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Swallows Partnership Cultural Leadership Programme

Tees Valley Arts’ Director Rowena Sommerville has recently returned from a Cultural Management Programme trip to South Africa through the Swallows Foundation UK. Below is her report of the experience:-

Swallows Partnership Cultural Leadership Programme June 2012

Report by participant Rowena Sommerville

‘Give me hope, Joanna, can’t you see that the tide is turning?
Oh don’t make me wait till the morning come’ – Eddy Grant

The Swallows Partnership is an international partnership, based in the arts and culture, between the North East of England and the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The partnership exists to ‘create an extraordinary and complex cultural chemistry across the globe’ and is run through two linked but independent foundations – Swallows Foundation UK, based in Newcastle upon Tyne, and Isiseko Senkonjane SA, based in Port Elizabeth. The Swallows Partnership was originally set up by Peter Stark, who has worked in culture at very high levels in both those settings.

Earlier this year SFUK advertised the opportunity for senior and emerging cultural leaders based in the North East of England and Scotland to apply to take part in their cultural leadership and management programme – a two week programme of travel, lectures, introductions, meetings, tours, visits and seminars around Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape, culminating in two days at the Grahamstown National Festival of the Arts, and I applied, successfully, for a place.

I had never been to any part of Africa before, and viewed South Africa with a mix of distaste, fear, and admiration, based on my distant understanding over years of the varying situations in that very complicated country, with certain stand out memorable events – vile atrocities, heroic acts and hugely moving beautiful collective moments all of which I had either read about in the papers or seen on TV. In preparation I duly read some of the reportage/ comment/ analysis of Ryszard Kapuscinski, and – somewhat more easily digested – the thrillers of Deon Meyer, who writes excellent police procedurals set in the new ‘integrated’ South Africa; both writers were enlightening.

The two week Swallows programme was one of the most intense periods of my professional life, and thinking back from the distance of – can it be – just three weeks, I am overwhelmed by a torrent of images, incidents, sensations, conversations – the discomfort of the travel; the plainness of Johannesburg; the beauty of the landscape; the ugliness of the history; the whiteness of the white towns; the shabbiness of the black townships; the absolute dirt poor poverty of some areas; being moved to tears in the Apartheid Museum; the majesty of the vision of Constitution Hill; the people – of all backgrounds – we met who are truly nobly trying to build a new future; the people we met who, truly ignobly, didn’t seem to want that; visiting Steve Biko’s grave; the complexity of all the issues, everywhere and all the time; buying a wall hanging at the Keiskamma Art Project and meeting the woman who had sewn it; the children at Keiskamma playing some Mozart for us; the Red Location Museum and the Red Location township (the poorest place I have ever seen); the constant richness and stimulation of the debate and conversation of the group; singing on the bus; drinking wine and talking; having cold feet – real rather than metaphorical (night temperatures were surprisingly low); the many beggars and refugees; the (several) friendly black women who commented favourably on my hair; seeing wild elephants; paddling in the Indian Ocean!

The programme was set up and led by Peter Stark, whose grasp of the history of the organisations, people, places etc is immense; Peter was able to introduce us to cultural leaders ranging from the Chief Executive of the SA Arts Council, to regional regeneration managers, to workers on the ground, and to brief us fully about the many issues they all face. His mantra about the emerging South Africa, particularly the emerging black leadership, was ‘it is impossible, but it must be done’ and that conflicted pairing of impossibility and necessity was exemplified just about everywhere we went.

For the first week we had two black drivers who both had interests in cultural activity – for one linked to his Zulu ancestry, for the other around jazz – and were joined by Zuko Pokwana, a prince from the Xhosa people, who balances traditional leadership with cultural activism. For the second week we were driven by Gcobani Poltini from Swallows SA and Toto Sonjica, who works for Port Elizabeth Opera House. All of these individuals were not only ‘drivers’ but very much part of the group, sharing their realities with us, listening to ours, exploring thoughts and reactions, debating, arguing, drinking, laughing.

The area of Johannesburg where we stayed for the first three nights seemed – as far as we could tell – to be quite wealthy but also quite ‘groovy’ for want of a better word; there was a nice bar at the end of the street where black and white groups both sat and chatted in a relaxed way – though not many groups appeared to be mixed, and we generally didn’t see many mixed couples. In the Eastern Cape there was much less sense of inter-racial mixing, and we had one very memorable incident in which a swastika was drawn in the mud splatter on the side of one of our minibuses – this happened in a remote beauty spot (aptly called the Valley of Desolation), could only have been done by one of the handful of white, middle-aged, middle class Afrikaner tourists who also visited while we were there, and we have to attribute it to the fact that we were a racially mixed group. Those of us visiting from the UK were very shocked, our black South African companions much less so.

What was evident throughout is that there is still very little shared social meeting space for black, white and other racial groups in South Africa. Certainly in the rural areas the housing for whites and the housing for blacks could be on a different planet; and wherever there is wealth there is – not surprisingly – anxiety, fear of crime, armed response security patrols, electronic gates and lots of really big dogs. Soweto, Johannesburg’s legendary township and now home to about half a million people, has posh edges where middle class black people have settled, rather than moving in to Johannesburg itself.

So, what did I get out of it professionally? I had a brilliant, stimulating, intense, uncomfortable and enjoyable time; my brain is still seething with thoughts and arguments. I have met new colleagues from South Africa, the North East of England and from Scotland, and have recharged pre-existing professional relationships. I have seen stark instances of cultural tropes with which I am sadly familiar – for instance big capital spend on cultural buildings, followed by little or no revenue spend on content or community engagement, allied to an under-prepared and under-resourced leadership – ‘it is impossible but it must be done’. I have debated ‘the way forward’ for culture in a recession, in challenging times, when other needs must take priority, when culture must serve other masters, when cultural products alienate the people and/or the politicians etc and I’ve had that debate with well informed, combative, sharp minds. And I paddled in the Indian Ocean…..

I never felt at ease in South Africa, so would I want to go back? Well, I’m already working on it….

Rowena Sommerville, July 2012