Cape Town was recently declared a Unesco Creative City of Design suggesting it is building on its already extensive cultural assets. However in recent weeks three important institutions critical to advancing the public life in the city have faced major crisis. It is vital for democratic societies to have such spaces. These provide opportunities for diverse energies with platforms to present work and create contexts for dialogue and exchange. Why is the shrinkage happening? What could be done to improve the situation? What can we learn from newer and smaller spaces doing equally important work, often on the margins?
Shrinking Space for Cultural Innovation and Development?
In May/June 2018 three well established organizations with considerable track records faced challenges that signal a closing down of the public sphere in the city. This is an extremely worrying development. I have previously written about the Craft and Design Institute, a 17 years old non profit which was established to develop the sector in the Western Cape, and which received considerable government support over the years for its sterling work. It reached a severe crisis after a sudden decision by the regional government to stop its institutional grant, together with bureaucratic bungling by a national government department, leading to non payment of services rendered. Thus one of the most established, effective creative industry bodies in the country critical to the development of craft and design in Cape Town and Western Cape has been forced to significantly and rapidly downsize.
In June, at the opening of its 20th year running as an acclaimed documentary film festival in Africa, Encounters heard that it would not be receiving its usual institutional grant from the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) - a statutory body tasked with film development. As a space for the development of the documentary film genre, with screenings and workshops for filmmakers held in Cape Town and in Johannesburg, Encounters is an important fixture in the South African and African film landscape. It managed to avert financial disaster through a rapid crowd funding exercise. However questions still remain about why the NFVF did not renew the grant of a successful body with a national and continental footprint.
Chimurenga, a "Pan-African platform of writing, art and politics" which brings out the journal Chronic and has been involved in various interventions including the cutting edge festival Pan African Space Station (PASS) has been forced out of its premises in the central city. The space which once held an African market and restaurant is, like many central city spaces, being gentrified. It is one of a handful of organizations in Cape Town which has been promoting cutting edge Pan-African cultural ideas and innovations and furthering dialogue.
Over the last decade a number of other important spaces that did work which was focused on bringing Africa into dialogue with itself and was aiming at developing important voices in the city, country and continent have closed or moved out of the city. The African Arts Institute closed after its own funding challenges, Arterial Network's HQ left the city, Pro Helvetia Africa (with its strong support for continental work) moved to Joburg. At the same time the Africa Centre which has been key to many innovations including PASS, Infecting the City and Badlisha Poetry, has had to cut back its work. Other important music venues such as Zula Bar, Straight no Chaser/Mahogany Room and Tagores have closed. Even District Six Museum, one of the most significant community museums in the country has faced ongoing challenges to survive and a few years back also hit a major crisis.
These were important gathering spaces, especially for those of colour, for cultural diversity, cultural development and dynamism. The challenge for survival over the last few years speaks to a slowly squeezing, in this region and city, of democratic spaces, without any foreseeable plans to address the issue This slow closing down represents a diminishment of a significant brain's trust in the city and is especially worrying for a city trying to project itself as a cultural capital.
Why are some of these Spaces shrinking?
There are a number of reasons for this shrinking of democratic space. First there is a challenging funding scenario in the country. There is just not enough public money flowing through the system. The grant making from the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Government are relatively small and comes from two pots - the cultural and economic departments in each sphere. A significant part of cultural funding from both these goes to centralized organizations, with the Western classical arts being the only ones getting ringfenced and committed funds for ongoing institutional support. At a national government level, money is also tight and comes from a variety of places. Some of these spaces, including the more resourced NFVF have been recently hit by corruption scandals. The other more resourced body which arts and heritage bodies are reliant on is the National Lottery Distribution Fund - long an problematic organisation, made worse by arbitrary changes to legislation. Its current change of rules is again destabilizing institutions dependent on consistent grant making.
The lack of consistent public funding for important institutions of a diverse nature is a critical problem in South Africa. This is made worse by the challenge of ineffective co-operation between different levels of government and between government.
Funding was less of an issue a decade and a half back when there was a great deal of international donor money coming through Cape Town, often through agencies attached to European governments - these included the British Council, The French Institute, the Goethe Institute, the Netherlands Embassy, Pro Helvetia (Swiss Arts Council) and various Scandinavian government linked funds. The global economic crisis, and challenges at the home front, has forced these to significantly cut back on activities. In addition South Africa is no longer the priority it once was as it emerged out of Apartheid. Moreover the highly segregated nature of Cape Town has led to many international agencies preferring to run programmes in Johannesburg where there is a higher proportion of edgy black youth or more diverse audiences to attend its activities.
Second there is a lack of state support for cultural spaces. One of the biggest line items for institutions is rental. This is difficult at the best of time, but the rising real estate costs in Cape Town are pricing organizations out of key moneyed areas, which are also statistically safer in term of crime. Government is particularly bad at providing its own, often considerable, property for cultural use. This is a national problem as Newtown also shows. Cape Town has been generally bad at providing such spaces and making them work, as the case of Guga S'thebe in Langa has shown, where despite there being plans in place and a newly built extension, the Centre is still not running effectively. The Cape Town City Hall too has gone through successive visioning exercises to change it into a cultural spaces since the early 2000s. However despite spending significant amounts of money on feasibilities, planning and lost starts, the City Council under the DA has consistently not made decisions on the space changing into a generative cultural space. More recently it has made it impossible for festivals previously using the City to afford or book it.
Some of the challenges are clearly linked to the DA's more conservative policies and practises, which has profiled developers and generally supported cultural activities linked to its traditional donor base - middle class white interests. This can be seen with its considerable support to projects associated with Media 24, such as the Cape Town Symphony and the Cape Town Carnival. Further its support of aggressive developer friendly approaches has led to increasing property prices. Lastly bylaws against alcohol sales have significantly impacted on live music venues. The latter have also been impacted by an increase in apartments in the central city, and costs linked to sound proofing that venue owners have had to incur on rented properties. The City’s approach is a far cry from the more bottom up approaches it took in the late 90s when its mindset was more facilitative.
Third is the lack of any credible lobbies for culture. Scarce resource lack tends to foster high competition for very small pots. Cultural bodies are scared to challenge the state for fear of loosing favor because of the strongly clientelist culture that exists in the country. Lobbying is especially difficult for progressive organizations in the Cape who do not have political allies within the more conservative DA. In instances where arts bodies do lobby and are successful, these are usually very specific interest groups with clear mandates and long term structures - such as the court case won by the SA Roadies Association against the national Department of Arts and Culture (DAC). When wins are made then they are often only in the interests of these lobbies rather than cultrual development broadly.
But its not all bad, is it?
But of course some would say nothing is for ever. new things emerge constantly and this is a natural order of things Cape Town has seen a range of new initiatives. These take place in three forms:
First is philanthropy driven initiatives like A4 Arts Foundation, Norval Foundation and Zeitz MOCAA, which have significantly changed the landscape. These are all driven by private money (except with the latter which is a partnership with a business entity). They are all in beautiful new spaces in moneyed areas. Its not surprising that these are all three, visual arts entities, functioning at a time when African art is especially buoyant and there is a lot of money going around to buy art globally. Thus these bodies are linked to international flows of capital. The latter two spaces are relatively traditional arts presentation bodies charging high entrance fees and supplementing their incomes with posh restaurants. It is only A4 that has made access a priority and has actively attempted to be space for experimentation and inclusion.
The other two types of new initiatives are more modest. These are performing arts spaces in marginal areas and include the Delft Rent Office/ Rainbow Arts Organisation (RAO) and the Makhukanye Art Room in Khayelitsha. Rental is extremely low, each organization runs on very little financing and both projects have had charismatic leadership. The former organization has been savvy at raising funds, but it is still a challenging project after the death of its founder, while the successor was more recently a victim of violent crime. Both projects are vital initiatives in their areas, but function precariously spatially and institutionally. However their presence at this time provides much optimism. Interesting both are involved in the arena of "Township Theatre", which has a long history in the region and has been buoyed by such important spaces as the Zabalaza Festival and Magnet Theatre Trust - each providing valuable support through platforms, training, mentorship and access to a broader community of peers as well as to opportunities.
The other type are modest festivals and events which are mobile and use existing spaces. These include the Jazz in the Native Yards project which happens on an occasional basis and provides a much needed space outside the center for important musicians. It has taken a distinctly decentralized approach and is well supported for its exceptional programming. There are also regular modest events like the Black Filmmakers Film Festival (taking place monthly) and the Muizenberg Festival. These are important events which are lighter weight as far as organization and financing goes. Although they are low scale attracting relatively modest audiences, they attract an important core grouping and are concerned with long term empowerment of their constituencies. These two types are a response to the push towards entrepreneurialism of cultural projects promoted by the national Department of Arts and Culture on one hand, but more importantly a response to tough times, and are borne from a desire to be sustainable in their work. They show that organizations can be lean and mean, that there are niche audiences to draw on, that one can be developmental and compact, and still have deep impacts. Of course this sort of success does not absolve government for its responsibility in delivering at least a minimum in support for cultural spaces and facilities.
Obviously important though these initiatives are I would still argue that it is important for a diverse set of institutions - at all scales and throughout cities to make cities vibrant and provide space for cultural development. The challenges faced by long running institutions like CDI, Encounters and Chimurenga is not a good sign. These are projects who have over time developed strong long term impacts and have been building consistent and wide footprints. Their closure or downsizing would create a significant hole in an already challenged cultural ecosystem in a deeply segregated city at odds with itself.
What could be done?
One of the key challenges for cultural institutions is the lack of co-ordination between different levels of government. This has bedeviled a great deal of improvements of the funding ecosystem. The draft revised White paper for Arts and Culture provides some recommendations to improve this: it suggests guidelines for intergovernmental co-operation and for greater civil society interaction. However to make these proposals implementable, it does require first political will, administrative willingness and capabilities, as well as a sector which is prepared to engage beyond narrow lobbying.
But it may be a while for this to happen. Until then work is needed on all fronts to unblock the system. If the regional and local government were up to it, it could be looking at its own strategies, processes and staff capabilities. It would need to reconsider its current funding mechanisms and the amount of money it put into the system. However this is not likely, considering the situation outlined above and its particular political ideologies.
Cape Town is an extremely fractured society and its unlikely that broad based lobbying is possible - it is just too difficult to get ALL people to work with each other. However it is possible for smaller groupings of like minded progressive institutions in the Cape to join forces and work more strategically, slowly bringing others on board. Such networks could leverage lobbying power, working with other powerful individuals who have influence with the DA or/and could take a leaf out of the book of the Roadies Association and use legal means to pressure the state, Both the City of Cape Town and the Provincial Government have existing policies that could be used by savvy grouping to show contradictions. The alternatives of course are clear - fight a lonely fight or else give up. The country has fought too long for its freedoms, too much work has been done to build institutions to take up the latter just yet. At the same time, its useful to look at the organizations who are managing to weather the storms and try to learn what makes them able to continue, slowly and steadily.
Of course the abiding question still remains - can Cape Town claim a title such as Unesco's Creative City designation, but do little to support its cultural ecosystem and to further the potential for cultural development? Considering the deeply divided nature of Cape Town, the city badly needs a vibrant public sphere. What actions are needed? Who will take them?