‘Minister of Congratulations’ could’ve been Minister of Legends, but alas
Nathi Mthethwa’s Living Legends project deserved a vision worthy of SA’s cultural icons. Instead it got incompetence
On August 25 2015, minister of sport, arts and culture Nathi Mthethwa invited media to the Cedars Park Hotel in Johannesburg to launch the Living Legends Legacy Project. The project is administered by his department with the aim of identifying SA living legends across all arts disciplines and to engage them actively in growing visibility for the arts.
In March 2019, Welcome Msomi, then chairperson of Mthethwa’s Living Legends project, appeared in court after his arrest following a serious crime investigation. Msomi was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for embezzling R8m from Mthethwa’s Living Legends project. Msomi died a year later.
Msomi was a giant in SA theatre, who had built his reputation for his play Umabatha, launched successfully amid the resistance to apartheid and taken to the international stage. His tragic fall from grace has almost wiped out all institutional memory of his significant contributions to the SA arts sector. Articles about his fall from grace now dominate any search about him on the internet.
The poor financial control of the Living Legends project, while criminal, is minor when considering that more than R320m from the presidential Economic Stimulus Plan (PESP), meant to provide financial relief to artists during the hard lockdown in 2020, was maladministered by the National Arts Council (NAC), an entity in Mthethwa’s department.
According to a press statement issued by the department about a forensic investigation into the NAC’s management of the fund, “results ... point to wrongful doing, maladministration and mismanagement in the process of implementing the PESP”.
The relationship between the arts sector and the National Arts Council, the department of sport, arts and culture and the minister is at its lowest ebb since the advent of democracy in SA.
Hardly a day goes by without Mthethwa being verbally abused by disgruntled artists on his Facebook page. Barely a month ago, he raised the ire of the nation when he planned to spend R22m on mounting a monumental flag in Pretoria while thousands of artists across SA are holding out their begging bowls because the lockdown restrictions on the arts economy prevent them from earning a dignified livelihood.
Mthethwa’s flag project came to half mast when President Cyril Ramaphosa intervened and called for its cancellation. Mthethwa was derided in several media as a national mampara, a crown that the arts sector had placed on his head long before the flag debacle. The dust had hardly settled on the monumental flag debacle and Mthethwa was again in the news for announcing his plans to change the name of the Afrikaans Taal Monument in Paarl. Once again, his plan was thwarted when Ramaphosa announced in parliament the name change would not take place.
Throughout his two-term tenure, Mthethwa has been ridiculed by the cultural and creative economies for being totally ignorant about his portfolio. At the commencement of the national lockdowns in March 2020, Mthethwa went onto Twitter and announced theatre in SA “is well and alive”.
There must have been a creative strand in the 1932 chromosomes. It can’t be a coincidence that in the midst of the 1932 Great Depression SA could produce such creative geniuses.
The announcement was met with a torrent of abuse from the arts sector, whose livelihoods were locked up, with only support from organisations such as the Theatre Benevolent Fund, the STAND Foundation and several artist-led formations. Mthethwa withdrew his comment and apologised to the arts sector. His apology came with no real solutions to assist the sector.
Amid the crisis, the Apartheid Museum temporarily shut its doors and retrenched several of its staff. Just Sets, one of the largest technical services companies in SA, closed down.
The acclaimed Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, which for 10 years was supported by philanthropist Eric Abrahams, permanently shut its doors. A photograph of the theatre’s signage being removed became a graphic obituary to the many organisations and individuals whose lives ended over the past two lockdown years.
There were very few obituaries that came from Mthethwa’s office. A man who earned a reputation from the arts sector for being the “minister of congratulations and condolences” became relatively silent. Mthethwa had earned this title because before the Covid-19 pandemic his social media platforms were dominated with messages of congratulations and condolences.
When theatre impresario Dawn Lindberg succumbed to Covid-19 the news of her untimely death was broadcast across all media. Tributes poured in from across the globe. Mthethwa was ice cold silent.
His silence was alarming. Lindberg was a member of his Living Legends project. Her contributions to SA theatre will remain legendary. She was an ardent critic of apartheid’s censorship laws. She fought for nonracism in SA theatre. When the Nationalist Party government banned her production Godspell, she was defiant and staged the work in SA’s neighbouring states. As soon as apartheid fell the very first production Lindberg restaged in SA was Godspell.
In defiance of apartheid’s Group Areas Act, Lindberg opened her home to multiracial audiences and casts. From her home she launched the careers of some of SA’s leading black, white, coloured and Indian artists. The Nationalist government could vigilantly monitor her but dared not get anywhere near the fury of SA’s first lady of the performing arts. Mthethwa’s silence at her death was like Jimmy Kruger’s coldness at Steve Biko’s death. He just could not care!
On June 12 this year, while a global community was sending messages of congratulations to SA playwright Athol Fugard on his 90th birthday, there was dismal silence from Mthethwa.
Fugard, whose political theatre has challenged apartheid and given dignity and humanity to ordinary South Africans, was once described by Time magazine as the world’s greatest living playwright.
It will never be known if Mthethwa’s communications aides had advised him to remain silent on Fugard’s 90th birthday. They probably suspected his congratulatory message would have received loads of flak for his negligence and failure to save the Fugard Theatre from closing down last year.
If Mthethwa’s department had any savvy it would have declared this the year of the “90s Legends” to celebrate, memorialise and iconise the contributions of not only Fugard but of many other SA cultural workers whose names are engraved in SA cultural history.
On the same day as Fugard’s birthday, legendary opera diva Mimi Coertse turned 90 as well. Her name may not resonate as loudly as Fugard’s, but here is a legend who not only took the world by storm in the prime of her career but also opened doors for many SA artists, black and white.
If theatre maker and ace storyteller Patrick Mynhardt were still alive he too would have celebrated his 90th birthday on the same day as Fugard and Coertse. While Mynhardt’s soul wanders in the spirit world, his iconic work Boy from Bethulie is still very much alive and is often reprised for the SA stage.
On June 20, Prof James Stephen Mzilikazi Khumalo would have turned 90. His contributions to classical African music are legendary. There is hardly a music scholar in SA who is not familiar with his history and his work. If playwright Gibson Kente were still alive he would have celebrated his 90th birthday on July 23.
Kente is known as the father of SA township theatre. Even though there may be blemishes on his personal life which were flashed across the media in his twilight years, his contribution to SA theatre cannot be erased from the country’s cultural history.
Juxtaposing the lives and careers of Fugard and Kente would have told a powerful story about apartheid and the making of protest theatre. Both Fugard and Kente had their roots in the Eastern Cape. One black, the other white, both used the power of imagination, creativity and words to tell stories that would bring apartheid’s security police out to harass them. Their works have catapulted the careers of some of SA’s most celebrated actors. Both their works are literary contributions in the struggle for SA’s liberation from apartheid.
Legendary photographer Peter Magubane’s 90th birthday was on January 18.
The late Miriam Makeba’s 90th birthday was on March 4. Market Theatre co-founder the late Barney Simon was born on April 13.
There must have been a creative strand in the 1932 chromosomes. It can’t be a coincidence that in the midst of the 1932 Great Depression SA could produce such creative geniuses. Perhaps, there’s hope too then that not all the babies born in the past two years of the PESP Depression will be goofballs. They too might end up becoming legendary icons.
There has never been a greater need to inspire a new vitality in the arts sector than there is now. Had Mthethwa’s wet dream of a Living Legends project only been led with greater vision, then this year of the 90s Legends might have kindled new hope, shed new light, opened new doors and accelerated the sector’s return to normality.
Ramaphosa has had the courage to halt Mthethwa’s flag project. He had the savvy to halt the name change of the Taal Monument. It wouldn’t cost him more than $4m to buy a whip to crack in a department that painstakingly diminishes any currency that the cultural and creativities can hold in building a better SA.
Ismail Mahomed is the director for the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. With more than 35 years in cultural leadership he is a multi-award winning cultural leader holding both SA and international accolades. In 2019, he invoked the Protected Disclosures Act and won his case when he exposed corruption at the Market Theatre Foundation when a council appointed by minister Nathi Mthethwa tried to pay themselves hefty bonuses in contravention of the Public Finances Management Act.