The short of it: In 20 years of democracy, government has moved from crass panning of the the festival, to enthusiastically claiming it as their own to Wednesday’s encouraging position when incoming Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa seemed to get right inside the festival and acknowledge the struggle, role and power of artists in blazing a trail for the nation.

But at a media briefing earlier, when told that artists were angry over the party’s reactive behaviour towards the Spear painting, he said artistic freedoms were limited by notions of African dignity.

He did not elaborate and the issue disappeared from his official opening speech on Wednesday night.

The long of it:

SOUTH African Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, used the official opening of the 40th National Arts Festival (Naf) to deliver a major commitment to the nation’s arts as an economic, political and even spiritual leader of social change.

In one of his first major speeches since his appointment, Mthethwa, with new East Cape Premier Phumulo Masualle looking on, told a celebratory crowd which filled the Guy Butler Theatre on Wednesday night that the arts was pivotal to building social cohesion, promoting diversity and multi-culturalism.

He said artists were continually redefining the “soul of the nation” and were helping in the search for an “over-arching identity”.

Despite the festival’s English, colonial orgins during apartheid in the 70s, he said the festival platform had grown to reflect the mood of political struggle in the 80s with artists advocating social change and supporting the anti-apartheid struggle.

Mthethwa said SA artists at the festival had never failed to provide a fulfilling creative experience. The festival had become a “magnet” for 200 000 arts lovers who made an annual pilgrimage to the Eastern Cape.

Since 1994, the festival had become an “arts lovers’ paradise which is worth celebrating”.

He said that in 20 years of democracy, the event had grown to become the second largest arts festival in the world Edinburgh. It offered 3000 performances in 50 venues and attracted 500 journalists. Over 40 countries were represented at the event.

“This is the Fifa World Cup of arts! We are only short of (Fifa president) Sepp Blatter, but that is fine,” he said to laughter.

He said government would be ensuring that the promotion of all languages spoken in SA — more than the 11 official languages — would be captured in a language policy to be adopted by all spheres of government by the end of the year.

Taking a fresh angle on SA artists, the Minister said that although they were now among the “best in the world” and scooping major awards, it had taken guts and iron will to get to this position.

He said the wide spectrum of arts presented at the festival “challenges mindsets, inspires confidence and determination, builds conviction and mental strength. This diversity of the arts brings us closer togethether.”

To pursue a career in the arts took “intellectual strength, self belief and empowerment to know that it is all right to be an artist”.

But he said great artists could only thrive in a “democratic and enabling environment . Government recognises this and therefor we support this festival and others.”

Meanwhile, he said the festival was contributing R349m to the Eastern Cape’s gross domestic product (GDP) and R90m to the Makana municipal area.

At a media briefing, festival CEO Tony Lankester said the festival created 470 local jobs, which for 80% the only work they would have all year. Independent research last year, showed that artists earned R9m.

In a speech at the official opening, Lankester praised the festival for its role in building the World Fringe Alliance which was helping to send SA artists and their shows around the world.

Lankester said the festival was charged with looking forward to the digital future where new technology in cellphones and tablets could become the next “stage”.

New technology had changed the arts platform: “They (smart phones and tablets) are signs that the arts are evolving. The plaforms are changing. Creativity is at all-time high. This festival will flourish because we are constantly reinventing ourselves.”

Grahamstown, through the Naf, was starting to export the town’s main product, its creative capital and arts skills, to the rest of the country and internationally.

“We are starting to brand new festivals around country, and maybe around the world,” he said.

He said them 40th birthday festival was the largest ever, and while it was infused with youth and new technology, it remained a festival that “embraces every view point”.

In his speech, Premier Masualle said the festival was giving expression to the Freedom Charter’s demand that the doors of learning and culture shall be opened to all.

The festival had travelled a long way over the past 20 years, emerging out of a nation brutalised by the apartheid past, to one which was grappling to find the meaning of new freedoms.

“We acknowledge the role the arts has played (during these eras)” he said.

He said arts and culture had been used as a “weapon on of struggle” from start of white rule and domination, and was now a tool for “social cohesion nation-building, healing and training”.

He said: “You will exposed to a wealth of of arts. All our senses will be tested to their limits. The freedoms inscribed in the four stones (outside the Monument) will be probed and explored. For the next 11 days you will be exposed to our unconquerable creative spirit.”

At the media briefing on Wednesday, Eastern Cape MEC for Sport Recreation, Arts & Culture, Pemmy Majodina, said her department was putting R3.7m into the festival this year, and was also supporting a range of artists and activities.

Makana Mayor Zamuxolo Peter said the festival was also celebrating a decade of the Makana iKwam hospitality project where township homes were turned into B&bs. He praised the youthful Fingo Festival for activists who were taking their destiny into their hands and telling “our own story” and promised to do his best to keep the festival supplied with electricityi and water. — loewelife@gmail.com