A full forensic investigation will assist in restoring public trust in the agency
By Edward Tsumele
If anyone goes to the National Arts Council offices in Newtown right now, at its reception, you would probably be faced by an unsightly appearance: Dejected, unwashed, hungry and angry artists. They have been camping there for more than a week now. The reason is, they are waiting to be paid what belongs to them, money from the Presidential Economic Stimulus Package (PESP), that Treasury set aside last year in October to assist the Covid-19, hard hit sector. The sector is among the most devastated by the several lockdowns necessitated by the need to control the spread of the killer virus.
Ironically for most of them, If not all of them, the aggrieved artists that is, they have been granted this money by the very same NAC. But the very same government agency is failing to either send contracts to artists to sign so that they can get paid, or has already received the signed contracts from the artists, but for some inexplicable reasons, is unable to meet its own deadlines to pay the artists, or sufficient numbers of artists in time.
This face of starving, angry and frustrated artists is also a face of the shame of a failing government agency, the NAC. Anyone who has interacted with the arts sector, since this agency was formed in 1996, will tell you that it has always faced one crisis or another, every five years, or even in between.
Artists have a plethora of complaints about this agency, especially those from under resourced backgrounds, and certainly not connected to powerful arts lobby groups or politically. It has always been seen, rightly or wrongly, as an agency that assists those in the sector that are better organized, better resourced and well connected, and never an ordinary struggling Mpho from Thembisa, or Nkensani from Malamulele.
Some have applied for bursaries that they rightly qualify for and yet, are not granted because they did not put together the budget correctly, or for a myriad of other reasons. This is an agency that has dished bursaries for years to students at tertiary institutions, and one hopes by now they pretty much know how much does a post graduate degree in creating writing would cost, and how much a student would need. Why turn down a bursary based on some stupid reason such as your budget items are not OK?
Some artists have applied for funding for arts projects that have potential to create employment for the artist and oters, but have left out something stupid such as two recommendation letters from some important community leader, and therefore get turned down, and are never followed up by the overpaid staff to see how they could assist such people.
Today If you come across a struggling artist who has a brilliant idea for promoting visual art, theatre or literature, and advise them to approach the NAC for funding, they look at you as if you are mad. And you cannot blame them.
Now today all these inefficiencies have come out into the open for all to see, and it took a mere R300 million (thank goodness not R3billion) gift from the President and Treasury to reveal what has been the rot for all these 25 years since the agency has been formed.
Artists have always known the rot exists, not only within the NAC, but all the other funding agencies such as The National Lotteries Commission, a subject of a current Special Investigation Unit (SIU), the Media Diversity and Development Agency (MDDA), the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF).
And today, we all look surprised when artists decide to camp at NAC offices to demand that they pay them what rightly belongs to them. These artists are not made, including some of the most well known and respected in the country and abroad, such as soprano Sibongile Mngoma, the President of two influential arts organizations, I’m4theArts, and South African United Creative and Cultural Industry Federation (SAUCCIF), both not so coincidentally, formed during the lockdown as artists united in order to get a hearing on artists’ issues during this difficult and uncertain times of Covid-19, and beyond.
And the fact that the new NAC Board is new, and has inherited some of the problems from the previous council, is not helping matters. It is a pity that they have been dosed with a baptism of fire before they get an opportunity to demonstrate whether they have the spine to deal with the mammoth demons that have long been bedeviling this agency.
And quite contrary to some shock from others who were not quite aware of the problems there, when last week the acting CEO NAC revealed what many had long believed was the case, and that is that some companies in which some council members have a financial stake and direct interest in the process are getting funded.
And how does the NAC get itself out of this big dirty, smelling hole?
The current newly appointed council should do themselves a big favour by requesting the President to sign a proclamation for the SIU to move in, just like he has just done with the National Lotteries Commission, to investigate the rot.
Where to start is simple. They (SIU) must investigate a selection of 10 projects that got the most money and another selection of 10 projects that got middle of the road funding, for the past 10 years.
The SIU should specifically look at who are the project managers of those projects and who they may be related to within the NAC, or who among the previous Board members had a financial stake in those projects. The SIU must also look at whether those projects ever happened, and must not make the mistake of believing the reports produced and presented by NAC project managers, for they could be cooked.
This should be pretty easy to follow the money. For example, If a person applied for mounting an exhibition, surely there must be some trace of such an exhibition having taken place, eg. posters advertising the exhibition, press reviews, venue bookings evidence. The same will apply to when someone applied for funding for a music festival, funding for a book script, a theatre script or some sort of research.
This process must be followed with the MDDA and the NFVF, for they too are not that different from the situation of the NAC, as for years these funding agencies have also been implicated in improprieties that have not been properly investigated.
This process will not only help restore trust in the NAC, but will assist in restoring the integrity of hard working and honest officials in these institutions, but then reveal and chuck out the rotten potatoes among them. One would be surprised to see what will come out of such a forensic investigation.
Anything short of this is going to be hard for the public in general, whose money is at stake with these agencies, and the artists in particular, to ever again have faith in these agencies going forward.
.Edward Tsumele is a veteran award winning arts journalist of over 20 industry experience, is Editor and Publisher of CITYLIFE/ARTS/citylifearts.co.za