Gompo Community Arts Centre, Duncan Village, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. Gompo is one of four Community Arts Centres that were initiated in 1996 through a series of business plans I developed for funding by the national Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, through Aurora Associates, a management consulting firm. After 20 years, I am overjoyed to see the Centres having a positive impact on their communities.
One of the very sad and painful realities of the apartheid system is that it was extraordinarily successful in creating a society that built wealth, comfort and middle-class security for white South Africans while simultaneously keeping Africans and non-whites in an impoverished underclass, segregated and excluded from mainstream opportunities in education, health care and the economy. This is blatantly obvious to anyone who travels to a major city in South Africa, and it is even more visible for those who visit the African townships and former homelands. But these township communities – places like Soweto (near Johannesburg), Umlazi (Durban), Mamelodi (Pretoria), Gugugletu (Cape Town) and Duncan Village (East London) – are also vibrant with love, energy, innovation, music, creativity and the African cultural humanity of Ubuntu. I have experienced this personally, both through friendships and social ties, as well as in my grant writing work.
I initially came to South Africa in April 1994 as a freelance journalist, with the intention of writing features about the historic elections and the end of apartheid. But like virtually all African Americans who visit Africa, I found that the mystery of the great Motherland continent overwhelms one’s soul with ineffable thoughts and feelings, and raises many questions and yearnings. I was also struck by the realization that South Africa’s cultures, languages and social complexity were beyond my ability to grasp from surface conversations and encounters, which made writing far more difficult than I anticipated. The more I explored the country and talked with people, the more I wanted to learn – and the more I sensed that I wanted to stay in Africa and participate in South Africa’s transformation.
Not long after I wrote a series of articles on economic opportunities in the New South Africa for Black Enterprise magazine, I was fortunate to be hired by the Johannesburg office of Aurora Associates, an international management consulting firm. Among a number of USAID programs and grant writing activities, one of my most consequential projects involved creating a series of business plans to fund the development of Community Arts Centres in the Eastern Cape Province. In February 1996 I spent several weeks driving through the province and meeting with community groups in East London, Umthata, Queenstown, Port St. Johns and Butterworth. We discussed potential site locations and activities for the proposed Arts Centres and how various community groups would be represented in program proposals. All of the 9 provinces in South Africa had been earmarked for funding by the national Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology and as it turned out, once we finished our business plans the Eastern Cape became the first province to be approved for funding. The business plans in those four communities were authorized for R3.6 million in funding in the 96-97 fiscal year (about $800,000 at the 4.5 rand/dollar exchange rate) which included the architectural design and the physical construction of the Centres. The Community Art Centres were designed as infrastructure projects through the massive national Reconstruction and Develop Program (RDP), that was intended to jump-start economic growth in African communities. Despite starting the project in 1996, the government actually broke ground and started constructing the sites sometime after I left South Africa in February 2002.
Scenes from Gompo Community Arts Center, Duncan Village
These grant writing projects were initiated more than 20 years ago; I recently did some research online and I was OVERJOYED to see that these arts programs are doing beautiful work. The Eastern Cape Arts Centres were the subject of an independent survey by the South African Research and Development Training Institute (SADRAT), that showed positive results, but also raised some questions about ownership of land and facilities and relations between local government, community groups and management of the Centres. The national Department of Arts and Culture has been concerned relatively empty facilities and lack of program activities in other South African Arts Centres and is attempting to create more sustainable models for funding and management operations. The idea of having a national umbrella association for all of South Africa’s provincial Arts Centres is an excellent concept and has tremendous creative potential if government officials can develop a peripheral eye and are willing to think outside of the box, with appropriate funding support and effective public-private partnerships. For example, on a farm he bought south of Johannesburg, South African jazz musician extraordinaire Zim Ngqawana began to develop a vision for teaching a specific pedagogy to enhance and build South Africa’s unique jazz tradition. Zim envisioned training a new generation of artists to be multi-instrumentalists using music theory and piano as a foundation, instead of expecting musicians to learn their own individual instruments in an isolated manner. A partnership with his Zimology Institute to bring jazz education to various provincial Arts Centres throughout South Africa could have yielded great results, but sadly, Zim died in May 2011. Nonetheless, this kind of lateral creative thinking and problem-solving would serve the Department of Arts and Culture well, but is difficult to formulate or implement in government bureaucracies.
I’m not sure I can offer a good explanation as to why certain Eastern Cape Arts Centres appear to be more successful relative to some of the Arts Centres in other provinces. What I can say is that in my experience the Eastern Cape Province Department of Arts and Culture did an excellent job of identifying and supporting the initial community groups that were suitable for the RDP funding opportunity and that made my grant writing work relatively easy.
In the Duncan Village township near East London, Ryan Mapisa and a group of activists during the apartheid era formed an organization called the Culture Project that developed cultural events and offered after-school activities and tutoring. The Culture Project seemed to be doing something similar to the community work the Black Panthers were doing in the United States in the 60s and 70s; much like the Panthers, they also suffered from a backlash of political forces. On December 23, 1988 Ryan Mapisa was kidnapped by the security police, detained and tortured, but the group remained cohesive and later formed the core of what eventually became the Gompo Community Arts Centre. Ryan Mapisa was an indelible leader with visible scars on his face. He was a beautiful soul and a humble and respected activist; he made an unforgettable impression on me and it was an honor to work with him. (Ryan Mapisa’s testimony about his torture can be found on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s web site.)
In Port St. Johns, there was an active arts and culture group that was able to market their crafts to travelers and tourists who visited the popular vacation spots at Coffee Bay, on the Eastern Cape’s beautiful “Wild Coast” Indian Ocean shoreline. They originally referred to their group with the name Amampondo, referring to an ethnic group within the Xhosa nation, but later decided to call their group thje Tombo Community Arts Centre. Their emphasis seemed to be more on their cultural roots than the Duncan Village Centre, which was more focused on a larger cosmopolitan community.
Tombo Community Arts Centre, Port St. Johns, South Africa
I am grateful that I had an opportunity to play a significant role in developing these projects and I have come to feel that this is a legacy of sorts for me, even though people at the various Arts Centres likely have little knowledge about certain aspects of the process that brought them into being. I was fortunate that my social work program at Cornell University placed an emphasis on grant writing, although I never expected it would become such a fascinating and valuable skill in my professional life. By following a structured process I was able to use grant writing as an interactive medium for bringing people together and translating a broad vision and a mission into specific goals, tangible objectives and program structures and activities. Most importantly, the leaders and activists I met in these communities were highly motivated and eager to get things accomplished in the post-apartheid era. The results – over time – have been edifying.