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Comment on the revised draft White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage

Posted on August 21, 2013
The Archival Platform commends the Minister and the Department of Arts and Culture for initiating the revision of the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage. The Platform also thanks the Minister and the Department for inviting us to engage with other stakeholders at the recent workshop on the revised draft.

Much has changed since the White Paper on Arts and Culture was gazetted in 1996. We welcome the opportunity to reflect on the extent to which the vision outlined in that document has been realised and to consider whether it is still appropriate. We agree that it is timeous to assess which strategies have been effective and what lessons may be learnt from those initiatives that have flourished and those that have floundered. Moreover, we accept that there is a need to streamline institutional arrangements in order to strengthen the sector. We trust that all such recommendations will be made on the basis of a considered assessment of the current situation and in consultation with stakeholders.

While the Archival Platform has chosen to focus its comments specifically on the issue of archives, we would like to take this opportunity to note a number of broader concerns:

1 The White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage of 1996, focused broadly on three important challenges: to effect fundamental transformation in accordance with the democratic values enshrined in the new Constitution; to give substance to the rights of citizens to access, participate in and enjoy the arts and to preserve their heritage; and to facilitate the optimum conditions in which these rights may be enjoyed and practiced. This policy was premised on the belief that while arts, culture and heritage are valued in and of themselves, they have an important role to play in development, nation building and sustaining democracy and in enabling individuals to realise their full potential as responsible and creative citizens. The policy was forward-looking, aiming to build a better future by redressing the wrongs of the past, correcting historical imbalances, and broadening the range and scope of publicly funded heritage institutions. It also acknowledged the need to address the country's troubled history, and to use arts, culture and heritage to promote national reconciliation and healing. The White Paper of 1996, arising out of a deep and far-reaching engagement with practitioners, educators, academics and administrators, embodied the hopes and aspirations of the sector - from the smallest community-based projects to the largest national institutions. While in retrospect it may seem overly idealistic, somewhat naive and difficult to put into operation, it spelled out a compelling and inspiring vision to which most stakeholders subscribed and it laid the foundation for a more just, equitable and inclusive dispensation for the sector. It is important that revisions to this document are built on this solid foundation as well as on a thoughtful assessment of what has and what has not worked in practice since 1996, and why.

2 Notwithstanding the above, we welcome the initiative to revise and redraft the White Paper and acknowledge the need for the Minister and the DAC to align arts, culture and heritage policy with current imperatives and priorities, including social cohesion and socio-economic development. We understand and appreciate that it is necessary to develop policy that will increase the sector's contribution to the country's triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality, and to reposition the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) within the context and ambit of a developmental state. BUT, we are anxious that this focus has deflected attention from the intrinsic value of arts, culture and heritage and the unique contribution that this sector, in all its complexity and diversity, can and should make to the life of our democratic state and the quality of life of its citizens. We are concerned that, in choosing to focus on the economies of the arts for addressing our immediate political challenges, the revised draft White Paper fails to deliver a more broadly transformative vision for the sector.

3 The revised draft White Paper is premised on the assumption that the sector needs to be restructured, re-oriented and re-aligned to meet government and developmental imperatives. It does not focus on the key issue of strengthening and / or reimagining key components or functions. Instead of asking how government can best create the conditions and structures for citizens to engage with arts culture and heritage in a way that gives life to the values and principles in our Constitution, it asks how government can use arts culture and heritage to drive its own agenda. This diverts from the objectives of the arts and heritage in bringing cohesion and fulfilling the objectives of the Constitution.

4 We welcome the call for an evaluation of the many institutions and agencies involved in implementing the DAC's mandate and concur with the need to eradicate areas of duplication and to build synergies where appropriate. It is, in our view, premature to propose new institutional arrangements until a considered analysis of existing structures has been undertaken and fully interrogated.

5 The White Paper on Arts and Culture of 1996 took a very clear position on funding, espousing the need for government to maintain an "arms length" relationship with arts, culture and heritage practitioners, institutions and organisations. The revised draft of the White Paper suggests that this position has changed. On the one hand this strengthens government's ability to direct available resources towards meeting clearly defined objectives. On the other, it may be seen to compromise artistic freedom and to marginalise heritage initiatives that do not promote a paricular party political agenda or subscribe to the dominant narrative. We would urge the Minister and the DAC to engage energetically with stakeholders to consider the implications of this shift.

6 In general, the revised draft fails to address the issue of the need to deal vigorously and imaginatively with our country's difficult past. This is particularly evident in Part 6 of the document that shows insufficient understanding of, or appreciation for: the role of the ‘national' museums - which it confuses with the Geographical Names Council; the scope of the ‘national estate', the management of which is currently coordinated by the South African Heritage Resources Agency; intangible cultural heritage; and archives. The unfortunate factual errors, imprecise conceptualisation and failure to come to grips with the DAC'ss primary mandate evident in this section compromises the credibility of the document as a whole and does a disservice to the work of the DAC and its institutions and agencies. The heritage sector is complex: it deals with past, present and future, with institutions tainted by the ideologies of colonial and apartheid rule, and with issues of individual and national histories, memories and identities, as well as with sites, objects and other fragile and irreplaceable resources. The nature and scope of the sector and the way in which the various elements are nuanced, intersect and converge needs to be articulated with more care if proposals for new institutional arrangements are to carry sufficient weight.

7 Proposals for National Implementing Councils, outlined in Part 5, need to be carefully considered. We are not confident that the alignments proposed here are entirely appropriate. While we welcome the intention to streamline structures and promote collaboration, we are mindful of the disruptive effect that fundamental changes may have on the sector. Given the reality that many of the structures established after 1994 are still not functioning optimally, we would urge the Minister and the DAC to engage fully with stakeholders on this matter.

Turning to the matter of archives and acknowledging that the revised draft White Paper is a policy document that articulates a broad vision, spells out the principles that underpin overarching strategies and sets out a framework for institutional arrangements, we note that:

8 South Africa's archival treasury includes the public records of government and the memories, oral literature, places and landscapes, artefacts, artworks, cultural practices, knowledge systems and documentary records that comprise the national estate and reside in a multitude of public, statutory, private and civil society institutions and organisations.

The document offers a very narrow reading of the role and significance of archives. More specifically: it fails to address the vital role of the archives in a democratic society; it loses sight of the role of archives in re-imaging the past; and it does not address the critical role that archives play in building social cohesion.

One element of the mandate of state archives is to preserve the records of the government. In this regard, archives provide information about decisions and actions taken by government. This is of interest and use not only to those who seek to understand the past and make sense of the present, but those who are required to ensure operational continuity and plan efficiently for the future. In a democracy, reliable public records provide the evidence that empowers citizens to hold government to account, and enables government to demonstrate the actions it has taken to exercise its duties, fulfil its mandates and honour its commitments to citizens. Records are essential to the task of measuring the performance of those who hold political and public office, for holding officials responsible for their actions, and for identifying corruption and efficiency as well as instances of excellence and effective delivery. Without access to credible records citizens cannot support claims of poor service delivery, and government cannot defend itself against accusations of weak performance. When public records are unavailable or rendered inaccessible, citizens may well view government actions with distrust - especially when suspicions of corruption are rife.

Archives are a resource that is available to us in the present when we speak of, reckon with or come to terms with the past. They hold the resource that may be used in understanding how we came to be in our current circumstances, holding the records that have the potential to reveal both the injustices and the achievements of the past. Records are of central importance in the ongoing business of troubling received histories. Without records, it is difficult to discern where, and to establish how, the past is being manipulated, where significant events have been forgotten, or vulnerable, marginal or troublesome persons sidelined, victimised or oppressed. Our knowledge of the past is never complete, nor certain. The record, in its many forms, stands surety, both for what we know of the past, and what we do not know.

The role of archives in building social cohesion is undervalued. Social cohesion in a democracy is based not on common origins or ethnicity, or the sharing of a single point of view, but on the weaving of a social fabric resilient in the face of the multiplicity of difference that constitutes all human life. In the face of that difference, the record is not the history of a single glorious past, as most heritage efforts would have it. Rather, the record is a crucial resource for navigating these differences and understanding them, especially when the differences become public issues. The record provides the materials that feed critical discussion of such differences and for catalysing the exploration of shared or common interests and values.

9 The institutional arrangements described in Part 6 of the revised draft White Paper locate archives as a sub-sector of the Languages and Publishing Sector. This alignment fails to take account of the oversight function and responsibilities of national and provincial archives in relation to government recordkeeping. The question of the location of archives within government and the degree of independence and autonomy required by national and provincial archives, as well as the nature of the engagement that will allow them to discharge their responsibilities efficiently requires careful attention and consultation with other departments, institutions and agencies mandated to uphold democracy. This is an issue that the Archival Platform has considered in some depth in the State of the Archive Report which is nearing completion. We will offer our analysis and recommendations to the Minister and the DAC in due course as a contribution to informing this debate.

10 The revised draft White Paper does not indicate what mechanisms are envisaged to facilitate the interaction between public and civil society organisations or academic institutions that hold important collections of non-public records, nor does it indicate how collaboration between these and other institutions of memory may be fostered within the broader institutional landscape.

We look forward to further engagments with the Minister and the Department of Arts and Culture as the process of developing this important policy document proceeds.

Read the revised Draft White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage, 4 June 2013