Meeting with artists and cultural leaders in Port Elizabeth

Meeting with artists and cultural leaders in Port Elizabeth

Leaving behind the bustling city of Jo'burg we flew south to the Eastern Cape and on to the city of Port Elizabeth in the metropolitan area of Nelson Mandela Bay. The historical watering place of the British Empire on the way to the Indies, Port Elizabeth has a distinctly different social and political environment. The City is small. In contrast to the growing spread of Jo'burg and its ability to attract ever growing numbers of skilled workers, PE has been bleeding talent. PE is a city on the edge of the cape, on the edge of South Africa, and in some senses it feels like the forgotten city. The central business district is very small - one street precisely, and a major road with a flyover cuts the city off from the huge docks that is a major area for potential development. I take a look at this huge road and how it severs the city from an important part of its identity and it all feels very familiar.

The Swallows Foundation have been doing a great deal of work with the local movers and shakers to rebalance the city centre and re-vision it as a place where people feel they belong, moving from a position where sections of society feel excluded or a lack of ownership over the city centre spaces, a philosophical shift from a position of viewing the city as "their space" to "my space" to "our space". Twenty years into the new democracy and a new constitution, these are not easy things to achieve, but The Swallows Foundation in partnership with local people have achieved a shift in thinking in some areas that has enabled some parts of the city to feel revitalised and refreshed.

That evening we meet with local artists and cultural leaders. It’s a wonderful evening which yet again confirms that even with no subsidy or proper support, people are driven to make work that articulates the passions and concerns of the new South Africa. It’s wonderful stuff and full of passion and commitment - how long they can sustain this though without subsidy is the big worry. Great art needs investment for people to grow and develop their ideas and it seems that South African artists are battling a system that gives money for buildings and people to run them but nothing for work to be made. The Opera house in PE is empty, The State Theatre in Pretoria with its huge auditoriums was empty and in recent days we have visited wonderful artists retreats on the Indian Ocean coast with exceptional facilities and they are all shut. It’s heart-breaking that all this talent and creativity faces a mountain to climb in achieving real and lasting sustainability. What subsidy there is seems to drown in bureaucracy - our South African colleague from The Swallows Foundation Gcobani, applied for a lottery grant in 2013 and has only just heard he has been successful. He now has to re-write it and submit a new budget as his figures are out of date! Let’s hope it’s not another two years before he gets his money. It puts our own challenges with funding in the UK into sharp perspective.

In my last post I mentioned that there was a great deal to feel optimistic about in South Africa and you cannot doubt the way it is rising to the economic and political challenges of creating a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights. The constitution aims to "improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person" - inspiring stuff indeed. Making the constitution a reality however is a huge challenge for everyone. Whilst there have been huge strides in reducing the level of poverty and increasing opportunity for its citizens, one only has to venture into a township like New Brighton to have your eyes opened wide to the scale of the challenge in front of people of eradicating the injustices of the past. At his trial, Mandela said:

"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." 

Nelson Mandela

The long road to freedom continues to this day...