Like his sector in general, Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile has had an interesting year. Two landmark occurrences influenced public perceptions of the arts and officialdom in South Africa – one positive and one negative.
The first was the opening of the cutting-edge Soweto Theatre, the first world-class venue to be built in a township. In May, Mashatile presided over the opening of this state-of-the-art, state-sponsored playhouse in what was widely considered a triumph for post-apartheid culture.
Less impressive was the official response to artist Brett Murray`s depiction of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed in The Spear painting that was exhibited at Johannesburg`s Goodman Gallery, also in May.
It was through pressure from the ANC that both the Goodman Gallery and City Press removed images of Murray`s artwork from public view after the party encouraged its members to boycott the gallery and the newspaper. Not a shining moment for freedom of speech, regardless of the quality of Murray`s art.
Yet as the furore ensued and ANC stalwarts terrorised both the gallery and the artist, Mashatile did appeal for greater dialogue around the rights of artists versus the right to dignity of those portrayed. Observers have pointed out that Mashatile`s response was probably in step with his place in the anti-Jacob Zuma camp; at Mangaung he supported Kgalema Motlanthe for the ANC presidency.
That aside, the powers that be did use the fracas around The Spear to launch the social cohesion summit that took place in Kliptown, Soweto, in June. Its theme was “Creating a caring and proud society”. Critics have claimed that the initiative served little purpose and had no real follow-up or tangible consequences. In early December, however, Zuma did receive a report and declaration on the summit from Mashatile in Pretoria.
Most damning of the minister was a spate of qualified audits in October by the auditor general regarding many of the arts and culture department`s entities. Officials were condemned for not attending to their jobs with diligence and the department was criticised for lacking strong leadership and discipline.
Among them, the South African Heritage Resources Agency was found to be in financial disarray. And when millions of rands worth of art was stolen from the Pretoria Art Museum in November, the department and the heritage agency were damned for not adequately protecting South Africa`s heritage assets.
Otherwise, the suave minister and Gauteng ANC chairperson was a key player in the power-jockeying in the lead-up to Mangaung. But that only served to detract from, rather than enhance, his treasured position in the arts.