others in his field, Van Graan only wants to protect the critical role artists and thinkers play.

Actor Fana Mokoena – who helped boost the EFF when he first wore its red beret last year – is another.

He this week exhorted artists to take the power back when he was quoted saying they needed to get involved in politics so they could control the department. The new MP and member of the powerful National Council of Provinces would be in a good position as a spearhead.

But we know Zuma was in a political mire over Mthethwa. His actions had brought shock headlines all over the world. The bloodshed and violence on his watch appalled the nation.

Yet he is a party loyalist like Bheki Cele, his unfortunate predecessor in the police ministry, and Mthethwa can command certain support out of his 30-year history inside the ANC.

Zuma needs that. To be blunt, he also needs a hard worker in a surprisingly key portfolio.

While Van Graan, Mokoena and others who love the arts are right about the inappropriateness of Mthethwa – who has no known affinity with the arts, or indeed any political history that includes the arts – it’s becoming clear this ministry is not about that.

It is about making money, creating jobs and driving social cohesion.

Sibusiso Xaba, DG in the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), defended his principals, suggesting the understanding of why Mthethwa is there, is wrong. The prevailing view on how important DAC is, is also flawed.

“There is absolutely no truth to the inference (that he had been posted to the arts because it is the funeral home of cabinet). Former ministers of arts and culture have moved on to play various significant roles in cabinet and elsewhere in society. If anything, the role and significance of the DAC is in fact growing, as it will lead one of the outcomes in this term, and its portfolio of services also grows, represented in most cabinet clusters.”

Xaba is correct. The arts ministry is well represented in the administration of government.

It’s also been tasked with pushing social cohesion and nation building, which are essential pillars and underpin Mthethwa’s job through the controversial draft White Paper, which is currently being revised. The DAC is touted not so much as a creative hub, but as an economic driver – remembering the ANC is under considerable pressure to create jobs over the next five years.

It’s worth tallying some numbers. The film industry alone contributes more than R3.5 billion annually to GDP, and provides employment to more than 25 000 people. Literature and books are worth more than R5bn, the sector employing an estimated 17 000 people.

Mthethwa will have no choice but to promote arts, culture and heritage – not as a punishment, but as a vital source of income and stability for the country. The National Development Plan (NDP) will have to be crucial to his outlook. It’s policy.

Xaba explains: “The NDP has an entire chapter dealing with social cohesion and building national unity. Most of the matters in this chapter fall within the ambit of the mandate of the DAC.

“Hence the minister for arts and culture will be leading the outcome based on these matters. The economic growth of the sector (is) aligned to long-term national priorities.”

The DG is optimistic. He says he’s had various interactions with Mthethwa since his appointment and “I am excited by his enthusiasm and understanding of the issues”.

“He has been keenly listening to the matters that we have been working on, has shown deep understanding. I have no doubt that he will lead this sector to greater and unprecedented heights.”

Concerned as he is about the blood on Mthethwa’s hands, Van Graan – who served as an adviser to Nelson Mandela’s first arts and culture minister, Ben Ngubane – is also sober-minded about what needs to be done. Mthethwa will have to concentrate on a broader agenda – or fail and be fired.

“There are currently major international efforts to ensure that culture is included in the post-2015, post-MDG’s international development agenda, which has massive resonance across our continent.

“It’s an agenda that recognises the huge influence that culture has in defining, in militating against, or in facilitating development. Rather than this department being one where politicians go to die or serve as an artist agency for state entertainment, this department has a transversal mandate.”

Van Graan correctly identifies where the relationships must be strengthened: “To make a success of his tenure, he needs to engage with civil society, not just with the praise-singers and those dependent on his department for funding, but also with the critical, independent voices.”

He has strident advice for the new minister: “Be generous, be open-minded, lose the defensiveness, embrace criticism, be willing to learn (no-one expects you to be an expert in arts and culture), develop a vision with the arts and culture sector and then drive the department to make sure the vision is pursued and realised.”

Zuma casualty Paul Mashatile may already be feeling regret. Arts and culture are huge, and politically vital.

Some may say Mthethwa, who must be feeling the heat, is a lucky man.

Who is Nathi Mthethwa?

* Born in January 1967.

* A member of the ANC NEC and National Working Committee.

* Has been an MP since 2002.

* Has a diploma in community development from the University of Natal; a certificate in mining engineering from UJ and a certificate in communications and leadership from Rhodes.

* Served as a shop steward for the Food and Allied Workers Union.

* Recruited into the underground work of the ANC as part of Operation Vula between 1988 and 1989.

* Arrested during the State of Emergency in 1989.

* Trade union and youth congress work continued until he was elected to the NEC of the ANCYL and served in its NWC from 1994 to 2001.

* Served as chair for the minerals and energy portfolio committee in Parliament, from 2004 to 2008.

* Chief Whip of the ANC in 2008.

* Served on the board of directors of the 2010 Fifa World Cup Local Organising Committee.

* Was minister of safety and security from 2008 to 2009.

* Was minister of police from 2009 until now.

** Janet Smith is executive editor of The Star.

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