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SPEECH & DRAMA ASS CHAIRMAN’S REPORT (article first published : 2008-03-24)

At the Speech and Drama Association of South Africa’s 65th Annual General Meeting on March 10 in Durban, Chairman Professor Mervyn McMurtry highlighted serious challenges facing the organisation:

“Sometimes, as you travel through our country, you may come across a heap of stones of all sizes, alongside a pathway or beside a country road. Look closely and you will see that they have been deliberately placed there, many covered with moss, over many, many years. If you do find such a pile, according to tradition you should never pass by without adding a stone of your own to the pile, because it is a tribute to the ancestors, called isivivane, which signifies, in isiZulu, ‘travel well’. As you place the stone, you should make the following plea: “Watch over us, you generations of the past.” These are said to be “lucky heaps”, and adding a stone brings not only protection on your journey, but good luck in the future. The word isivivane has another meaning too, both literal and figurative: it can also mean “a fund”, as in “a fund (or store) of wealth”.

I think that this is a very useful image for us to think about this evening, as I present the 65th annual report of the Speech and Drama Association. Why that image? Because I believe very deeply that, like the isivivane, the arts are humanity’s most enduring means of continuity, connecting generation to generation, and person with person. The arts are not a luxury; they are the stone, the good luck, the protection, and the fund that we extend to the people of our future.

Over the 65 years of our existence, every young person who presented an item, every teacher who taught and every parent who encouraged that entrant, every adjudicator who assessed the item, every principal who supported the festival, every school and studio who participated, and every committee member who gave freely of their time and expertise to the Association, the secretaries and festival convenors – all have, metaphorically, added another stone to the first one placed by Professor Elizabeth Sneddon in 1943, and in doing so they connected their present with the future, helping to build on the foundations of the Speech and Drama Association. And, by extension, each one was building on the foundation for the protection and continuation of the arts in our country.

I can but dream, but imagine if we had the resources to mount festivals in every school in the country and that every pupil not only participated but also was sponsored to enter by financial corporations, because they recognise that investing in funds for the arts is imperative. This country needs a society that is literate and imaginative, skilled and creative. Without the arts to foster the insights, empathy and communicative abilities of young people, they are likely to become culturally and socially disabled adults, as ignorant of the plight of their fellow human beings as they are of the necessity for protecting orchestras and dance companies.

Implicit within the ongoing mission of the Speech and Drama Association is Professor Sneddon’s belief that speech is the integration of audible and visible movement to externalise what one thinks and feels and that the physical control of one’s power to communicate is vital to life in terms of health, in terms of creativity and in terms of the acquisition of knowledge. In our endeavours we do not teach young people to speak, but to think, to feel and to live.

In the past nine years alone, the Association has hosted a total of 1,088: thousands and thousands of young people and their teachers have benefited from the experience. Each has been given a stone to protect them on their journey into the future. Yet, within a few years, the Association might not exist. In hard times, the arts are seen as a luxury.

The number of schools participating in the festival has dropped. In 2003, 143 festivals were held; in 2007, the number was 102. New schools join each year so the decrease in numbers is due to schools no longer being able to participate, mainly for financial reasons. At the same time, the grants and subsidies we have received have not only decreased but have become more and more difficult to obtain, despite the indefatigable efforts of Vyvienne Ball and the members of the Executive Committee. Therefore the Association has had to subsidise more and more entries. Who to ask for help? Despite continual appeals and applications, we do not receive support from the Department of Education or the National Arts Council. Both applaud our activities; each states that we should apply to the other for funding. We – a non-profit organisation – were advised that all entries should be free.

We are not alone in this: as you know, the cost of living and of running any organisation, has increased dramatically and daily. At the beginning of each year we face a deficit, a deficit that grows annually: in 2003 it amounted to approximately R20,000, nearly R50,000 in 2005; this year it could have been more than R60,000. As disturbing is the fact that our reserves are annually being reduced to make up that deficit. Our finances, to rephrase the opening image, have become not just a stone, but a millstone which threatens to stop the progress of our journey completely.

The choice is simple but difficult: is it morally right to refuse to subsidise those schools and those pupils who cannot afford to enter, to subsidise workshops for teachers, to no longer award bursaries to deserving pupils, and so save the Association more than R10,000 a year? Knowing the difficulties that schools and parents are currently facing, in 2007 we did not increase entry fees. Again the choice is a hard one: that meant we could not raise payments to adjudicators, but we had to increase travel and accommodation costs for adjudicators to try to match their spiralling costs. I wish that the following sign could be displayed in every major financial corporation and government department in our country: “The less that is invested in arts and culture for the youth of today, the more should be put aside for prisons for the people of tomorrow’” (Ironically, I first came across that slogan when reading of the 1996 Culture and Tourism Conference.)

And that is why the Speech and Drama Association of South Africa has to show why it is so relevant. We have an essential role to play, as I genuinely believe that Drama is not for any one, Drama is for everyone, that Drama does not teach you any thing, Drama teaches you everything. The Speech and Drama Association was founded by Professor Elizabeth Sneddon in the conviction that Speech and Drama is “a basic tool in the development of all children’s powers of thought, imagination and communication”. What can you do to help? How can you place a stone to maintain the foundation we have built?

If you likewise believe that each individual’s power to communicate is vital to life, then you know we need to extend that as both a gift and as a necessity to every single person in this country. We need everyone to know, from cabinet ministers to parents, that the ability to communicate and to empathise is essential in every career, from counselling a victim of crime to advertising a new product, in commerce, law, teaching, arts administration, media management, community work, health care, social work, tourism, the ministry, besides the entertainment industry. I know the intrinsic value of any experiences of the arts, of music and dance and drama, I know that they celebrate, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, what it means to be alive. But I know that I will not get funding for the Association or convince cabinet ministers or education authorities or parents of the value of the arts in education by saying they have intrinsic value.

I – we - have to say why it is that no-one can claim to be educated who lacks basic knowledge and skills in the arts, why it is that to deny young people experience of the arts is to disable and alienate them, why our country, every country, has to develop the capacities of young people, not only to earn a living in a vastly complex world, but to have a life rich in meaning. We know the intrinsic value of the arts, but we have to be plain and firm in convincing others of their instrumental value as well; that is, they have worth in and of themselves and they achieve a number of clear purposes: to present ideas and issues, to teach or persuade, to entertain, to design, to plan, to beautify.

We have to say why they benefit society. We must stress that an education in the arts develops the self-esteem, the self-discipline, co-operation, and self-motivation necessary for success in life. That the arts are powerful tools for understanding human experience, past and present, tools for learning to adapt to and respect others’ ways of thinking and expressing themselves, tools in making decisions in situations where there are no simple answers, tools for communicating thoughts and feelings, tools indispensable to freedom of expression. That there is the strongest possible connection between the arts, the lives of young people, and the world they live in, that the arts are the best possible investment in the future of not only our children, but also of our country. We have to encourage schools to participate who could but do not, we have to tell donors that they can assist those schools who cannot, and that to assist us is to invest in the future. That is what you can, and must, do. We have to say these things over and over and over.

To every single person who has contributed in any way to the Speech and Drama Association between 1943 and 2008, to every person who has shown or been shown a new path, a new way, to every person who has thereby added a stone to the fund and foundation of the arts of their today and everyone’s tomorrows, to every one who has connected person with person and generation with generation, I say: “Travel well, may the generations of the past watch over you as you put down a stone for the benefit of others.” Thank you all for your kind attention. Professor Mervyn McMurtry




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