THE Free State provincial government is coughing out a staggering R26.9 million to cover a shortfall incurred in staging this year’s edition of the Mangaung African Cultural Festival (Macufe) held in October.
Initially, the organisers of the annual festival had a R16.5 million kitty which they had indicated was not going to be enough to cover the costs of hiring artists, venues, equipment and other associated overheads.
The additional funds for Macufe, announced by finance MEC Elzabe Rockman as she presented her 2013/14 provincial budget adjustment speech in Bloemfontein this week, take the state spending on the arts and culture event to a whopping R43.4 million.
We are not sure if the organisers can justify such a huge budget at a time the government is desperate to streamline state spending and prioritise key service delivery projects.
For now, our concern is much bigger than that.
Isn’t it time we started questioning the wisdom of spending even a single cent of taxpayers’ money on an event that could easily be self-sustaining?
The provincial government has always justified spending millions of public funds on Macufe on the premise that the festival is a great marketing tool for the Free State.
Rockman reiterated that notion this week, saying the event was never meant to be commercial in the first place.
But for an event that has been successfully running over the past decade – drawing more than 140 000 people this year – it no longer makes sense for it not to turn huge profits.
It doesn’t matter too even if the festival is meant to provide a platform to develop for local novice artists.
The reality is that the indirect benefits of Macufe are limited – never mind this year’s edition of the event is reported to have contributed R80 million realised by private companies to the local economy.
Generally, to justify support from the state, a good or service should be reasonably accessible to any given citizen, of benefit to at least a majority of citizens, and not as easily or readily provided by the private sector.
The good or service should be likely to improve the well-being of any given citizen.
Macufe, as we see it, does not meet the above criteria for public benefits.
Organisers and companies as well as artists hired to provide services for the festival are the only direct beneficiaries of the state funding.
What’s more, performing arts such as music, dance and theatre are patronised heavily by the middle class and wealthy elites.
This raises the question whether the average taxpayer should subsidise a group that can afford to support the festival.
As it is, it seems the government is through Macufe lumping the costs of entertaining well-off revellers onto ordinary people who either don’t care to consume the arts or can scarcely afford it.
The fact that the over R43 million spent on Macufe 2013 is enough to build more than 500 RDP houses for the poor leaves such expenditure bordering on misappropriation.
Yet we would be foolish to call for the canning of such a hugely popular festival.
All we wish to see is the government rethinking its “business” model.
We have put business in quotes because the government clearly doesn’t see Macufe as such.
And that’s where it’s wrong, we believe.
It’s a generally accepted view that government ownership and control tend to discourage entrepreneurship and innovation, particularly when state funds are always readily available to cover expenses.
No one can deny that Macufe is now a big brand – an international one for that matter.
This means it can generate profits and for that to happen the government ought to at least partially privatise the festival.
It has to put the licence to run the festival up for bidding and let corporate companies compete to bankroll the event through sponsorships and partnerships.
Arguing that commercialising Macufe would make the festival unaffordable for ordinary people would be disingenuous, for at R300 per head to enter the main concert this year it is already too steep.
The millions being sunk into the festival from state coffers will be better used to turn Bloemfontein into a real cultural city capable of attracting tourists throughout the year, not for an odd fortnight in October.
How, we will leave those at the relevant provincial government departments to justify their salaries by putting their heads round it.