We must get the culture policy right

The draft Zimbabwe “National Heritage, Arts and Culture Policy 2013” has been knocking around in cultural circles since 2013. But I’ve yet to read a word about it in the public domain. This is a shame because it should be subjected to real public scrutiny. I’m not one to give credence to ‘policy papers’ as any singular route to practical progress; frequently the opposite has been true in African book and culture development.

The policy’s vision is to craft a distinctly Zimbabwean  arts and culture that will lead to wealth creation.
The policy’s vision is to craft a distinctly Zimbabwean arts and culture that will lead to wealth creation.

But I must confess that something about this document excites, it has a candid language and tone, and, despite a few critical weaknesses, it is an impressive overview. Maybe it is about timing and the mind-boggling “creative industry” potential of the arts product in Zimbabwe, and of course Africa. This is one policy we must get right!

“Cultural policies are crafted to achieve set outcomes. An action plan without a policy to guide and direct it is a shot in the dark while a policy that is not followed by an action plan is an exercise in futility,” states the Draft Policy in an opening gambit. That is the kind of plain-speak we want to see in a real policy that is meant. There are many examples, which is unusual for lofty “policy-speak” platitudes.

Wealth creation

Earlier under “Vision and Mission” the document has this to say: “Overall, the vision is to craft, through … resource mobilisation and involvement of artists and stakeholders … the drawing up … of a distinctly Zimbabwean arts and culture which will lead to wealth creation, ensure artistic expression and consumption by all and lead to the development of a national identity based on Zimbabwean values that enshrine human democratic values and the dignity of all Zimbabweans irrespective of their ethnic or racial identity or origin”.

The broad-minded inclusivity makes sense, and I admire the specific reference to “involvement of artists … in drawing up … a distinctly Zimbabwean arts and culture”.

It is 55 pages long, so I won’t attempt to summarise the content, except to say it is comprehensive but not exhaustive. Its strength is twofold: it is a serious attempt to fuse nationalistic (or “nation-building”) concepts, which one expects in the current environment, with global trends and concepts: “creative economy” and references to “freedom of expression”, “cultural diversity” and so forth. Secondly, critically, it is the first policy I’ve read that seriously considers intangible cultural “legacy and heritage”, issues of “identity”, “values” and “rootedness”.

We are Zimbabwean. We have our own collective histories. We are who we are, uniquely so in both contemporary mix and cultural backdrop surely no less so than any other peoples. I like the way the policy embraces that spirit.

Exercise in futility

Addressing weaknesses is going to be critical if the policy is to avoid being an “exercise in futility”. Some policy constructs risk being potentially weaker for trying to please too many, rather than getting fewer components 100% hard-hitting and right. The draft policy avoids addressing the reality that cultural delivery practically takes place within the scope of municipal-level efficiency and cooperation, under now archaic Rhodesian by-laws and compliances that local government structures “interpret”.

In some towns and cities, frankly, there subsists an officialdom that barely considers the word “culture”. Community-led cultural initiatives can be misinterpreted to a staggering degree. In fact, some impoverished rural district councils may be found to be more culturally responsive and responsible than their ‘big city’ counterparts.

What really brought this home was reading Cape Town’s draft arts and culture policy, and, even without that city’s considerable economy and global tourism positioning, realising that we remain eons away from comparable mind-set at city level.

All over the world, from Rio de Janeiro to Munich, Dakar to Maputo and Tokyo to Adelaide, municipalities now play a critical role in arts service delivery to communities, stimulating creative economy through clever incentives and partnerships. Towns and cities see arts as part of “service delivery to communities” that are also the backbone in city-level tourism revenues.

A rarity

Municipal supported public cultural facilities, arts festivals, cultural spaces, public galleries, public events and arts-friendly policies are everywhere; but a rarity in Zimbabwe.

Therefore, the draft cultural policy begs questions: whether there is municipal and local government buy-in to “cultural policy” since that is where art mostly takes place; and whether the designation “public cultural spaces” or “cultural centres” (in a contemporary African, not British colonial sense) even exists and is understood on statutes and by-laws governed by local authorities?

The strategic importance of national cultural hegemony cannot be over-stated. Now is the time. It is a resource we need to harness in a modern economy. Home-grown culture and what one might call “liberating the culture within” in an economic sense is the starting point for re-gearing “a creative industry sector” that provides jobs. We expect the National Cultural Policy to address economic fundamentals, and for municipal structures to play their part re-building cultural infra-structure.

I am told that news on stakeholders’ meetings to adopt or recommend a final policy blueprint is imminent, leading to a final version of the national policy. Watch that space! And have your say!

Post published in: Arts
  1. Donette Read Kruger
  2. Donette Read Kruger

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