00:00 Matthias Jochmann
Hi, my name is Matthias Jochmann and you are listening to Record of Change.
Record of Change listens to eight individuals located all over the globe about how their lives have been twisted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I am talking to you from Bonn in Germany, and today we are listening to Mike van Graan,
who is a well established playwright and activist based in Cape town, South Africa.
In today's episode, Mike will share with us, how to pandemic has struck the cultural scene in South Africa and how Mike felt more busy
during than before the lockdown and how he and his colleagues are building up a foundation to make cultural practitioners more resilient.
00:45 Mike van Graan
My name is Mike van Graan.
I generally describe myself as a playwright at the moment.
Um, but I do work generally as a consultant as well.
Um, I'm based in Cape town.
For the last number of years I've kind of been fortunate to be in a range of fellowships.
My most recent one being at the university of Stellenbosch, um, called the Stellenbosch
Institute for advanced study, where I was spending about six months to work on my first novel.
And, um, it was, came to be for the period of five months, but then covert struck and we went into lockdown at the end of March.
And so, um, that hasn't really happened.
Um, and for the last while I've really just been exploring the playwriting and the consultancy, the consultancy mode.
01:35 Matthias Jochmann
Could you give us a brief summary of how dependent struck maybe your environment or what you see in your environment?
01:44 Mike van Graan
I suppose my environment comprises the broader South African context
on the one hand and then my engagement within the arts and in theater in particular.
And within the broader context of South Africa, I think what the pandemic kind of just emphasized was something that many of us
have known for a long while that since 1994, which is when the country shifted from being an apartheid state towards being a more
democratic, more equitable country in terms of our constitutional vision in a way the reality is that we become a lot more unequal.
So over the last 26 years, um, the gaps between those of us who are part of the middle
class and the like, and those who are the margins of society, have just increased.
And I think that what the pandemic has shown was just how great this inequalities are, because in terms of how we are supposed to prevent the coronavirus from
spreading, you know, those of us with access, to resources are much more able to buy sanitizers that have the requisite alcohol base, we are able to be socially
distanced, in that we live in places that are adequately spaced and the like, whereas most people in our country living in incredibly cramped conditions, in
townships, in formal settlements of the like, and barely have money to pay for food and, you know, the very basics of life, let alone buy sanitizers and so on.
So I think that there's always been the fear, um, in our country that once Covid-19 kind of struck that the elites that really brought the virus into the country
by virtual traveling globally would be spared, um, you know, the major effects in it and ultimately once they began to spread within the broader community, then
there would be a pretty wide spread and the death rate would be pretty high as well, but also because the level of comorbidities in our country is really high.
20% of our population, as you know, is infected with HIV.
So immune system's already kind of quite compromised.
And, um, the coronavirus, you know, is not kind to people with comorbidites, as you know.
So, um, I think that people have very complimentary to our government for the very strong stand that they took at
the very beginning with very a hard lockdown, one of the hardest kind of lockdowns that, that people experienced
globally . We weren't even allowed to buy cigarettes and alcohol in that time, and everybody was confined to their houses.
There was no room for exercise, even outside of our houses.
The only way we could go outside was for medical purposes or to get groceries.
So we have this five levels of lockdown.
And of course, what began to happen was that the longer, the lockdown were sustained, the more the other challenges within our society became more apparent.
On the other hand, there have been...
Some of the positive things, if you want to call it that, is that there's been a decrease in crime, in violent crime.
Um, and with the ban on the sale of alcohol, for example, car accidents kind of decreased, and there was a huge decrease in violent crime.
That's kind of linked to the consumption of alcohol.
And when the lockdown was kind of eased at a certain point and alcohol sales were admitted the level of violence that came about as a
consequence of people now having access to alcohol again, was such that the government immediately kind of climbed down and ban the sale
of alcohol yet again, because it was placing strain on the hospital services that the beds that were earmarked in ICU for COVID-19 people
who kind of required it without being consumed and used by people who were victims or perpetrators of violent crime linked to alcohol.
So it's again a symptom of our society and the lack of attention that we've paid to addressing the inequalities of the past.
And now, in a state of pandemic as we're experiencing now, these inequalities come to be reflected in a whole range of social ways.
And, um, gender based violence has increased as well.
So basically at a broader level, as a country, we've experienced both the good and the bad of, of having a lockdown.
Um, but at the same time, it's kind of reflected mostly the bad in terms of the inequalities that are inherent in
our society, the structural inequalities and how difficult it is to be addressing these at the same time as having
to deal with a pandemic that is basically one which is claiming literally hundreds of lives on a daily basis.
06:38 Matthias Jochmann
What is the current status in your environment?
06:40 Mike van Graan
In fact we just went into lockdown level two, two days ago.
So things are a little bit more relaxed.
And if one went outside now, it's, it's looking at like what's normal, you know, restaurants are full and, um,
and so on, but obviously all these things left to be done with the various kind of social distancing protocols.
So everyone wears a mask that's compulsory.
If one is outside social distancing roles as still kind of prevail.
So that government has had to weigh as in other countries as well.
On the one hand economic decline and the consequences in terms of hunger and the adverse social impacts versus the kind
of mortality prospects posed by COVID-19 and it's a very difficult position, you know, we'd concede government to be in.
And I think that that's what they're trying to balance at the moment.
So we're not completely out of the woods yet.
We're kind of hoping that as we move towards warmer times in our country, that these things will kind
of dissipate, but in a way we're still not at a position yet to declare that, you know, we are safe.
We are still a country, I think with the fifth highest number of infections globally.
We don't have as high a mortality rate as other countries seem to have had, um, the percentage of deaths to infection is a lot lower than, than
other countries, that are much lower than in the U S for example, but there's still a few hundred people dying on a daily basis due to Covid-19.
08:11 Matthias Jochmann
Thank you very much for this introduction to what happened so far.
So you consider yourself a playwright?
08:18 Mike van Graan
So, I am, I am in engaged within the art sector and that's kind of been my primary focus, uh, for much of my adult life.
the impact of COVID-19 this particular year has been such that, uh, four of my plays
that were supposed to be done this year have all been impacted upon, uh, quite adversely.
So one piece, a commission actually from the Fugard theater, which is one of our country's primary theaters and a very active theater.
They commissioned me to do a play to go inside and be part of a season of plays that celebrated the 10th anniversary this year.
Um, another play, uh, was going to be done by an independent company.
And that had in fact started at the market theater and was a week into its three week run.
Um, and all of those have basically been stopped.
So the Fugard theater, um, has in fact shut down.
Um, and this was a, this was a pretty major blow to the theater industry in our country.
It's, as I said, probably besides the Baxter theatre in Cape Town, it was the most active theater in our city.
And, um, basically they've decided not to reopen until a vaccine has been found.
So at the moment, theaters are theoretically open, uh, they can have up to 50 people within the audience, but most theaters, in fact, I think all theaters
have remained shut because they cannot guarantee the safety either of their workers or of people on the stages and of course sitting out of the audience.
I think it's going to be a while before theaters reopen.
And as a consequence, a lot of people, as in other parts of the world, have lost income.
They certainly don't have any streams of income for the next while.
And although government has kind of made available a significant package of relief for, uh,
small businesses and the like, the arts have not really been a beneficiary of, of that relief.
And even when money has been made available within the art sector for relief, the.
definitions of artists as not being employees, but independent contractors again makes them ineligible to access that.
So it's been a real problem for the art sector, and I think it's, again, highlighted some of the challenges around labor legislation.
As it pertains to the social sectors generally and in particular, how it impacts on the
art sector, because so many of us are independent contractors rather than employees.
10:57 Matthias Jochmann
How are theater subsidized?
I mean, coming from Germany, maybe theater wise one of the most privileged countries where government spends a lot of money and now they also
have been spending good sums of money to people that have loss of income, of course, due to the pandemic, how does it work in South Africa?
11:14 Mike van Graan
So, South Africa probably,has on the African continent, the most well subsidized arts and culture sector.
And it is significantly more subsidized by public funding than it was the case even under apartheid.
So when those of us who are engaged in arts and culture, kind of policy advocacy as the country was changing, we did not expect that our government
would, at that time, make more resources available for the arts, given the other major legacies of apartheid that our society had to deal with.
So in a sense, the only money that we had available for the arts then ,was the money that had been allocated by the apartheid government for the white minority.
And policy then really revolved around how to use money that had been made available by the state to serve 8 million white people to now serve 40 million citizens.
And what has happened over the course of the last 26 years is that government has become increasingly neo liberal
in its orientation, in that they look to the market to provide the support for the arts and culture sector.
And our government has bought into the whole notion of creative industries, which is something which comes from UNESCO and the European commission and basically
global North, you know, kind of places where the creative industries have been able to survive because the conditions there are conducive towards that.
You've got people who are educated, you've got infrastructure, you've got people with
disposable income, whereas on our continent, those conditions just do not prevail.
So to talk about creative industries, which require markets with disposable income and the like
means that you basically are making the arts available to people who are part of the elite.
So it's a long answer to your question, but, essentially what government does is it provides money for the
infrastructure and for the people who run that infrastructure, but not money for anything to happen on the stages.
So, you've got significant amounts of money allocated to infrastructure, but very little money allocated to the actual production and distribution of theater.
Um, and that's what the challenge is in our country.
So a lot of us are kind of involved right now in trying to change those policies again, to come to a point where, you know,
we revisit policymaking and see money as being much more necessary to fund theater makers and dance companies and dance and
theater companies than to be funding, um, infrastructure, which is just, you know, monuments to what governments prefer.
They prefer infrastructure because for some of them that means a whole lot more than funding that, which is produced and taken to, to where people are.
I mean, so many of these buildings are located in places that are inaccessible.
And that given our very poor transport systems, um, people don't access them at night.
And this is partly why policy needs to change and shift the allocation of funding towards where theater is really being created and distributed at the moment.
14:21 Matthias Jochmann
You see me a bit overwhelmed now with so much new information because I honestly didn't have much of an idea.
So I read in one of your texts that you would like to take this current weird time to rethink culture and how can culture and the arts be more self reliant.
14:42 Mike van Graan
So what happened with my experience of my own kind of productions being curtailed was that, although
they weren't my productions, they were my plays, but other people were kind of responsible for them financially.
But, um, I have, by virtually being around a lot longer than these young companies, I've got a network of people,
who've come to see my players in the past and the network of what I've kind of called angels, who support my work.
So, um, I, for a while, I've made a decision not to go to the public sector, to look for funding.
And not to go to the traditional ways of, but to go to individuals to support my work.
So individual patrons, um, and the like, so I basically, you know, said to the actors and the technical
crew of these plays that had now been canceled, that I will seek to raise money from my network.
And when they required money to pay their rent, or to cover the data cost for their mobile
phone or to pay for food they should let me know and I will make money available to them.
And so I kind of went to my database and said, look in lieu of, of theater basically shutting down
for the next few months and at that time I didn't expect anything to open up until at least September.
And at that time, people were saying, no, don't worry, it will be a few weeks.
And then we'll be open.
And I kind of said, look, give us sufficient resources for us to be able to take people through at least four months of support.
And through that, I was able to pay for actors to be able to pay their rent and to pay for food.
I mean, as basic as, as food, you know, people were really struggling to pay for food and the like, um, and so I kind of thought, well, maybe
here's a model that we can use to make it even bigger on a, on a, on a more kind of global scale for theater and dance in our country, because
what COVID-19 also reflected was that theater and dance in particular were going to be quite adversely affected by the lockdown restrictions.
Many other art forms, people were able to distribute and consume digitally.
So, you know, you can buy a book and read it on Kindle.
You can see movies on Netflix and so on.
And although many people kind of took their shows onto online platforms, A) they didn't know how to monetize it.
And B) the production values were so poor, um, that if people had access to Netflix, why would they watch a piece of theater online?
And literally, as you know, you know, so much of what happens in theater and dance is about the direct encounter.
And so you kind of had theseis poor examples of stand up comics, for example, taking the work
online, but performing in a studio without any audience and really struggling because there was none.
So I and a few friends within the sector we've kind of got together, um, to form a private foundation.
To support theater dance, and we've calling it sustaining theater and dance and the acronym is STAND.
And so we've come up with a whole range of projects that we will seek to support and using
the hashtag, like still standing or, you know, we've come up with a whole range of things.
And what we've essentially done as startup funding for it is we've gone to individuals within the sector.
Whoever made it as practitioners.
Stand up comic or a really famous actor or director or whatever, and say to them, can you donate 10,000 Rand?
You can work it out what it's like in Euros, its probably about maybe 500 Euros or so.
Which in your terms it's not much, but you know, in our context, 10,000 Rand is it's not insignificant.
And so we wanted to get about 50 patrons who would make this amount of money available by our launch.
And then we would have that body of money to be able to initiate a whole bunch of things.
Um, we were also kind of raising money from, you know, embassies and companies and the like.
So the idea is that we would build up eventually a database of a hundred thousand people in our country, who support theater and dance.
And, we would ask them to provide a monthly contribution of a hundred Rand, which is, you know, maybe five euros a month.
And so this was kind of working on scale.
So if you had a hundred thousand people, it would be 500,000 euros a month.
Which we would then be able to use to support the sector.
And that's basically what our vision is, and that's what we are now working towards.
And we took a decision that we will not make money available in an artist relief kind of way to make money available, to pay for people's rent and the like.
We wanted to have projects through which artists could earn money.
So it will be their dignity kind of being affirmed and they would then being able to cover their costs in that way, because also artists want to work.
They want to be rehearsing.
They want to be producing and that's, you know, that's what they want.
Also, essentially what we are saying is.
Folk within the dance and theater sector.
If the last 26 years have shown anything, is that we were on our own.
Forget about Government coming to the party, we need to look to ourselves to find ways to support ourselves.
20:06 Matthias Jochmann
I mean, since pandemic appeared, I read so many articles and so many people were talking about solidarity, but in my, let's
say in my bubbles that I act in or get my news from, I would say this discourse on solidarity pretty soon disappeared.
So I'm very happy to hear such a great initiative.
20:28 Mike van Graan
Look, I mean, you know, let's talk again in three months time and see where we are and, you know, if we can get into the cycle where we are, we, you
know, the whole notion of solidarity is, and the whole notion of, of, the COVID-19 pandemic is that people say we are only safe when we are all safe.
And that is true of the pandemic, but it's also true of a country like ours that faces the kind of inequalities
that we do, that the elites are only safe when everybody in our country feels they've got a stake in our society.
If people are on the underside of history, those who are in the elite parts of our society are always
going to feel threatened because at some stage social unrest, crime, and somewhat will affect them.
And aside, I think the notion of solidarity is one in which we kind of see that even if we do not buy into the moral principle that equality is a good thing and
the right thing, then at least seek it for your own strategic interests that it's in your best interests to be in solidarity and to act in solidarity with others.
And that's kind of, you know, in a way what we are trying to promote
21:43 Matthias Jochmann
sounds like you're super busy with this.
And I was wondering, because I read that you were writing a novel actually.
21:52 Mike van Graan
So actually I've been involved in a number of different things.
So, yes, I mean, I started writing a novel because since the last year I was an artist in residence at the
university of Victoria and my commission there was to write a play about the sustainable development goals.
And, um, it was really successful.
In fact, it's now being prescribed as a text to be studied by schools, but they kind of then
invited me and said, look, we'd like you to come back to the university and come and teach.
But for that, you need a PhD.
And, um, I mean, I've never seen myself in academia, I always avoided it because it's not part of reality for me.
I much more prefere to be kind of engaged in what was happening.
Um, but I said, okay, Let's look at it.
So maybe this is not a bad thing.
And I see my role now as kind of being much more building a new tier of leadership in a way and maybe the university was the place we should do that.
So I'd add this, finish up, lined up to do this novel, told them about it.
They said, well, make it part of the PhD, write a novel and do the PhD in creative writing.
And we'll all be happy.
So that's kind of how it came about, but I'm telling you this Matthias, I mean, the COVID times and the lockdown period, one would
think that's kind of being conducive to creativity, because you have time, but I just haven't found that to be the case at all.
Um, that's really not being an appropriate time to sit down and particularly try to write a novel,
you know, it would be my first time and I'd need to give it more thought than, than writing a play.
23:27 Matthias Jochmann
So if I got you right you, you couldn't use the time in lockdown because you didn't have time, is that right?
23:33 Mike van Graan
Well, this has been one of the, one of the ironies of lockdown that one thought,
on had more time, but what has also happened is that Zoom has kind of taken over our lives.
One thing ends and Zoom, the next thing starts 15 minutes later.
So in fact, our lives are kind of split up, which is like really bizarre.
Um, I mean the irony is, um, in terms of plays, I haven't really thought I would spend time writing plays because where's the outlet.
And in terms of the countr, probably one of the two most productive theaters in terms of new work, they commissioned me to write a play.
Um, together with five younger writers, all of us work at the same play and the commission was to write a play of these times, but not about these times.
So in other words, we weren't required to write a play about COVID-19 or even to mention COVID-19.
But to look at what is the Zeitgeist of this particular moment, and most of the writers are kind of 30 and under.
And, um, so I'm kind of serving as the so called head writer to synthesize all this different things.
So we've been meeting every Monday for two hours on different writing exercises and see kind of what emerges.
And it has been fascinating because we're not kind of at the end of that particular process.
Um, but even for these younger folk, it's the theme of mortality is the one that has come up in all of their writing.
They're 22 years old, 24 years old.
28 years old, but having to confront mortality is the thing that for most of the writing, yeah, is a thing.
So, so that's actually been very interesting to see how the pandemic, in terms of people's writing of these times, but not about these times is kind of impacting.
And then we sit on the stand committee.
Um, as I said, there are 10 of us.
And at the beginning of each meeting, we kind of have a little bit of a check in just to see where each of us is because of these particular times.
And I tell you, Matthias, it's been incredible every single week for the last six weeks.
One of us has known someone who's died, you know, every, every single week.
If it's not someone, I mean, one guy had his cousin pass away two weeks ago and then his uncle, the week
after that, the chairperson of our committee, she had the CEO of their company her mother died too weeks ago.
So, you know, it's a real sense in a very confrontational way.
For many people in our country at the moment that they are dealing with anxiety of their mortality, you know,
that everybody knows people very close to them who have either died or are in the process of dying or whatever.
And I think that this is also affecting people's mental wellness, you know.
Um, so the financial crisis that people are experiencing and the impact that that has on people's ability to look after their families,
to care for, to take care of themselves and those that they feel responsible for is increasing emotional and psychological anxiety.
26:46 Matthias Jochmann
I just got goosebumps.
I will try to shift to a bit lighter topic.
26:52 Mike van Graan
It would be nice.
26:58 Matthias Jochmann
I mean in the beginning, you said that actually, or most probably the virus was brought in by people who travel a lot.
And, um, as far as I know, you also been traveling a lot, so I'm wondering, would you already see some consequences that you take personally?
27:11 Mike van Graan
So certainly, I mean, and that's going to be the case kind of globally that it's those of us who've
been able to travel that have, you know, basically caused the virus to jump as it did across continents.
Um, so one has to become aware of that.
I think that also, you know what this time has kind of shown is the potential challenges that we are going to be facing as a result of climate change.
So in a way, um, this is like a foretaste of that, but I think that what these times have shown is that we can all be a
little bit more, um, reflective about how we have done things in the past and how we can shift to doing things in the future.
And I certainly don't see the need for myself to be travelling as much as I did.
Um, You know, and in fact, the last five months while being in one place have actually been really cool.
I mean, I don't think for the last, well, 20 years I've spent that amount of time in one place in that country.
And it's not being a bad experience at all, you know?
So I suppose it's about now trying to understand, and these new conditions.
Well, the old conditions in terms of inequity, but within the context of potential climate change and its impact,
how do we deliver on human solidarity and all of us having better lives globally than has been the case till now.
And I suppose, Matthias, my final thing on this is that I also always said that our country in a way is a microcosm
for the world, you know, we've inherited from an apartheid past a white minority that is resourced, that has
privilege and a black majority upon of whom the white minority has really built it's current wealth and privilege.
In the same way as colonialism has empowered a largely white minority of countries, at the expense of, you know, the people of color kind of countries.
And although one is wanting to make changes where one is because one well to be a bit of place.
You can also confront the kind of really deep structural inequalities.
And how do you change the structures, you know, and how do you change people who all in charge
of structures who are so invested in keeping those structures, they are out of self-interest.
So it really has been a time also for that kind of reflection because.
In the previous dispensation, when you've just kind of been engaged every day, there's something that you
need to be engaged and you're coughing, or we're thinking that it's contributing somehow to a better world.
It doesn't allow you much time to reflect here's this really contributing to a better world.
And I think that what this time has done is allowed one to maybe think a little bit more about these things, huh?
And what really should to be doing and how should we be doing it in order to bring about
the more, just the more equitable Quill that we will kind of like to think we believe in?
30:07 Matthias Jochmann
I would say these were wonderful last words.
Thank you very much.
This was episode five with Mike van Graan.
Stay tuned for the following episode of Record of Change.
When we will hear Allen is a queer man based in Bangalore India.
He will share with us how the lockdown forced him to stay indoors with his pets, but separated from his partner.
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