Cultural Policies and Cultural Activism: The South African Experience

By Hutchison, Yvette; Vickery, Jonathan | Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal, Annual 2016 | Go to article overview

Cultural Policies and Cultural Activism: The South African Experience


Hutchison, Yvette, Vickery, Jonathan, Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal


JV: Mike, you are an executive director, a cultural consultant, a UNESCO adviser, and also a national playwright. How do these roles--if they do--fit together? (1)

MvG: They fit together through activism. Each of them allows me a different form of activism. As a playwright, I explore the human condition in post-apartheid South Africa. Prior to 1994 (which is when our historic elections were held), the theatre work I engaged in was very much part of the anti-apartheid struggle, taking place in community halls, in church halls and as part of political rallies rather than formal theatre spaces. Now, much of my work is done at the country's leading festivals and I served as the Associate Playwright of Artscape, one of the six nationally-subsidised theatres, from 2011 to the end of 2014. This has allowed me as a playwright--with a commitment to social justice--to ask some of the hard questions of our society in transition. We may have defeated apartheid, but our society has become more unequal with high levels of poverty and unemployment (at least 25%, by official definitions).

After our first democratic elections and with Nelson Mandela as President, there was a real reluctance on the part of the arts community to ask hard questions--to be seen to be in some kind of opposition to a government that enjoyed political and moral legitimacy. For me, though, as we were a society in transition, we needed to keep asking the hard questions, keep reflecting our society back to itself in order to ensure that we deal with our major challenges. If we, as artists--or citizens--retreat from that public space, we allow others to define democracy in their self-serving image, and we'll wake up in 20 years' time in a society in decline wondering how we got there. So, with freedom of creative expression now being guaranteed in our country's Constitution for the first time, I believe that the best way to exercise and promote freedom of expression is to practice it. Hence the kind of theatre I do is about putting on stage the kind of things that people might feel anxious about, but are too afraid to voice them in public for fear of being labelled racists, or 'anti-transformation', or whatever labels political elites may use to suppress criticism. Theatre, then, allows me to be a social activist, in a particular way, but it also provides me with credibility as an artist, and which informs a second practice, that of being an arts administrator and a cultural policy activist.

By virtue of my practice as a playwright, I understand and know intimately the challenges of being an artist. This informs my activities and insights into cultural policy, and what needs to change and be implemented at macro-levels with regard to policy, strategy and funding, to change and make more sustainable the practice of an artist at a micro-level.

In my capacity as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute, I have a platform that allows me a voice within our national cultural and political discourse. With the experience I've acquired in South Africa, I've been able to work with partners across the African continent in advocacy and related issues, most recently assisting the government of Namibia to develop an updated arts, culture and heritage policy. The roots of this experience are in my having been appointed as an advisor to the first minister responsible for arts and culture after the 1994 elections, when I had the privilege of helping to formulate post-apartheid cultural policies. And that has also influenced by appointment as a UNESCO expert on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, assisting governments to formulate policies and strategies aligned to this Convention that promotes international trade in creative goods and services. This, and my work as the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network--a pan-African civil society network operating in the arts and culture sphere across more than 40 countries--also provided me with regional and international platforms to learn and to be engaged with policy and related issues at a global level. …

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