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.
For example, there has been an international campaign to ensure that culture is included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are to succeed the Millennium Development Goals after their 2015 deadline. (The MDGs aim to halve world poverty, ensure every child has a primary school education, reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, and so on). As advocates for culture to be recognised within the SDGs, we argue that, often culture--belief systems, values, worldviews, traditions, etc.--plays a role in why the development challenges exist or persist, and that strategies to address them, must consider the cultural dimension. Since these SDGs resonate most with a continent like Africa, by virtue of being part of these continental and international networks, one is able to intervene sometimes in the spaces where policy is being formulated, rather than the traditional African experience, which is that we are at the recipient end of policies made elsewhere, (and which we then tend to embrace because of the resources that happen to be attached to them).
This is a long answer to your question, but I hope that the theme of social justice activism has emerged as the common theme in my various practices as a playwright, a cultural policy activist, arts administrator and consultant.
JV: The reason I began with that rather banal opening question is to probe the tensions inherent in the relation between individual creative practice and cultural management--not least when it comes to negotiating with governmental agencies and national cultural bureaucracy. How do 'politics' animate or even motivate your cultural work?
MvG: I was born into an apartheid world determined by politics that affected every aspect of our lives: where were lived, which school we could go to, what job we could do, even whom we could and could not--love. 'Politics' also impacted on whose stories were told in museums, in theatres, in galleries, and indeed where these were located, who had access to them, and who governed and managed them. Inevitably then, 'politics'--in the same way as it needed to address and transform the legacies of apartheid in other sectors of our society (education, health, housing, etc.), needed to address the inequities in the arts and culture sector. From my high school years, I've always had a political awareness, and have worked with political formations such as the United Democratic Front, but I have never belonged to any political party. As an artist, I lean heavily towards political independence, to have the freedom rigorously to analyse and criticise--where necessary--any political or social formation without being prevented from doing so by virtue of being subjected to the discipline and political interests of a party or political entity.
You may wonder then how I came to be an advisor to the minister responsible for arts and culture in Nelson Mandela's first cabinet? After the unbanning of the ANC and other parties in 1989, and the movement towards a negotiated settlement, some of us in the arts and culture community said that as political change took place it was highly likely that arts and culture will be ignored--because the politicians would argue that the primary needs were to address apartheid's major legacies in education, healthcare, housing, employment and the like. For arts and culture to feature, it was up to us to place it on the agenda. So we formed the National Arts Coalition, the first time that an organisation that crossed ideological lines had come into being (not only within the progressive sector where black consciousness organisations and non-racial organisations had seldom worked together, but also between anti-apartheid cultural formations and cultural institutions that had been supported by the apartheid government). While we had been enemies (at least ideologically) during the apartheid era, we began to say that we now needed to come together to assert our independent interests as the arts and culture sector as it was likely that our respective "political sugar daddies" will be part of a new government that would serve interests other than ours. If we were serious about being part of a new democracy, then, as a sector, we had the right to shape policies, structures and strategies that would directly affect our sector, and to do this, we needed to have a strong, organised voice that would assert a politically-independent agenda. I was elected General Secretary of the National Arts Coalition, which was basically the role of national coordinator, or driver. We undertook research into international cultural policies, particularly in democratic contexts, so that by the time the elections were held in 1994 we had fully-fledged proposals for a post-apartheid arts and culture dispensation.
After the 1994 elections, we had a Government of National Unity with three parties that had won more than 10% of the vote entitled to cabinet positions. Each Minister was allowed to appoint two "Special Advisers" to help set up new departments and to develop policy for their respective areas, given that each ministry basically inherited an apartheid civil service. With the profile that we had developed by that time as the National Arts Coalition and my position in it as the Secretary General, the new Minister responsible for arts and culture (he was also responsible for science and technology) appointed me as one of his advisers.
While many of the organisations that comprised and led the Coalition had been in alliance with the ANC while it was banned, when we formed the National Coalition, we took a very firm non-partisan approach. So, when I was approached to be an adviser to the Minister, I went to the Coalition and asked for their guidance, as firstly, the Minister came from one of the junior political partners--the Inkatha Freedom...