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ART WRAP (article first published : 2005-01-1)

Another year, another wrap-up. Unfortunately, most of the arts headlines this year have not been about the exciting side of the arts but about administrative corruption and squabbles, some deeply damaging to institutions and individuals, some just nasty. But more of that later.

On the bright side we can look back to Charlize Theron's Oscar and forward to Darrell Roodt's Zulu language film Yesterday which had festival screenings around the world and has been chosen to be South Africa's official entry for next year's Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category. Locally it took a while for cinemas to realise that to show it only after township taxis had stopped running in the evening was a bad plan. Now we wait to see if it will indeed get an Oscar nomination next month.

Here in Pietermaritzburg, Christopher Duigan again flew the classical music flag to great effect, another Witness Hilton Arts Festival pulled in the crowds and the Tatham Art Gallery continued to champion the visual arts, though we are still waiting to see King Cetshwayo glaring at Queen Victoria across the stairwell. And headlines were made by the mysteriously missing drawings that belong to the gallery and once decorated a City Hall office.

The festive season line-up of shows and gigs in Durban this year has been hailed by arts publicist Illa Thompson as the best she has seen - and worked on - in 11 years. The majority have been well prepared and professionally put together and hard work seems to have paid off in terms of box-office returns.

But - and it is a big but - most of what has been successful in 2004 has come from the usual suspects. New faces, particularly grassroots arts practitioners making the leap into the mainstream, are conspicuous by their absence, largely because they cannot afford to take the first steps and subsidies are rarer than a hen's proverbial teeth. This means, particularly in the theatre industry, that KZN entertainment depends on a handful of people. As Thompson said bleakly, if they were all to be wiped out in a bus accident - involving one small bus - that would be it.

It doesn't help that the Playhouse has been in the news this year for administrative failure rather than for the nurturing of new talent. The CEO, Professor Caesar Ndlovu, and three senior members of his staff were suspended on full pay in May while an investigation into what had been going on behind the grubby and rundown facade was undertaken. This culminated in the dismissal of Ndlovu and chief financial officer Carlos da Costa earlier this month. However, they are said to be taking their case to the CCMA, which could well mean another long and unproductive wait before the matter is closed and what should be the province's arts flagship institution can move on. At least the Playhouse's artistic director, Linda Bukhosini, has seen to it that there have been shows in the venue this December - and theatre-goers are lauding the fact that once more the foyer is clean and welcoming. That makes a change.

Bukhosini's name has cropped up recently in another context - a vitriolic attack on her and her husband Bongani Tembe, CEO of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, after the orchestra performed in London's Barbican theatre with the London Symphony Orchestra. Bukhosini and Tembe were two of the soloists. Former South African John Allison, writing in The Times, panned their singing and accused them of promoting themselves over "the superb talent we should be hearing". He also accused Tembe of choosing the orchestra's programme for political reasons.

It's not possible to comment on singing I didn't hear, but the tone of Allison's piece - widely circulated by email in KZN straight after it appeared - suggests he had been primed by someone more in tune with the internal vicissitudes of KZN's arts politics than an ex-South African music critic based in the UK is likely to be. Success makes enemies and the tall poppy syndrome is alive and flourishing in KZN, but it might be as well to remember that, whatever their faults, without Tembe's on-going efforts this province, like the rest of South Africa, would certainly be without a full-time professional orchestra and without Bukhosini, the Playhouse would be in an even bigger mess than it is.

But this all pales into insignificance beside the drama of the year - the National Arts Council soap opera. Space prevents me from giving the whole agonising saga of incompetence, alleged dishonesty, backstabbing and political posturing that has bedevilled the NAC. It has all proved too much for the urbane Arts Minister, Dr Pallo Jordan, who finally pulled the plug on the whole mess and dissolved the NAC Board (which again included Bukhosini) earlier this month, tactfully referring to their "careless use and administration of public funds". He has called for nominations for a new body.

Seemingly inevitably, some of the sacked members who initially appeared willing to fall on their swords as instructed are heading off to the courts to fight their case, probably meaning more delays, more money wasted and more name-calling before any kind of settlement is reached. The case is due to come before the Cape High Court on January 28 and mercifully, the former NAC members have been refused NAC money to fight it. That would have been a major slap in the face for arts practitioners.

Already, the real victims of this sorry saga are the artists. It takes us back to the lack of young talent emerging in South Africa, because without the initial leg-up of financial assistance it is next to impossible to make a start in a notoriously uncertain profession. The NAC is supposed to be the body that channels government funding in the arts. To be effective, it must be able to determine which projects are worth funding, and to act decisively and speedily when applications are received. That simply hasn't happened.

The arts sector certainly has its share of whingers and backstabbers, but 2004 has seen plenty to whinge about. The main wish for 2005 has to be an efficient, well-run and honest National Arts Council. If that happens, maybe by this time next year, the picture will look rosier than it does now. If not, even barring bus accidents, it can only look worse. Margaret von Klemperer




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