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Thursday, July 1, 2021


The Speech and Drama Association of South Africa (SADSA)’s Annual Chairman’s Report, presented by Mervyn McMurtry at their AGM recently, makes compelling reading and it was felt that this should have exposure beyond the members of the Speech and Drama Association. As well as his narrative account of the activities of the Association during the past year, his Report focuses on the current state of the performing arts in South Africa.


“A nation that does not support and encourage its theatre is – if not dead – dying,” wrote Federico Garcia Lorca, the internationally acclaimed Spanish playwright and poet.

The devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has affected cultural life globally, and different nations have responded in a variety of ways to “support and encourage” their arts and culture, most with limited success. My focus in the first half of this report will be on the current state of the arts, and the performing arts in particular, in South Africa, and how we as the Speech and Drama Association have had to respond and adapt.

It is, therefore, with mixed feelings of pride and trepidation that I present my report for the Speech and Drama Association of South Africa for the year 2020-2021, at its seventy-eighth Annual General Meeting.

In 2018 the arts and culture industry contributed 63 billion rand to the Gross Domestic Product, according to the South African Cultural Observatory report; in November 2020, their report warned that the performing arts are “the sector most vulnerable to the lockdown” through the prohibition on public gatherings, and that 95% of respondents had experienced loss or indefinite postponement of work.

Yet, on 15 January, 2021, the Minister of Sport, Art and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, tweeted that South African theatre is alive and well with performing arts institutions of the department such as @ArtscapeTheatre, @MarketTheatre, @PACOFS3, @DurbanPlayhouse, @statetheatre and @WindybrowTheatr [sic] offering an array of indigenous drama and dance etc.

Within days, an online petition, #NathiMustGO, was launched by various artists, requesting that Mthethwa resign by 31 January 2021. Failing his resignation, they called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to replace Mthethwa. Artists from different sectors of the entertainment industry added their signatures. Gregory Maqoma, one of those organizing the petition, responded to Mthethwa’s claims:

“Not only is this tweet patently untrue – these theatre have had generally dark stages for months due to lockdown regulations… the tweet (now removed) reflects how ignorant the minister is of the theatre landscape in the country and underscores his lack of understanding of, and empathy with the enormous losses within the arts sector over the last ten months.”

The call for the resignation was not only owing to the minister’s inaccurate and insensitive statement about the state of theatre and his “inability to deal with how Covid-19 has impacted [the] sector” but also, Maqoma continued, because the tweet reflected the long experience of the minister as “incompetent, aloof and out of touch”.

A week after Mthethwa’s original tweet, a spokesperson for the minister issued a statement on Twitter, claiming that the minister wished to convey his remorse for the “offensive” tweet, and that the department was fast-tracking further relief funding for the creative arts industry.

Even for those who may have benefited from relief funding, for the majority it was too late. In Cape Town alone, the Fugard Theatre closed its doors in March 2021, following a number of significant venues that have closed permanently in the past year or are currently closed, including The Courtyard, Playhouse and Theatre on the Bay. The Baxter Theatre has been intermittently shut owing to being denied state funding. Venue hire and streaming performances have been a means to gain alternative sources of revenue, but cannot meet the cost of running theatres. As playwright and author Nadia David wrote on Twitter in response to the closure of the Fugard Theatre:

“Is there any way to quantify this ongoing loss? There’s the material – jobs, livelihoods – and psychic – stories, gathering, the art of making meaning, audiences and performers together. What will be left in a year? In two? It’s not just sad, it’s tragic.”

The pandemic and the lockdown measures in place are causes of such closures, and both have impacted the lives and livelihoods of those involved in all the arts; nevertheless, as theatre director Louis Viljoen maintains, theatre in South Africa is “an industry decimated by apathy and neglect as much the damage wrought by Covid-19”.

In 2020, the Presidential Economic Stimulus Package of R300-million was earmarked to assist employment retention and grants for artists, and cultural and heritage sector workers. The culture ministry followed the usual procedure, by transferring the amount to the National Arts Council, an independently managed entity of the ministry, for distribution. Applications were, as in the past, called for, assessed, contracts were issued to successful applicants, and funds disbursed.

On 1 March 2021 between 30 and 50 actors, dancers, singers, poets, musicians, puppeteers, visual artists and crafters started protesting at the National Arts Council offices in Newtown, Johannesburg, calling for an investigation into the government departments responsible for the promotion and preservation of arts and culture, demanding transparency concerning the whereabouts of the funding, and further demanding that the culture ministry make its list of beneficiaries public. The protestors maintain that the NAC made a unilateral decision to revoke or revise contracts, that allocated funding was reduced or cut despite the fact that some artists and companies had already begun working on funded projects, and also that funds may have been misappropriated. At the same period in time, the media reported that the R300 million had “disappeared” from the NAC’s funds.

One of the protestors, the well-known opera star, Sibongile Mngoma, began a sit-in within the offices. Further protest action took place at the Artscape Plaza in Cape Town, where a variety of performances were presented in solidarity with those in Johannesburg. More sit-ins followed in arts and culture offices and centres in Kimberley and Bloemfontein.

At the end of March, the NAC stated that it had distributed R86,4 million to 516 beneficiaries, and that the outstanding 862 beneficiaries would be paid from the remaining R216 million. The culture ministry, however, claims that the original amount appears to be accounted for, but that the NAC had “overcommitted” a further R260 million, and that this “gross mismanagement of funds” prompted the suspension of the council’s CEO and CFO until an investigation into the funding body had been completed.

After sixty days, the sit-in at the NAC offices ended at the end of April, following an announcement by Busisiwe Mkhwebane, the Public Protector, that her office would mediate in the conflict between the artists, the NAC, and the departments within the Ministry of Sport, Arts and Culture.

The current situation is further indication of the culture ministry’s failure over the years, long before 2019 when the Arts and Culture and the Sports departments were merged. A part of the issue for artists is the appointment of ministers; as curator Palesa Suthane claims: “We are tired of being represented by placeholders, people who are not qualified art practitioners.” The first post-apartheid arts and culture minister in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet was Ben Ngubane, a medical doctor. In 2014, Mthethwa was appointed to the Arts and Culture Department under former president Jacob Zuma’s administration, and appointed again in Ramaphosa’s new cabinet in 2019. Petitions drawn up calling on Ramaphosa to replace Mthethwa with a minister who is “creditable [and] from civil society who is respected by the arts community” in 2019 were ignored, as has the most recent. To playwright and arts activist Mike van Graan, Mthethwa’s tenure has been one of the worst of any arts minister, and unfortunately, he’s been the longest-serving minister. Having been responsible for the police who committed the Marikana massacre, he should have never been reappointed to Cabinet, but that he was allocated to the arts portfolio shows how little government generally cares about the sector.

It is a select few who appear to benefit from the grants, and due process and good governance procedures appear to be ignored. So, to give one example, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was granted R36-million over three years to, among other musical endeavours, make an album with Zuma. The grant was made without the necessary checks and balances, and the Dr Joseph Shabalala Foundation, which is linked to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, denied they would be making an album with the former president.

On 13 May 2021, Mthethwa presented his address on the occasion of the budget vote to members of parliament. In his speech he expressed appreciation for the fact that the African Union had declared 2021 as the year for ‘Arts, Culture and Heritage: Levers for building the Africa we want’, repeated the data from the South African Cultural Observatory quoted earlier indicating the extent of the loss or indefinite postponement of work in the performing arts sector, and ended by pledging to serve the people of this country with the sport, arts and culture they need as a nation. His address made no mention of the protests, nor the reasons for the protests, nor the ongoing calls for his resignation, nor the investigation into the CEO and CFO of the NAC.

In the past, the Speech and Drama Association has benefited from grants from the National Lotteries Commission. During the year covered by this report, the Association was requested by the NLC to resubmit its application for funding, due to the Covid lockdown. Professor Alfred Nevhutanda, the current chairperson, and the NLC have been embroiled in controversy since his first appointment by the African National Congress, with reports of corruption, nepotism, and maladministration. He has refused to resign, despite the findings of an investigation into the NLC, and his tenure extended beyond the statuary maximum of two five-year terms by Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel. In November 2020, Ramaphosa mandated the Special Investigating unit to investigate NLC corruption; even so, questionable grants of Lottery funds amounting to millions of rand have continued. On 11 May 2021, the Congress of South African Trade Unions called for a public audit of all NLC funding programmes and for lifestyle audits of NLC board members.

As we know, the performing arts are collaborative. Unlike the literary and visual arts, the writer in his ivory tower or the painter in his studio, dance and theatre and music performances are created by numerous contributors, both on and off the stage or concert platform. They are, of necessity, made by a community, and are performed live through the involvement of many contributors, from the playwrights, choreographers, composers, to the performers who bring their works to life, to the designers and technicians and publicists and managers who support the process to its fulfilment. The performing arts are, of necessity, expensive.

But, as I wrote recently on the Hilton Festival support page:

“The arts are not and have never been a luxury… they are the means of connection between person and person, and continuity between our generation and the next generation… they are a right for all and should never be a privilege for the few… they are the mirror that reflects the heart and soul of a nation, its hopes and its fears, its failings and its triumphs…”

That statement is, of course, based on my, and on our experience in the performing arts, now and in the past. One of the courses I taught and from which I gained so much on so many levels was ancient Greek Theatre. And, again, there is another lesson to be learnt from the Greeks, not only about and from their theatre, but also from their sense of community, and individual responsibility to enriching communal life.

The prizes at the annual festival competitions in Athens were awarded jointly to the playwright and to the choragus (chorêgos in original Greek, derived from the word for the chorus in Greek drama; the closest equivalent in English would be ‘sponsor’). The choragus was selected by the chief magistrate and the tribes of the Athenians from those citizens with great wealth. It was not only an honour to be appointed as a choragus, but also regarded as a duty to use private wealth for public good. The state paid the salaries of the main actors and flute player for each production to be presented at the forthcoming festival in that year. It was the honour and duty of the choragus to finance all other aspects relating to the production: the salaries, and board and lodging for the chorus during the lengthy rehearsal period, and the cost of the costumes and masks, properties, scenery, special effects and the additional musicians.

Victory at the festival was a great prestige, and monuments were erected to honour sponsors; on the other hand, the choragus who did not fulfil his appointed role faced social humiliation. And, if the production he had sponsored won, the choragus was expected to host a feast to celebrate the victory. Some of the most prominent politicians and statesmen in Athens were appointed, including Pericles and Themistocles. The arts in ancient Greece were clearly not regarded as a luxury, and art and politics were symbiotically related in thought and in action.

Given the above, and the accusations and reality of the lack of “support and encourage[ment]” for theatre and all forms of arts and culture by those who lead our “nation”, the Association is profoundly grateful to the Concord Trust for the grant of R100,000 received in November 2020. Without such non-governmental generosity we, like so many other organisations and companies and individual artists, would not survive. And without such generosity, many thousands of young people would not experience and enjoy and develop their skills in communication. So, too, the Association would not continue without the support and encouragement of parents, teachers and principals and our adjudicators.

Here, too, I must express gratitude to the dedication and commitment of our Executive Committee who give so freely of their time and expertise. The present committee was elected at our Annual General Meeting on 16 March 2020: Brett Beiles, Roz Boyle, Rosanne Hurly-Coyne, Margie Marnewick (Vice-Chairman), Helana Olivier, Loshani Puymann, Philippa Savage, David Spiteri, and Jean van Elden. The sub-committee responsible for the compilation of the 2020-2022 syllabus, in all three languages, must also be thanked, and it is pleasing to know that the new category, “My News” has been well received.

It was our very great pleasure to award a gift to Eleanor Stewart for her many, many years of loyal service, and which, owing to the Covid lockdown, could only be presented to her on 20 November 2020; and, it must be added, the committee thoroughly enjoyed being able to meet personally again after so many months apart. Fenella Rivalland, Eleanor’s daughter, has likewise been a staunch supporter of the Association in many ways, and it was through her advice that a new-look name and logo were selected and designed; instead of the lengthy Speech and Drama Association of South Africa, the more accessible SADASA now features on letterheads. Thank you, again, Eleanor and Fenella, and or very best wishes in the future.

It is especially gratifying to be able to report on the 2020 festivals. Initially, there were a total of seventy-seven festivals booked for the first three terms. Six were held before the first lockdown in primary and high schools and colleges throughout KwaZulu-Natal, and one workshop at North Coast primary, facilitated by Di Paterson, to whom we extend our gratitude. Thirty-six festivals had been booked for the second term; twenty-nine of these had to be cancelled owing to Covid regulations, while four were postponed to September and October.

The situation was desperate, but through the determination and creativity of Vyvienne Ball, and committee members Philippa Savage, Margie Marnewick, and Rosanne Hurly-Coyne, festivals were held, online, for the first time in the nearly eighty year history of the Association. Our strongest congratulations to Durban Preparatory High School, Cowan House, and Amojee Academy for agreeing to participate in the virtual adjudications which were held in the offices of the Association. While the interaction between performer and spectator so essential to the live performance event was not possible, the online adjudications were highly successful, albeit in another medium.

With those adjudications as examples, an extremely helpful list of guidelines was compiled, with adaptations to the syllabus for virtual presentations, and sent to schools to interest them in participating in the festival online. This is yet another indication of the “support and encourage[ement]” our committee and adjudicators offer to the Association and to all those who participate in the festivals, as the presentations proved to be imaginative and of a high standard. Of the thirty-five festivals booked for the third term, twenty-eight were cancelled, with three held on site, and a further four presented online. In all, twenty-seven festivals were held during 2020, with a final total of sixteen on site, and eleven online.

The meticulously presented and edited The Platform, now numbering a very impressive Volume 24, thanks to Vyvienne Ball, continues to connect us with our community of schools and members with news of current and forthcoming events. One such was the annual Bruce Piper Monologue Competition which could not be held live during 2020, but Margie Marnewick nominated an exceptional monologue she had adjudicated online and, as co-adjudicator, I assessed the performance. So, as The Platform reported, the seventeenth Bruce Piper Award was made to Nqobile Sithole of Hermannsburg School. Another news item concerned the eight bursaries awarded in 2020, to entrants from Atholl Heights Primary, Ichthus Christian School, (Dundee) Sagewood Preparatory School (Gingindlovu), Durban Preparatory High, Westville Junior Primary and Westville Senior Primary. Three of these bursaries were awarded by the Association, in memory of Professor Elizabeth Sneddon, Jilian Hurst and Hazel Meyer. Thank you to the following schools for their generous donations to the bursary fund, which made the additional awards possible: Durban Preparatory High, Westville Junior Primary and Westville Senior Primary Schools.

I have made mention of our committee and the contribution by its members. Each year I end my report by thanking one person in particular, and each year it becomes more difficult to do so, given the ever-increasing demands made of her and the ever-increasing burdens she has to face. Yet she responds to these demands and challenges selflessly and unstintingly, without a single word of complaint, and with such genuine warmth and grace. And this year she has had to face additional challenges, quite apart from having to run the office from her home since May 2020. It is now twenty years that I have had the privilege to work with her, and each year I am made more aware of the extent of my personal and professional admiration for her many qualities and my sincere gratitude to her, for all the kindness and care she has given me, and for all she has done for our Association.

I have said it before in previous reports, but it has never been truer than in the last year: the Speech and Drama Association would not have survived without you, Vyvienne. Thank you, on behalf of everyone, thank you most sincerely.

And I thank you all for your interest, know that we will continue to “support and encourage” our commitment to preserving our mission for the future, and present this report to you for adoption.

Doctor Mervyn McMurtry

25 May 2021



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Cloete, N. “Creatives staging a sit-in at the National Arts Council insist that they won’t move until they are paid”.

Davis, R. “Fugard Theatre the latest loss in ongoing decimation of South Africa’s cultural life”. Daily Maverick 168, 20-26 March 2020.

Mafolo, K. “Artists take a stand with sit-ins”. Daily Maverick 168, 20-26 March 2020.

Seemela, M. “#NathiMustGO/Lebo Mashile & others sign petition against arts and culture minister”. Sunday Times Live, 20 January 2021.

Stent, G. “COSATU calls for public audit of Lottery”. GroundUp, 11 May 2021.