Reflection on the 2018 National Arts Festival

Introduction

Festivals, like any enterprise, constantly need to innovate in order to meet the changing challenges that impact on their markets.  To its credit, as per its post-Festival overview media release, the National Arts Festival launched “two key initiatives” this year that provided “fresh energy to the iconic 44-year-old event: the launch of the Creativate Digital Arts Festival and the move of the Standard Bank Village Green craft market to a new venue”.

These also helped to contribute to a “modest but important” increase in the attendance figures.

Notwithstanding this “fresh vibe and energy” though, I couldn’t help but come away with a feeling that the 2018 Festival, could very well be my last as a producer.

Shows staged by MVG Productions

The company through which I produce and tour works that I author staged three productions on the Fringe (Green Man Flashing, When Swallows Cry and Land Acts), and co-produced a fourth (Best of Pay Back the Curry and State Fracture).  These were all “in production” so that there were no pre-production costs (other than having to rehearse in a replacement actor for Green Man Flashing).

Green Man Flashing is a prescribed text at IEB schools (these schools were a significant part of the Johannesburg market where the play was produced in May), and this generation of learners would not have seen a live production, hence the staging of this work on the country’s premier arts platform.  When Swallows Cry was just beginning its life as a touring production and has important things to say about a key contemporary theme – migration and refugees.  The Festival attracts international students, academics and producers interested in contemporary South African theatre, so this would be another good reason to stage such a piece at the Festival.

Having been to the Festival with work for about twenty years, I know that it is unlikely that dramas (as opposed to comedy or satire) would “make money” on the Fringe.  The two dramas were good showcases of the kind of work I would like to do in this genre, while the satirical revues were popular forms of contemporary social commentary.  In terms of economies of scale, the two dramas were labour-intensive (8 actors, 2 directors and 2 stage managers between them), while the revues relied on the same actor and stage manager.  This – the capacity of the income from the revues to subsidise the costs of the dramas – together with the sharing of some costs with other productions featuring the same personnel, reduced the potential financial risks.

As for any production at the Festival, costs (in addition to the Festival’s administration charges) included accommodation, per diems, flights, local transport and fees – the latter weekly rates guaranteed irrespective of income from the Festival.

The Breakdown

Each of the dramas had six shows in the Gym (237-seater), Land Acts had 9 shows in the Followspot Productions venue, Kingswood College and the “Best Of” show featured 8 times in the Drill Hall, along with a number of stand-up comedians curated by Siv Ngesi.  In total, there were 6460 seats to sell, more than the total number of seats for the Afrovibes Festival in the Netherlands, according to one of its organisers.

In the end, we sold a total of 2604 tickets (40% of the total), with an additional 239 free tickets allocated (8% of the overall total), and of which 116 were artist tickets (a really good innovation to allow artists to see shows for free).

Best of Pay Back the Curry and State Fracture attracted the most (947 tickets), followed by Land Acts (876), When Swallows Cry (602) with Green Man Flashing – the most expensive show to stage – having a total audience of 418. Green Man Flashing played to an average of 69 people per show (29% capacity overall); When Swallows Cry played to 40% overall capacity with an average of 100 per show, while the average show figures for Land Acts and “Best of” were 97 (42% overall capacity) and 118 (59% capacity) respectively.  

In the previous two years, we staged the Pay Back the Curry and State Fracture in the 100-seater Masonic, generally playing to capacity, so that Land Acts performed at least as well as its predecessors while the “combo show” exceeded previous average capacities by more than 15%.

The Festival admin costs for each show include venue hire (rates vary according to the size of the venue and its capacity to earn income), the fringe application (R1000.00), 10% of box office for the National Arts Festival, 8% commission for the ticketing company and advertising in the programme (one of the most important ways to draw attention to one’s work prior to the Festival).

Box office income for each of the shows was R25 744.00 for Green Man Flashing and R38 926.00 for When Swallows Cry, while Land Acts and “Best Of” earned R56 184.00 and R68 792.00 respectively, for a total of R189 646.00

“Festival admin” expenses (venue hire, application, ticketing, Festival commission and advertising) for each show were R10 686.64 for Green Man Flashing, R15 989.20 for When Swallows Cry, R17 897.92 for Land Acts and “Best Of” cost R24 049.60, for a total of R68 623.36.

These costs accounted for 36% of the total box office income, with the remaining amount of R121 022.64 not sufficient to cover the costs of accommodation, fees, per diems and transport for the creatives.

To cover the total costs (let alone make a profit), the four productions would have had to sell closer to 60% of the total number of available tickets, rather than the actual 40%.

Having been to the Fringe for at least twenty years, I am more than aware that the average attendance of even our most poorly attended show and the income generated by all the shows is above the average for their particular genres.  However, over the last few years and notwithstanding the interventions undertaken by the Festival, there are risks and challenges that have made it increasingly difficult and unattractive to produce on the Festival Fringe.

Risks and challenges

1. The Festival’s media release notes the country’s “tough economic climate” and the “shrinking levels of disposable income” impact on the Festival’s numbers, with people spending less time at the Festival and seeking out “…free or low-cost entertainment”.

The country’s challenging economic environment does not only affect the National Arts Festival but other festivals too, and unfortunately, given the structural declines in various sectors of the economy, the huge losses to the fiscus through massive corruption, policies such as “expropriation without compensation” that may result in less investment, increasing costs in petrol and electricity, etc it is unlikely that the economic environment is going to improve significantly over the next 3-5 years.  If anything, it is likely that we will face even tougher economic scenarios (weekend newspaper headlines point to a potential recession) that will impact more adversely on the Festival and its markets, making it less and less viable for independent producers to stage more-than-two-person works on the Fringe.

While the Festival’s official attendance figures for 2018 were 209 677, a “modest but important” increase in attendance on the previous year, they remain an unreliable indicator of actual attendance and – from the perspective of Fringe producers in particular – of ticket purchases.  The Festival’s official “attendance figures” have fluctuated enormously over the last five years: 225 538 in 2014 in the year the Festival celebrated its fortieth anniversary; then a massive increase to 241 116 the following year (2015), falling back to 227 524 the year after that (2016) and then a huge drop to 202 642 last year, with an increase of 7000 this year.

These figures are unhelpful as they include – as the festival media release concedes for the first time – tickets purchased and attendance at free events. In 2014, the Festival estimated – free – attendance at Main exhibitions at 120 people per day and 50 per day for Fringe exhibitions.  Then, 24 Fringe and 12 Main exhibitions accounted for at least 29 000 in the attendance figure.  This year, there are 11 Main exhibitions and 45 Fringe exhibitions, which, using the same attendance estimates as for 2014, would account for 39 000 of this year’s attendance.  This year, there was the addition of international buskers at the Village Green who were – according to the Festival release – a “huge hit”, accounting for more – free – attendance.

It would be more helpful for producers to see trends in attendance from ticket sales for the Main programme on the one hand, and then ticket sales for the Fringe, with these further broken down into sales for comedy, drama, dance, illusion, etc.  Over the last five years the “attendance” has increased by 16 000 in one year, dropped by 14 000 the following year, and then a further drop by 25 000 the year after that.  It would appear that real or actual attendance has declined over a period of time, but by increasing the number of free events (exhibitions, buskers, etc), the Festival is able to arrive at an increase in attendance this year, which is understandably more attractive to sponsors than declining numbers.

For the Fringe producer though, declining – actual – attendance is bad news, particularly when one is competing in this decreasing market with 250 plus shows on the Fringe and more than 100 shows on the Main programme. Unfortunately, economic conditions in the country are not going to change significantly in the next few years to improve the actual – ticket-buying – attendance at the Festival.

2. The overall economic environment is not the only challenge and risk facing independent producers on the Fringe; the political climate impacts on what people want to see. In 2016, 19 of the top 30 shows in terms of ticket sales were in the Comedy category, while only 7 were drama shows.  The Festival’s media release affirms Followspot Productions which again had the Festival’s “biggest-grossing Fringe show”, with Tony Lankester commending the company for getting “the formula right, consistently delivering productions that hit the right notes with audiences”.

Followspot Productions curated the Kingswood College with Land Acts one of the shows and another curated venue – the Drill Hall, where the Best of Pay Back the Curry and State Fracture featured – also featured strongly among the top contenders.

As per the Festival’s media release, The Edge was a third curated venue with strong – theatre – shows and which has developed a reputation for presenting excellent work.  However, it is the “lighter” shows that audiences are most attracted to.  This is also our experience with the two satirical revues achieving greater numbers than the dramas; if audiences want political commentary, they at least would like to laugh!

If the market’s desire for comedy and light entertainment (given the challenging political climate) is not a sufficient challenge for producers interested in presenting “serious” work on the Fringe, there is the further challenge of “oversupply” of theatre/drama on the Fringe.  There were more than 250 shows on the Fringe covering genres such as dance, physical theatre, illusion, comedy, theatre, children, music theatre and music; of these, 108 (more than 40%) were theatre shows.  But of the more than 1200 shows presented on the Fringe across these genres, in excess of 600 i.e. at least 50% were theatre/drama shows!

Serious theatre also – generally – has larger casts than comedy, so that it is more expensive to produce on the Fringe.  So, for a theatre producer, unless one is staging comedy or satire too to subsidise one’s serious theatre presentations, the competition with comedy or light entertainment already places one at a significant disadvantage, and then on top of that, one is having to compete against an oversupply of serious theatre for a limited audience.

3. One of the “benefits” of producing at the Festival is possible media coverage that could be used for future marketing purposes. A major loss to the Festival last year, was Cue, the daily festival newspaper put together and distributed by the Department of Journalism at Rhodes University.  This year, the Herald picked up the mantle with Spotlight, but while all our shows and profiles of creatives associated with the shows received generous coverage, it is too early to tell whether this newspaper highlighting festival news and providing reviews in much the same way that Cue did, is sustainable – given the precarious nature of Independent Newspapers itself – or whether commercial imperatives and considerations will impact adversely both on what it does or is able to do, and its longevity.  The Festival tried to obviate the absence of Cue with more online and social media, but these did not make up for the hole left by Cue.

4. A final – and increasingly serious – risk is Grahamstown’s/Makhanda’s failing infrastructure. This year, there was only one day in which there were electricity blackouts, but fortunately, the one MVG Productions show affected by this, could be performed with natural light.  If we had been unable to perform, we would have had to return the ticket income to the purchasers.  Given the slim margins, and declining audiences, the risk of having to cancel shows – and losing income – because of the failure of the city to provide secure electricity makes the Festival unattractive to producers.

Conclusion

The National Arts Festival faces its major challenges from the overall political and economic climate in the country, and from its location in Makhanda, making it increasingly unattractive for theatre producers on the Fringe.  I have deep appreciation for the pressures that the Festival faces in order to survive and keep being the interface between the arts and the sponsors/government, but I fear it has largely lost its attraction (for me anyway) as a platform for doing “serious theatre” on the Fringe.

Notwithstanding this, the Festival remains the most important national platform for the arts, and for younger producers and new entrants, this is an ideal space to learn.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What the Naledi Theatre Awards say about the theatre sector

Introduction

Recently, Faniswa Yisa asked on Facebook “How many theatre institutions in Cape Town have had a black female director without the umbrella of ‘emerging’ or ‘development’?”  Gauteng-based friends with their tongues in their cheeks said they would bring out the popcorn and watch with interest as the question provoked their drought-stricken colleagues.

A few weeks earlier, Lesedi Job won the Naledi Best Director Award for her work on When Swallows Cry.  She was the first black African woman to win this award.

Awards reflect our industry.  We know from the Fleur du Cap Awards that the Cape Town theatre sector has issues.  But, with Yisa’s question in mind, this article looks at the Naledi Theatre Awards – in particular, its Best Play Director and Best Script categories – to see what they say about the theatre industry generally, and about the theatre industry in Gauteng in particular.  In doing so, it seeks to answer Yisa’s question in relation to Gauteng’s theatre industry too.

This article is less about the awards, than what they reflect about the industry.

Summary of Best Script, Best Director and Best Production categories

Below are the scripts, the directors and the productions which won their respective categories since the start of the Naledi awards in 2003.

 

Year Best Script Writer Best Director Play Best Production
2003 Nothing but the Truth John Kani Janice Honeyman Nothing but the Truth Nothing but the Truth
2004 King of Laughter Craig Freimond Craig Freimond King of Laughter Honour
2005 Exits and Entrances Athol Fugard Mpumelelo Grootboom Relativity Exits and Entrances
2006 The Suitcase Eskia Mphahlele James Ngcobo The Suitcase The Suitcase
2007 Shirley, Goodness and Mercy Chris van Wyk Yael Farber Molora Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?
2008 Karoo Moose Lara Foot Lara Foot Karoo Moose Karoo Moose
2009 Brothers in Blood Mike van Graan Mpumelelo Grootboom Foreplay Nothing but the Truth
2010 The Girl in the Yellow Dress Craig Higginson Craig Freimond Death of a Colonialist Death of a Colonialist
2011 Rivonia Trial Aubrey Sekhabi, Mpumelelo Grootboom, Mandla Dube Aubrey Sekhabi Rivonia Trial The History Boys
2012 Abnormal Load Neil Coppen Sylvaine Strike The Miser The Miser
2013 Hayani Atandwa Kani and Nat Ramabulana Yael Farber Miss Julie Miss Julie
2014 The Shadow of the Hummingbird Athol Fugard and Paula Fourie Aubrey Sekhabi Marikana: the Musical Pale Natives
2015 A Voice I cannot silence Greg Homann and Ralph Lawson Khayelihle Dom Gumede Crepuscule Fishers of Hope
2016 Suddenly the Storm Paul Slabolepszy Jade Bowers Scorched I see you
2017 When Swallows Cry Mike van Graan Lesedi Job When Swallows Cry When Swallows Cry

Some facts

Best Director

From 2003-2017, a period of 15 years, there have been a total of 90 nominees in the Best Director of a Play or Musical category.  Of these, 27 (30%) have been black (in the Biko sense), while there have been 63 white nominees.  There were two male/woman director combinations, with 33 woman (37%) and 55 male nominees respectively.

Of the total of 90 nominations, there have five black woman nominees, all of them since 2013 (Warona Seane 2013, Princess Zinzi Mhlongo and Khutjo Green 2014, Jade Bowers 2016 and Lesedi Job 2017).  28 of the 33 women nominees were white.

Individuals with the most nominations in this category over the 15-year period are Alan Swerdlow (10), Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom (5), Janice Honeyman (4), James Ngcobo (4), Aubrey Sekhabi (4), Lara Bye (4), Lara Foot (3), Greg Homann (3) and Sylvaine Strike (3).  These 9 directors account for 40 – nearly half – of the 90 nominations.

There have been 15 winners since 2003, 8 of whom were black.

Four directors have each won twice: Craig Freimond, Mpumelelo Grootboom, Yael Farber and Aubrey Sekhabi, so that these four directors have won more than half the 15 awards between them.

In the last three years, the winners in the Best Director category have all been first-time, young (under the age of 35) black winners, and two of them are women, a good sign both for youth and black women in Gauteng.  But these things don’t just happen.  Khayelihle Dom Gumede  won the Best Director category (2015) a few years after winning the Emerging Director’s Bursary where he staged an earlier version of Crepuscule.  Jade Bowers was the Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre in 2016; her festival play also won her the Naledi award for 2016.  Lesedi Job was granted her debut directorial by the Market Theatre’s artistic director, James Ngcobo, with When Swallows Cry in 2017.

Best Script

While there has been an upward trend in the nomination of black women in the Best Director category over the last five years reflecting greater opportunities for this demographic to practice their craft, the Best Script category reflects appalling numbers.

The only black woman to have been nominated in this category over 15 years, and out of a total of 80 nominees, is Motshabi Tyelele, and that was in 2004.

Of the 80 nominees, 37 are black (36 were men), 42 white and there was one collaboration between a white and a black writer.

There are only 13 woman nominees (16% of the total), 12 of whom are white.

The individuals with the most nominations are Lara Foot (6), Mike van Graan (5), Craig Higginson (5: 4 plus one collaboration with Mncedisi Shabangu), Mpumelelo Grootboom (5: 3 plus 1 collaboration with Presley Chweneyagae and 1 collaboration with Aubrey Sekhabi and Mandla Dube), Aubrey Sekhabi (4: 3 plus the latter collaboration), Paul Slabolepszy (3), Athol Fugard (3: 2 plus a collaboration with Paula Fourie), Nick Warren (2), Renos Spanoudes (2), John Kani (2), Mpho Molepo (2) and James Ngcobo (2).

These 12 writers are responsible for 50% of the total number of nominations over a period of 15 years, with Lara Foot being the only woman among them (along with Paula Fourie, Fugard’s collaborator on one piece).

Of the 15 winners in this category, 7 are black.  Foot is the only woman to have won this category in her own right (Karoo Moose, 2008).

The individuals who have won the most in this category are Athol Fugard (2: 1 plus 1 with Paula Fourie) and Mike van Graan (2).

 12 of the 15 winning writers or writer combinations (80%) are now over the age of 50.

 Best Production

 The same play won the Best Script, Best Director and Best Production of a Play only four times: Nothing but the Truth (2003), The Suitcase (2006), Karoo Moose (2008) and When Swallows Cry (2017).

On 5 occasions (one-in-three), the winning play in each of these three categories was completely different.  In 2007, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy won Best Script, Molora won for the Best Director and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf won Best Production.  In 2009, it was Brothers in Blood, Foreplay and Nothing but the Truth; in 2014, The Shadow of the Hummingbird, Marikana: the musical and Pale Natives made up the winners; in 2015, it was A Voice I cannot silence, Crepuscule and Fishers of Hope, while in 2016, the three different plays were Suddenly the Storm, Scorched and I See You respectively.

Only Lara Foot has won the Best Script, Best Director and Best Production categories in one year (Karoo Moose), although James Ngcobo’s adaptation of Eskia Mpahlele’s The Suitcase achieved the same feat two years earlier.  Craig Freimond won both the Best Script and Best Director categories in the same year for King of Laughter in 2004, while Aubrey Sekhabi won the Best Director for Rivonia Trial in 2011, a play he co-wrote with Mpumelelo Grootboom and Mandla Dube, winning the Best Script category in the same year.

On more than half the occasions (8 of 15), the winning director was not responsible for the Best Production.

Observations

Based on the above, the following observations may be made:

1. Clearly, using Yisa’s question as a starting point, more opportunities need to be provided for black African women directors and playwrights. It is not necessarily that the talent does not exist and needs to be “developed”; it is about having time and support to hone one’s craft and opportunities to present one’s work with the highest possible production standards.  The writers who have received the most nominations (Lara Foot, Craig Higginson, Aubrey Sekhabi, Mpumulelo Grootboom and I) have all benefitted from an extended period of time working in, or with a theatre. Foot and Sekhabi are the artistic directors of their respective theatres; Higginson was the resident dramaturge at the Market Theatre for a number of years, Grootboom is a resident director at the State Theatre and I enjoyed 3,5 years as Artscape’s Associate Playwright.

Grootboom, Sekhabi and Foot have also received numerous nominations in the Best Director category for the same reasons (access to resources over extended periods of time within theatres), and Alan Swerdlow earned his multiple nominations during a period when he was the equivalent of a “resident director” for Pieter Toerien’s productions.  Janice Honeyman, Yael Farber, Clare Stopford and other women directors all feature among the nominations in the Best Director category because of opportunities provided by theatres with resources.

There are fewer opportunities for writers, and it is quite instructive that in 15 editions, only one black African woman has had a play nominated for a Naledi award.  It is not so much for the Naledi judges to go out in search of such writers in future, but rather for the theatre industry to increase this pool of writers; this can be done with relative ease as each subsidised theatre could commission a writer, or contract a woman resident writer for an extended period of time as has been, and is the case with male writers and male writer/directors.

2. The National Arts Festival fringe is an indicator of how much new work is produced each year, but it also reflects the wide range with regard to quality. That most of the Naledi scripting awards have been won by more seasoned writers shows the lack of investment in, and opportunities to learn about writing for the stage.  There are many making theatre, but there is dearth of mentors, dramaturges and showcases for new work as part of their development.  This is less the case in the Afrikaans theatre community with its “Teksmark” (Text Market) supported by the National Afrikaans Theatre Initiative (and which now includes scripts in other languages), than among theatre makers working in other indigenous languages, or among black theatre-makers working in English.  Again, this is a challenge for the theatre industry to address.

3. With the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees and Woordfees in the Western Cape producing much new work in Afrikaans, the Fleur du Cap awards often affirm Afrikaans theatre that eventually finds its way into the traditional theatre spaces in the region. This is less the case with Afrikaans theatre – much of it of excellent quality – in Gauteng.  But, at the same time, theatre produced by black theatre makers in Gauteng seldom makes its way to the Western Cape (for example, few, if any, of the award-winning plays by Sekhabi or Grootboom have been staged in the Western Cape).  This may have to do with the scale of their productions that often feature large casts, but it raises the question of touring and access: surely, with state-subsidised theatres in at least four provinces, theatre should be able to tour to at least these four regions?  It would appear though – from the list of Naledi nominations over the 15 years – that it is more likely for work from Cape Town to feature in Gauteng’s theatres than the other way round.  If it is difficult for work to tour between these two major theatre-producing regions, how much more of a challenge is it to tour works to other, less-resourced regions, thus denying most of the country’s inhabitants access to the country’s best theatre.

4. It is an obvious point to make, but it needs to be made to show the disparities within the theatre sector. There are many independent theatre companies and theatre makers producing excellent theatre, but often the lack of resources limits who they can employ as actors, as designers, and their capacity to produce sets or elaborate costumes, etc. Accordingly, the overwhelming number of winners in each of the categories listed above are related to plays produced by the more established institutions – the Market Theatre, State Theatre, Baxter Theatre, Pieter Toerien Productions – or by Festival producers.  If this is the case, then it is also appropriate to ask about the absence of some of the subsidised theatres – PACOFS, the Playhouse and to a lesser extent, Artscape: why are they NOT represented at least among the nominees?  Are public funds being used wisely in these institutions, in the nurturing, production and distribution of theatre?  If not, why are they being funded?

Conclusion

Awards processes and events such as the Naledi Theatre Awards are symptoms of our industry.  They help us to interrogate and understand the challenges and the possibilities.  Twenty-four years into our democracy, there is still much that needs to be done to give concrete expression to the right of everyone “to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts”.  The Revised White Paper on Arts and Culture” has been more than four years in the making, and while changes in policy could contribute substantially towards the realisation of this right (provided policy changes are complemented by political will and resources), there is much that the theatre sector itself can do, with the available resources.  But here, too, there is a need for vision for the sector as a whole and for the will to contribute beyond narrow institutional, individual or “group” interests and concerns.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

MARKET THEATRE ALLEGATIONS IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN THAT NEED TO BE INVESTIGATED

Introduction

Over the last number of months, various allegations have been made against the Council of the Market Theatre, its Chairperson, senior members of management (the CEO in particular), other members of middle management as well as the Department of Arts and Culture in relation to the Market Theatre.

We believe that these allegations – and related sources of tensions within the institution – need to be investigated/tested by a credible, independent and transparent mechanism that allows any party making the allegations to do so without the fear of adverse consequences.

Where allegations are found to be credible, depending on their nature, we believe that there should be consequences for those found guilty of such allegations, particularly if they have breached laws, regulations and policies governing the Market Theatre and other publicly-funded institutions.

Where allegations are found to be without substance, we believe that there should be disciplinary steps taken against those who have made such allegations, with necessary consequences as prescribed in the law, in terms of regulations and policies governing the Market Theatre.

The Council of the Market Theatre is the highest decision-making body of the institution.  Given the seriousness of the allegations against it, and because we believe that it was appointed in a manner inconsistent with the Cultural Institutions Act, we have called for the termination of the services of the current Council as it would be too compromised in dealing with matters arising out of an independent investigation.

However, should anyone – whether still formally associated with the Market Theatre as an employee, member of the management team or Council member or not – be found to be in contravention of any policy, regulation or law governing the Market Theatre, there should be appropriate consequences.  Too often those found guilty of such contraventions in publicly-funded or state institutions are let off the hook by having them resign quietly.

The allegations listed below are in the public domain and are gleaned from the City Press article of 22 April 2018, the Sowetan article of 29 June 2018, the l7 July 2018 blog by Mike van Graan in which he records interviews with the former CEO, Annabell Lebethe and a former Council member, Mr Cedric Nunn and the 10 July 2018 blog by Ms Yusrah Bardien, a former employee.

Allegations against the Council of the Market Theatre

The allegations made and the person making the allegations, or the place in which the allegations appear, are listed below.  References are: City Press (CP), Sowetan (S), Annabell Lebethe (AL), Cedric Nunn (CN) and Yusrah Bardien (YB)

  1. The Council as a whole

1.1  They, or some of them, considered or agreed to pay bonuses of R100 000 to the Chairperson, R75 000 for each Council member and R35 000 for Audit Committee, despite this not being consistent with Treasury regulations. (CP, YB)

1.2  They approved expenditure for at least one international trip by the Council Chairperson (to Brussels) even though this had nothing to do with the Market Theatre (AL)

1.3  They failed to pay out the previous CEO for the balance of her contract (5 months) despite having agreed to this (AL)

1.4  They failed to act in terms of the existing grievances procedures that require them to respond to grievances within 5 days, thereby prejudicing the renewal of an employee’s contract (YB)

1.5  They failed to act when management informed them of the Council Chairperson interfering in operational matters, thereby undermining management and crossing the line between governance and management; as a consequence,  management felt completely unsupported by the Council who generally sided with/supported the Chairperson on issues of conflict between him and the management even when these tensions had to do with management upholding laws and regulations that proper governance required (AL)

1.6  They failed to act when matters of sexual harassment, issues of gender bias and discrimination were brought to their attention (YB)

1.7  The Council was divided generally into two camps – those inclusive and supportive of the Chairperson and who were generally the longest-serving on the Council (Matabane, Spector and Gumbi) – and those who were more independent (Twala, Nunn and the now-deceased McKenzie) – the latter three were based outside of Gauteng; this impacted adversely on the Council fulfilling its mandate (AL, CN)

  1. The Chairperson of the Council

2.1  He billed the Market Theatre excessively e.g. R586 000 was spent on his travel, accommodation and car hire in less than a year (CP)

2.2  He instructed the management to pay substantially increased stipend amounts (from just over R1000 to more than R10 000 per meeting) claiming that these had been approved by a forum of chairpersons of publicly-funded institutions (he also instructed management to backdate these payments) (AL)

2.3  He interfered in operational matters and overstepped his mandate/role as Council chairperson, undermining the authority of management among staff, and sometimes compromising their responsibilities as the Accounting Officers within the institution

2.3.1      he stipulated that he – rather than the CEO – signs the contract with the new Artistic Director (AL)

2.3.2      he instructed staff to make travel arrangements for himself, his two daughters and another Council member (Bongi Dhlomo) to attend the National Arts Festival, without the CEO’s knowledge/approval (AL)

2.3.3      against the advice of management and the DAC, he unilaterally terminated the contract of the CEO and CFO of the Windybrow who were on disciplinary charges, leading to greater costs at the CCMA (AL)

2.3.4      he claimed that he had to intervene and make decisions as the CEO (Ismail Mahomed) “was not a leader” (CN)

2.3.5      he called and/or addressed staff meetings in which he undermined management in front of staff (CP, YB)

2.3.6      he indicated that he would change the job descriptions of staff (CP)

2.3.7      he indicated to Esther Mahlangu that if she painted a mural for reduced rates, the Market Theatre would raise funds for an art school in Mpumalanga (CP)

2.4  He misled the Council and/or withheld information so that some Council decisions were not fully informed

2.4.1      he informed the Council that the previous CEO had another job, so that there was no reason to renew her contract (AL)

2.4.2      minutes of meetings were changed to suit his perspective and there was a lack of transparency regarding some decisions (CN, AL)

2.5  He used his position at the Market Theatre to support his partisan campaign for the Presidency of the ANC

2.5.1      he claimed credit for the awarding of a doctorate to Esther Mahlangu and posted images of the two of them on his FB campaign site (CP)

2.5.2      he posted pictures of himself at various Market Theatre functions on his site to promote his campaign (CN)

2.5.3      he made “an outrageous” political speech at a Market Theatre function (the Sophie Mgcina awards event) for which he was reprimanded by Letta Mbuli (CN)

2.6  There were other conflicts of interest such as his wanting the Market Theatre to pay for his daughters to attend the National Arts Festival with him (AL)

2.7  He was vindictive towards those who crossed him and engaged in intimidation

2.7.1      after she declined to pay him the stipend increases as they had not been approved by Treasury, he changed the minutes of the Council meeting in which it had been agreed to pay her for the remainder of her contract (AL)

2.7.2      he made it increasingly difficult for her to stay on as CEO to the end of the financial year as agreed, let alone to the end of her contract, so that she eventually left with 24 hours’ notice (AL)

2.7.3      he declined Lebethe’s request for Twala to testify on her behalf in her dispute with the Council

2.7.4      after they declined to pay the bonuses for the Board that had not been approved by Treasury, he instructed the HR Department to withhold the bonuses of the CFO and the CEO, and to reduce the CEO’s salary (CP)

2.7.5      he threatened to get rid of the CFO and to ‘visit’ his enemies in the Department of Arts and Culture (CP, YB)

2.7.6      she challenged him in a staff meeting and as result, he interfered in the non-renewal of Yusrah Bardien’s contract (YB)

Allegations against the Management of the Market Theatre

  1. The CEO

1.1  he is racist in that

1.1.1      he has, on a number of occasions, said that “blacks do not know how to do their jobs” (S)

1.1.2      he promotes whites and Indians within the company and increases their salaries, while the salaries of black African workers remain stagnant (S)

1.2  he is nepotistic in that

1.2.1      he employed a relative – Yusrah Bardien (YB)

1.2.2      he created a position for a white woman friend and her girlfriend (S)

1.3  he abuses his position and power in that

1.3.1      he hires people unqualified for their jobs e.g. a designer (S)

1.3.2      he declined to institute disciplinary procedures against an employee who is a friend of his, after she left tourists – who were visiting the Market Theatre – stranded at Freedom Park (S)

1.3.3      he hired an assistant producer who reports directly to him rather than to the producer (S)

1.3.4      he shows favouritism to some by offering them commission in addition to their salaries (S)

  1. The HR Manager

2.1  she froze a position unfairly without addressing the grievances of the employee before the employee’s contract ended (YB)

2.2  she swept an issue of sexual harassment under the carpet (YB)

2.3  despite an employee refuting an allegation that she cheated in her interview by using someone else’s PowerPoint presentation, and that she was a relative of the CEO, these have been used to influence the non-renewal of her contract (YB)

  1. Head of Branding and Communication

3.1 she filed a baseless grievance of unfair hire and nepotism against the CEO/employee which has contributed to the non-renewal of her contract (YB)

Allegations against the Minister and/or Department of Arts and Culture and

  1. The staff have run out of patience with the DAC which has an oversight duty but fails to act on their grievances (S)
  2. The DAC was informed of the serious allegations against the Chairperson of the Council and the Council itself, and was advised better to vet nominees for the Council of the Market Theatre, but they went ahead and re-appointed five of the six previous members of the Council, and returned the Chairperson to his position (AL)

Summary

In summary, an independent investigation would need to interrogate and make appropriate recommendations (including policy changes, corrective courses, disciplinary charges, dismissal, criminal charges, recovery of funds, payouts for unfair dismissal, etc) about:

  1. Whether the Council of the Market Theatre as a whole and its individual members have properly exercised their fiduciary and governance responsibilities, and whether they are fit and proper to be appointed to any other publicly-funded institutions in the future
  2. Whether senior management of the Market Theatre – the CEO and CFO – have breached any law, regulation and policy in the appointment and remuneration of staff, and whether the CEO in particular has acted in a racist, nepotistic or discriminatory manner towards staff
  3. Whether middle management – the HR Manager and the Head of Branding and Communication – have acted with prejudice or not in the manner in which grievances have been raised and dealt with
  4. The underlying causes of the tensions between staff, between staff and management and between management and staff and Council
  5. Whether grievances for which they have oversight and as raised by staff, management and Council have been adequately and timeously addressed by the Minister and the Department of Arts and Culture
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Market Theatre: what is to be done?

Last week, I posted an article reflecting on the current crisis at the Market Theatre, a reflection based essentially on two newspaper articles – the first in the City Press and the second in the Sowetan – about this nationally-subsidised, iconic theatre.  This article provides further perspectives based on interviews with the former CEO of the Market Theatre, Annabell Lebethe, and Cedric Nunn, the only Council member not to be reappointed in April this year.  This article starts with two other matters that entered the public domain in the last week: a letter by a Council member, J. Brooks Spector to the Sowetan and a post by a former employee Yusrah Bardien.

Writing as the “Market Theatre Council Spokesperson”, Brooks Spector – a well-known commentator on American political affairs and a Market Theatre Council member for more than a decade – responds to the Sowetan article thus: “This letter refers to a story carried in The Sowetan on Friday 29 June entitled ‘Market Theatre CEO racist say staff’.  This article contains significant misstatements of fact and errors that can weaken the Market Theatre and its programmes.  It could even lead to the withdrawal of support by sponsors and funders from around the world, threatening its survival”.

Spector vouches for Mahomed “With regard to the charge that the current CEO Mr Ismail Mahomed holds racist thoughts and expresses derogatory, racialised thinking, I can only say that this is both untrue and preposterous.  I have known him for over 15 years and have never heard him utter such views.  Many others would attest to that judgement.”

The letter goes on to correct some inaccuracies in the Sowetan article and ends with “reporting such as this runs the risk of destroying the reputation of the Market Theatre Foundation”.

While it is true that the poor journalism of the Sowetan does the Market Theatre no favours, in my view, it is the Council of the Market Theatre itself which is the most significant threat to the reputation, funding and survival of the theatre through their complicity in not holding accountable the reckless Chairperson of the Board, Kwanele Gumbi, their negligence in exercising their fiduciary duties particularly with regard to financial matters, and their inaction when issues that threaten the reputation of the theatre have been brought to their attention by staff and management.  This will become evident from the stories below.

Last week, Yusrah Bardien – recently listed as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans – posted an article detailing how her contract came to an end on 30 June, without being provided with an opportunity to negotiate an extension.  Bardien believes that the non-renewal of her contract was victimisation because she “had challenged the Chairman of the Council, Kwanele Gumbi, on matters relating to the Public Finance Management Act.”

Bardien writes “…I challenged the Chairperson of the Council, in an irregular staff meeting he had convened, to clarify his poor explanation of the PFMA (Public Finance Management Act), in relation to Council’s decision not to pay-out full staff bonuses that year.  The Chairman alleged that the management had budgeted inadequately for staff bonuses noting full well that the Chairman of the Council had found a sum total of R850 000 to pay out Christmas bonuses to himself, the members of the Council and the Audit Committee”.  In her post, Bardien implies that Gumbi removed Mahomed from any discussion and decision regarding the renewal of her contract as some staff had accused Mahomed of nepotism in her original appointment, implying that she was related to Mahomed, which they both strenuously deny.

Bardien also raised gender-related issues, advocating for more spaces in the Market Theatre precinct to be named after women, challenging the position that no pregnant women could be on the stages of the Zwakala Festival and expressing her outrage that a “sexual offender who had been suspended by the Market Theatre Foundation” was allowed to be part of the annual Chairman’s Dinner Reception.

Notwithstanding her raising issues that concerned both the gender issues and her contract with the Council – some of it through Council member Shado Twala – Bardien claims that she never received any response to any of her issues from the Council which has her asking “Has Mr Spector and the Council of the Market Theatre Foundation given any consideration to how funders might respond to the incidents of sexual harassment  in the workplace, the unfair removal of pregnant women from its stages, the Council’s obvious insensitivity to gender issues and their failure to respond timeously and transparently to my grievance of its dismal record of unfair labour practice towards me?”

It is not only Bardien who believes that she has been poorly treated by the Council.  It has taken some time for Mohamed’s immediate predecessor, Annabell Lebethe, to put her sudden departure from the Market Theatre – and the reasons for it – into the public domain.  But in a discussion this week, Lebethe – an administrator well-steeped in matters to do with running publicly-funded institutions as she once served as a civil servant in Gauteng’s Department of Arts and Culture and is the former CEO of the National Arts Council – outlined the circumstances surrounding her departure:

At a board meeting (September 2015) a year in advance of the ending of her five-year contract as CEO of the Market Theatre, and with the senior management (including herself) having been excused from this part of the meeting, Kwanele Gumbi, Chairperson of the Council, informed the Council that Lebethe had another job, and thus there was no need to discuss the renewal of her contract. (In terms of Lebethe’s contract, discussions about its renewal would take place a year in advance).  Lebethe only discovered this at a subsequent board meeting (November 2015) where she raised the matter of her contract renewal, and one of the board members, Shado Twala, indicated that they had been told at the previous Council meeting that Lebethe was leaving as she had another job.  Lebethe was shocked to learn this, and that – despite working together for at least four years – no-one on the Council had subsequently contacted her or spoken to her after the Council meeting at which they had been informed of her supposed departure.  No-one bothered to find out where she was going, or to determine why she was leaving the Market Theatre, or even to wish her well.  After some discussion, it was agreed at the November 2015 meeting that the matter had been handled badly, and that rather than Lebethe leaving at the end of the year (as she had offered to do in lieu of a clear breakdown in relations between herself and the Council that had already set up a mechanism to recruit a new CEO), she would stay on till the end of the financial year (31 March 2016) and then would be paid out for the remainder of her contract (i.e. 5 months till the end of August 2016).

Subsequent to the November 2015 Board meeting, the Chairperson of the Council – Kwanele Gumbi – attended a forum of chairpersons of publicly-funded cultural institutions with the Minister and senior officials in the Department of Arts and Culture. He then submitted a 3-page document to Lebethe and the Chief Financial Officer of the Market Theatre, claiming that the forum had agreed substantially to increase the rates of remuneration for Board members (from just over R1000 per meeting to more than R10 000 per meeting), and that this rate, not only needed to be paid going forward, but be backdated to a specified date and paid forthwith. Management submitted this document to the Department of Arts and Culture to seek confirmation as normally, any changes regarding matters of Council remuneration, would be communicated officially by the Minister and/or the Department of Arts and Culture.  A senior official at the DAC confirmed that the matter had been discussed, but that no decision had been made as Treasury would need to be consulted, since there were Treasury regulations about the rates of remuneration for different kinds of publicly-funded or state-owned institutions. After informing Gumbi that they were unable to pay the rate as per his document until such time that they received official confirmation from the DAC, Lebethe claims that Gumbi’s attitude towards her became more hostile. Lebethe had drafted the minutes of the November 2015 meeting and included the agreement that she would stay in her position till 31 March 2016, and be paid out for the rest of her contract.  However, Gumbi – who as Chairperson of the Board signs off the minutes before they are distributed – deleted this, saying that no such agreement had been made.

Lebethe was increasingly frustrated by the absence of communication about the renewal of her contract by the Council, and by the avoidance of her, even by Council members whom she had considered to be sympathetic or to “have their heads screwed on properly” (like Shado Twala, Cedric Nunn and the now-deceased Peter McKenzie). Lebethe regarded council members like Brooks Spector and Dr Sebilitso Mokone-Matabane as part of a troika that generally supported Gumbi).  While Twala, Nunn and McKenzie had promised to take up her case, they never did, and so, frustrated and with the situation taking its emotional, physical and psychological toll, Lebethe gave twenty-four hours’ notice and left.  She subsequently approached the Labour Court to oblige the Market Theatre to pay out the balance of her contract.  Lebethe contacted Shado Twala to ask her to serve as a witness to confirm the agreement made in the November 2015 meeting.  Twala replied that she needed to get the permission of the Council chairperson and subsequently phoned Lebethe to tell her that Gumbi had declined such permission. After approaching other Council members who declined to serve as witnesses, Lebethe then withdrew the case, as it would have been a matter of her word against that of the Council, who all appeared now to be in support of Gumbi.

Lebethe spoke about the interference of Gumbi in operational matters, such as instructing staff – without her knowledge – to make arrangements for him and another board member to attend the National Arts Festival, and he insisted on signing the contract with the new Artistic Director (James Ngcobo), contrary to standard practice where the CEO would do this. Lebethe raised this interference with the Council but received little support from them, adding to her frustration as her authority with the staff and her position as the person responsible for ensuring that the institution abided by relevant laws and regulations, were being undermined by the interventions of the Chairperson.

According to Lebethe, the Council approved travel expenditure for Gumbi when there was little justification for it such as attending a conference in Brussels (the German Marshall Fund Brussels Forum where Gumbi is listed as the Chief Executive Officer of Gumbi Global, rather than as a Market Theatre representative), and attending the funeral of a cabinet minister, Collins Chabane in Limpopo. Gumbi would demand that the Market Theatre covers his expenses to attend the State of the Nation Address at parliament every year, and even when the French Embassy was bestowing awards on various practitioners in Cape Town, he wanted to attend as a representative of the Market when there was no Market Theatre dimension to the event.  Lebethe’s impression was that Gumbi had no other source of income other than his serving on the Council of the Market, so that he milked this – making and attending meetings in Johannesburg, representing the Market Theatre at non-related events, etc – in order to earn honoraria attached to such work, and to have expenses covered by the Market Theatre in cases where he might be engaged in other, non-Market Theatre business.

The DAC placed the Windybrow Theatre under administration – with the Market Theatre assuming responsibility for the theatre – after charges of corruption and fraud were brought against the CEO and CFO. Lebethe indicated that, notwithstanding the legal advice that there was a strong case against the two, and that it was necessary to proceed with the disciplinary hearing in terms of the Labour Relations Act, Gumbi decided unilaterally to terminate the employment contracts of the Windybrow’s CEO and CFO.  The CEO and CFO then took the matter to the CCMA; Gumbi claimed that it had been a Council resolution to terminate their contracts but was unable to provide proof of this.  Even if this were the case, it would not have been possible to do so in terms of the law, so that the Market Theatre lost the case, with further financial implications.

After she left the Market Theatre, Lebethe engaged in “fixing” work for the DAC, particularly at PACOFS, where there were huge conflicts between the Council and the various CEOs over a number of years. Based on her experience both at the Market and in other publicly-funded institutions, she wrote a Masters thesis (“Evaluating Corporate Governance Dilemmas in Publicly Funded Cultural Institutions in South Africa”) on governance in such structures.  When the term of the Market Theatre Council was due to end in early 2018, Lebethe wrote to the DAC, advising them to use the opportunity to vet potential board members, and to appoint new members who would have the interests of the institution at heart.

My commentary:

We now know that except for Cedric Nunn, the previous Council of the Market Theatre was reappointed in April 2018, with Gumbi appointed again as the Chairperson of the Council, notwithstanding various submissions to the DAC which should have made them question his suitability for the Council, let alone the position of Chairperson.  As a result, Gumbi clearly returned more empowered, and ready to deal with the Market Theatre’s management whom he regarded as having obstructed his desire for Christmas bonuses for the Council (R100 000 for himself, R75 000 for other Council members) and R35 000 for members of the Audit Committee.

Given Lebethe’s explanation of how she believed Gumbi worked to get rid of her from the Market Theatre, what is transpiring at the Market Theatre now is not surprising with the Council Chairperson interfering in operational matters, fomenting dissent among the staff towards management and terminating – or attempting to terminate – the services of those who dare to stand up to him.

After hearing Lebethe’s story, I contacted Cedric Nunn, who, until March this year, was a member of the Council of the Market Theatre. Nunn said that he was not surprised by his exclusion from the Council, given the proximity of the Chairperson of the Council to the Minister, and given that in recent times, he – Nunn – had clashed with the Chairperson of the Council.

Due to extensive travel for professional reasons as a photographer, Nunn was not always able to attend meetings of the Council of the Market Theatre (such as the meeting where significant increases for Council members was first mooted, but he did attend a subsequent meeting at which the Chairperson was called to order as the proposal to increase their remuneration was against the regulations).

As a Council member, he was always under the impression that Lebethe and Gumbi (as CEO and Chair of the Council respectively) had a good working relationship, but that towards the end of Lebethe’s time at the Market Theatre, it was clear that there had been a breakdown in the relationship.  He and other Council members knew that something had happened, but they were not sure what it was; in his view, there was no transparency as to the reasons for the breakdown in the relationship.

Nunn indicated that the Board was perplexed by Lebethe’s intention to leave the Market, but his impression was that Lebethe was leaving as she had better opportunities elsewhere, as there would be many of these for young, accomplished, black women.  According to Nunn, he, Shado Twala and Peter McKenzie in particular were supportive of Lebethe and would have recommended that her contract be renewed should she have wanted this.  They were less supportive when she resigned abruptly 6 months before her contract ended and then demanded that she be paid out for the balance of her contract.  I specifically asked Nunn about whether there was a Council agreement that Lebethe would work till 31 March 2016, and that she would be paid out for the balance of her contract.  Nunn replied that according to his knowledge, there was no such agreement.  He confirmed that Lebethe had requested that he be a witness on her behalf in this matter at the Labour Court, but he declined as the matter was already before the CCMA.

Nunn indicated that as matters developed around Lebethe’s departure, he was not able to attend all the Council meetings.  He usually received minutes of previous meetings about twenty-four hours before the next meeting; Gumbi signed off on the minutes, sometimes making “irregular” changes to these, according to Nunn.

Like that of Lebethe – it was Nunn’s perception that Gumbi became increasingly dependent on the Market Theatre for cash.  Gumbi, in Nunn’s view, also used the Market Theatre for his own political ambitions, making, for example an “outrageous political speech” at the Market Theatre’s Sophie Mgcina Awards ceremony, for which he was apparently called to order by Letta Mbuli who shared the stage.  (Nunn referred me to the Mayibuye Campaign, which on Facebook is described as “a campaign by Cde Kwanele Gumbi to contest for the ANC presidency in the coming Elective Conference in December 2017 as a next generation leader.” Gumbi uses various Market Theatre platforms in the Facebook posts to promote the Mayibuye Campaign; it is not clear whether the Market Theatre – its Council in particular – agreed to such posts being used for an overtly party-political ambition).

With the arrival of Ismail Mahomed as CEO, Nunn said that all Council members were delighted as he – given his experience and profile – would be able to take the Market Theatre to another level.  Nunn was, however, concerned with how Mahomed would deal with the style of leadership of Gumbi which was “problematic”.

Inevitably, as with Lebethe, with the general perception of amicability between the Chair and senior management, it was a shock and far more difficult to deal with when ruptures between the Chair and management took place.

Earlier this year, the CFO presented damning details at a Council meeting of exorbitant expenditure against the Chair as per the City Press article.  In response, the Chair made “bombastic but unconvincing” defences and Nunn stressed in the meeting that a proper forensic investigation should take place.  Given the level of breakdown between the Chair on the one hand and the CFO and CEO on the other who had “clearly lost faith in each other”, the Council recommended that the Audit Committee should investigate the CFO’s submission and that mediation take place in order to resolve the matters causing friction, failing which, the Council would investigate and take appropriate action.

Nunn – along with one or two other Council members – had become increasingly concerned about Gumbi taking more control of operational matters at the Market Theatre as this undermined the CEO (in the same way as he had undermined Lebethe).  According to Nunn, Gumbi had stated that “Ismail is not a leader.  He is not making the necessary decisions, which has forced me to make the decisions.”

“Peter McKenzie showed me a document that highlighted the remuneration of the chair of the Council to be 10-20 times more than that of the rest of the Council members.”  Nunn’s view was that should the Audit Committee deliver incontrovertible evidence about Gumbi’s misuse of the Market Theatre’s resources, he would propose a vote of no confidence in Gumbi and seek to ensure that the Council would vote him out of office.

Cedric Nunn was not re-appointed to the Council in April.  Despite having served on the Council for a number of years, no-one on the Council, in the Department of Arts and Culture, nor any of the senior management contacted him to thank him for his services.

From these three stories and the Spector letter together, it may be possible to deduce the following:

a. The Council of the Market Theatre – as individuals and as a collective – is and has been wholly inept in providing sound governance of the institution, in providing support to its senior management and to ensuring that the institution’s best interests are served in order that it could in turn play the role mandated to it as a nationally-subsidised theatre. Whether this is through deliberate and active participation in support of the Chairperson of the Council, or through negligence as a result of having information kept from them, or through their own lack of care to ensure that their fiduciary responsibilities were not being compromised, the truth is that they have failed miserably to act on allegations of sexual misconduct and discrimination.  Neither did they act decisively on clear evidence of the abuse of the Market Theatre’s resources and reputation for personal enrichment and the political ends of the Chairperson of the Council.  They also failed management in clarifying the separation of powers between the Council and its chair on the one hand, and the management on the other, thereby directly contributing to a toxic atmosphere and strained staff relations that can only be destructive to the Market Theatre.  How the Council can allow the Chairperson to intervene in the operations of the theatre, to instruct staff without informing the CEO, to sign contracts with staff rather than have the CEO do this, is beyond me; this is the stuff of Governance 101!  By failing to play their respective roles fairly and responsibly, the Council has given staff little choice but to seek to air their grievances in public in the hope that through embarrassment, those with authority and fiduciary duty, will at last act.

b. The Chairperson of the Council has shown himself to be vindictive in getting rid of individuals who challenged him or who stood in the way of his abusing the Market Theatre’s resources. The consequences of getting rid of those who cross him seem to matter little to him – or indeed to the Council, either in terms of the reputational costs to the Market or – more importantly – to the functioning and impact of the institution.

c. Having been appointed by the Minister, Gumbi enjoys a political relationship where he is able to influence who should be appointed to the Council of the Market Theatre, and who should be excluded. That he is able to enjoy both the position as Chairperson of the Council of a publicly-funded institution and engage in public party- political campaigning, attests to the impunity with which the current political elite acts, unable – or simply not caring – to separate their public duties and responsibilities from their narrow political interests.   That the Minister re-appointed Gumbi despite being aware of the allegations made against him, means that the Minister himself is ultimately responsible for any dysfunctionality at the Market Theatre.  The unequal power relations rooted in the appointment of the Chairperson of the Council by the Minister means that management and staff are under severe and unfair pressure to do what the Chair demands, even if this contravenes laws, regulations and policies that are in place.  It is members of management who are the accounting officers in such institutions and it is unconscionable that they be placed in positions where they fear the loss of their jobs for not acceding to the demands of a politically-appointed chairperson, and where they potentially are charged with criminal offences for breaking the law when acceding to such demands.

d. Lebethe tried to work with individual members of the Council and with the Council as a whole to resolve the matters to do with the tensions between herself and the Chairperson, and then with the renewal of her contract. This was to no avail, so she cut her losses and left, choosing not to make her feelings of anger, disillusionment and hurt public.  Bardien also tried to work through “the right channels” to have her grievances addressed and to secure an extension of her contract, but individual members of the Council whom she trusted, let her down along with the Council as a whole, so she has gone public to expose what is happening in the Market Theatre.  Mahomed is still at the theatre, waiting for investigations and audits and reviews and who knows what to be done, and probably hoping for an outcome in which those who seek to do right by and for the institution, will be vindicated.  The charges of racism against him have sullied his reputation as those who seek personal advantage from the Market Theatre – rather than the best interests of the arts or of the institution – engage in their scorched earth policy, willing to damage and take down the very institution with which they have been entrusted.  The stories of Lebethe, Bardien, Mahomed and even Nunn are consistent – they have stood up to the Chairperson of the Council, and they have been victimised as a result.

e. The National Arts Council Act requires that there be public calls for potential board members, that they be interviewed in public and that the public be given the right to object to any nominee being considered for appointment should they be aware of allegations of corruption, past criminal records, conflicts of interest, etc. The Minister was obliged to terminate the services of the last Council when it was pointed out that the public had been prevented from objecting to potential Council appointees so that their appointment was illegal.  The process had to be redone.  Yet, the Councils that manage publicly-funded institutions do not have the same rigorous processes although they have similar fiduciary responsibilities.  From this Market Theatre example, it is clear how political power can be abused in the appointment of Council members and how the appointment of Chairpersons of such Councils can be manipulated by the Chairpersons to serve their political and enrichment interests.

Conclusion

One of the refrains used by Annabell Lebethe during our discussion is that “they don’t care”.  This is the truth.  The Council simply does not care for the Market Theatre, or they would long have intervened to rein in and vote out the Chairperson of the Council.  It took a couple of hours to talk to Lebethe and Nunn and to arrive at the stories above; if the Council cared – indeed, if the DAC and the Minister actually cared – they could have done something about the situation ages ago.

By allowing the situation to drag on for years, the Market Theatre has lost hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of rands on unnecessary trips and meetings by Gumbi and on decisions that he has made e.g. the unlawful terminations of employment.  The animosity, fear and toxic racism among staff and between staff and management have been actively encouraged through the Chair.  Allegations of sexual misconduct have been swept under the carpet.  All because “they” (those with power and authority) do not care.

What should happen now?  Taking all of the above into account, in my view, the following steps should be implemented

  1. The Council of the Market Theatre – or at least those who served on the previous Council – should be suspended with immediate effect and an interim board (4-6 people) put in place, with a clear mandate and limited time period (12-18 months) to set the institution back on course, dealing particularly with the causes and symptoms of toxic staff relations, ensuring that laws and regulations are upheld, with clear channels and processes for registering and addressing grievances
  2. That an independent, public investigation (3 persons) be set up into the allegations and counter-allegations made by current and previous staff, management and Council members of the Market Theatre and Windybrow Theatre of the last 5 years, and that the investigative panel be empowered to make recommendations as to how funds that have been misappropriated should be recovered; what policy changes should be made to prevent any recurrence both at the Market Theatre and at other cultural institutions; who, if any, should be charged with criminal offences; who, if any, should be banned from serving in public institutions in the future, whether for life or for particular time periods; whether staff who have left/been obliged to leave were treated fairly and if not, what kind of compensation if any they should be paid.

It is time for the theatre community to show that we DO care.  Beyond the hashtag.  For the sake of one of the more important theatre institutions in our country.  And for the sake of good individuals who do their best for our sector.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Thuma mina? You must be %$&*# joking!

The Market Theatre, one of the country’s six nationally-subsidised theatres, and historically, probably the most important theatre in the country in staging stories that tell of the country’s times, is facing a major governance and management crisis that is in itself a story of our recent and contemporary South African times.

A City Press article in April this year raised allegations of financial misconduct against the chairperson of the Board, Kwanele Gumbi, including allegations of excessive claims for preparing for and attending meetings, as well as nearly R600 000 being spent in a year on his air travel, accommodation and car rentals (Gumbi is based in Durban).

Two months later, the Sowetan published an article in which some of the Market Theatre’s staff make allegations of “racism, unfair salary scales, harassment and abuse” against the CEO of the theatre, Ismail Mahomed.

Apparently, the Council of the Market Theatre and the Department of Arts and Culture are conducting investigations into these allegations; forgive my cynicism but this is an all-too-familiar scenario played out in the South African landscape over the last two decades: a publicly-funded institution is abused as a personal ATM by those appointed – ironically – to ensure the proper governance of the institution and sound accountability for the use of its public funds, and when they are exposed, they allege “racism” or foment spurious charges against those who expose them if charges of racism are inappropriate.  An “investigation” takes place and the person guilty of theft and/or the abuse of public funds is – generally – exonerated (particularly if they are powerful, senior people within the institution), while the whistle-blowers are dismissed, sometimes on trumped-up charges, and at other times, by being offered financial inducement.  Only if they are very lucky, do they have their names  cleared of the spurious claims against them, but by then reputational damage has been.  The institution embarks on a downward spiral as the corruption continues with political sanction, until there is a change in the ruling faction, or when a political incumbent decides to take decisive action to avoid greater political fallout.  We have witnessed this in just about every state-owned enterprise recently, and the arts have not been spared this diabolical cycle.

In 2003, then CEO of the National Arts Council, Ms Doreen Nteta, wrote to the Department of Arts and Culture, alleging that the chairperson and deputy chairperson of the Council were engaged in wrongful financial and governance practices; two days later, she was suspended by the Board allegedly for contraventions of the Labour Relations Act, financial irregularities, abuse of power and non-compliance with the Public Finance Management Act.  Nteta, along with the Chief Financial Officer, Kiran Isvarlal and a project manager, Andre le Roux, were suspended and were eventually obliged to leave the National Arts Council, only for the Council itself later to be fired in its entirety by Minister Pallo Jordan because of serious allegations of financial misconduct against senior members of the Council. Yet no-one was held accountable for this “misconduct”, a euphemism for corruption.

Given that the now-deceased Ms Doreen Nteta was a black African woman, it was not appropriate to charge her with racism as one of the tactics used by the corrupt to get rid of those who prevent them from looting the public purse.  Mahomed’s predecessor at the Market Theatre, was also a black African woman.  According to the City Press article, “former theatre chief executive Ms Annabell Lebethe wrote two letters to the council warning that Gumbi was involving himself in operational matters.  She claimed he instructed junior staff to make bookings for him and his children to attend events such as the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown”.

The City Press article states “Lebethe declined to comment this week.”  If the Sowetan had engaged in basic journalism, they might have done a little more research (surely they would have seen the City Press article?), and tried to determine why it was that Ms Lebethe had left the Market Theatre, after she had made similar allegations – as the current management appears to be making – against the chairperson of the Market Theatre’s board. If she did indeed write to the Council as stated in the City Press article, what did the Council do?  Anything?  Why did Ms Lebethe leave?  Was she pushed out?  The City Press article alleges that Gumbi “threatened to get rid of the theatre’s chief financial officer and ‘visit’ his enemies in the department (of arts and culture)”. Did the chairperson of the Council hold such sway within the Council that they sided with him, rather than the CEO?  This Council was largely re-appointed in April; if they were too weak to act against the chairperson before, or too complicit in the Chairperson’s actions, what hope is there for them to act independently, and judiciously in the current matters before the Council?

City Press alleges that the “Durban businessman, Kwanele Gumbi, is facing a revolt in the Council of Johannesburg’s The Market Theatre after he tried to pay himself a R100 000 Christmas bonus.”  The report also alleges that the council members were to be paid a R75 000 bonus.  Later it records that the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa “refused to allow the payment because it defied public finance laws.”  So, was it the Council that “revolted” against the alleged attempts by the chairperson to pay himself R100 000 and R75 000 for each board member (were they against the payments in principle, or did they want R100 000 too?).  Or was this a way for the Chairperson to co-opt the board members, and make them pliant to his wishes?

Taken together, it is clear from the City Press and Sowetan articles that there is a debilitating, toxic conflict between the chairperson of the Board of the Market Theatre and its senior management, a conflict that precedes the current CEO.  What is also clear is that the Board or Council of the Market Theatre has been wholly inept – for whatever reason – in dealing with this conflict, and that the Department of Arts and Culture has been its usual useless self in dealing with crises in institutions for which it is responsible.

Ironically, the Department of Arts and Culture changed the Cultural Institutions Act and obliged institutions for which it was financially responsible to be governed by this Act so that it could take more decisive action should things go wrong.  It is also ironic then that charges of racism are being levelled against Mahomed, when the Cultural Institutions Act was used to remove Edmund Radebe as the Chairperson of the board of the Playhouse Company for his racist comments (documented when the tape recorder to record the minutes of their board meeting was still recording) against Gita Pather, an Indian employee at the time.

But, more sinisterly, whereas post-1994 cultural policy activists had advocated for boards of publicly-funded cultural institutions to elect their chairpersons and deputy chairpersons to ensure accountability to the respective board and institution, the amended Cultural Institutions Act stipulated that the chairpersons of such boards would be appointed by the Minister responsible for arts and culture.  And now we have the chickens of this apartheid-era policy coming home to roost.

Chairpersons of the boards of cultural institutions have enormous power by virtue of being appointed by the minister.  As such, they are able to intimidate fellow Council members, management and staff, as they have the political backing of the Minister.  Ministers may appoint lackeys and individuals who ensure the political hegemony of the ruling party or of the ruling faction within the cultural institution, and other Council members and management may fear taking action against the Chairperson because this may compromise their own positions on the Council (and the attendant perks) as well as their potential re-appointment to the Council. (The chairperson could meet with the Minister and advise him/her whom to re-appoint or not, depending on who best serves the Chairperson’s interests).  This is a fundamental flaw in sound and good governance anticipated by cultural policy activists based on the experience of chairpersons of boards of cultural institutions appointed by the apartheid regime, and now repeated by the current ruling party.

If allegations against Gumbi “date back to 2012 and 2015” as stated in the City Press article, and if the Minister refused the payment of bonuses to the board as proposed by Gumbi, why did the Minister re-appoint most of the board, and re-appoint Gumbi as chairperson of the Board?  Why should boards of cultural institutions have people appointed from outside the geographical location of such institutions anyway?  Are there really so few people in Gauteng who could serve on the Market Theatre’s Board, and as its chairperson that Gumbi has to be flown in from Durban, or is it because he is a political ally of the Minister and his preferred ANC faction?  At one stage, Gumbi also served on the board of Business and Arts South Africa (BASA); what was his record there?  What contribution has he made to the arts generally and to theatre in particular, both in his own right and relative to the contribution of Mahomed (since this has now become a case of one or the other; it is impossible for both to stay on at the Market Theatre)?

For fear of compromising future work at the Market Theatre, out of misguided “black solidarity” or for opportunistic ends – seeking personal advantage out of the Market Theatre crisis or because of some real or perceived victimhood when Mahomed occupied a decision-making position in the arts sector such as Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival – some choose to remain silent, while others cheer from the sidelines in support of those making allegations against Mahomed at this time.

Ismail Mahomed is a friend, but he and I have crossed swords publicly on matters to do with cultural policy, and I have written critically about the National Arts Festival during his tenure as its Artistic Director.  We are all fallible human beings, but I would absolutely vouch for Mahomed’s passion for the arts, for his committed work in the best interests of the institutions and organisations for which he is responsible and for his generosity (of time, of financial resources, of his networks, expertise and experience) towards people active in the arts, and irrespective of hue.

Mahomed shoots from the hip and – in my view – says things on social media which sometimes makes me shake my head at its inappropriateness given his position within the Market Theatre and his status within the arts sector, but I would need some convincing that he would say “blacks do not know their jobs” as six employees have allegedly confirmed according to the Sowetan article.

Let’s be clear: racism is still a major scourge within our society, even among and between those whom Biko labelled “black”; where it manifests itself, it needs to be exposed, and the culprits must face the consequences.

Let us also be clear that corruption and the abuse of public resources have cost the country billions of rand, and that numerous publicly-funded institutions have suffered irreparable harm as they have been looted by unscrupulous individuals who need to be exposed, and prevented from serving in such institutions ever again. For they have abused the trust of the public, and stolen from the people’s purse for no other reason than their personal gain.

We must also be clear that given our country’s history, transformation within society generally and within publicly-funded institutions is necessary, both demographic transformation of the governance, management and staff of such institutions as well as substantive transformation i.e. changing the lives of the majority of the country’s citizens through such institutions.  But if the last two decades have shown us anything – and the Life Esidimeni and SASSA debacles are just two examples – it is that simply because the morally and politically necessary demographic transformation has taken place i.e. black people are placed in charge, does not necessarily translate into substantive transformation taking place.

Managements of publicly-funded institutions are required by the Public Finance Management Act to ensure that no wasteful, irregular and fruitless expenditure occurs.  This includes ensuring that those employed are delivering on their job descriptions and the institutions’ needs.  This could mean that some underperforming staff are put on terms, and it is understandable that in the context of high unemployment, those who face the prospect of their services being terminated due to underperformance, fear not being able to find new employment, particularly at the rate of remuneration offered within public institutions.  This, together with the perceived political authority of the Chairperson of the Board, would create the toxic atmosphere leading to the rather poor piece masquerading as journalism in the Sowetan.

The Market Theatre is too important an organisation, too significant a cultural asset to allow the corrupt and the incompetent to hold sway within it.  The Minister of Arts and Culture, the relevant officials in the Department of Arts and Culture and the Council/Board of the Market Theatre have shown themselves to be grossly negligent in dealing with the fundamental issues, with them all being complicit in the abuse of public resources if these are shown to be true, for they all knew about it, and quite simply, have failed to stop it, with the Minister re-appointing Gumbi as chairperson.  And those with their “cry wolf” racism in an attempt to shore up their interests or the interests of powerful figures, not only set back the real struggle against racism, but aid corruption and abet the abuse of public resources, none of which has anything to do with the best interests of the arts, of the institution, or of the people – artists and the public – whom the institution is required to serve.  In other words, it has nothing to with substantive transformation, only with selfishly transforming the lives of a few individuals who abuse the public institution for their personal ends.

In the context of our history, it is right and good that black people are affirmed in the labour market, and for the sake of the industry in which they are employed, it is necessary that they have or be equipped with the skills and allowed the time to acquire the experience to do their jobs well.  However, when they are put on terms for underperformance, it might just be because they are not performing adequately in the posts they occupy, notwithstanding the salaries they are being paid, the length of time that they have been in the position and the support provided by the institution, and not because they are black!

If post-1994 history is anything to go by, in such situations, individuals who try to do the right thing have their reputations sullied and are so exhausted emotionally and psychologically by the abuse they suffer, that they eventually leave.  And the institution declines because of the flight of skills and experience, as we have seen at SARS, at the SABC, at ESKOM, PRASA and a host of other public or semi-public institutions.

This scenario has become so endemic in our society, so much part of our social, economic, political and cultural structures and our patterns of behaviour, that no matter how loudly the new President calls upon those with skills and experience to “thuma mina” in the supposed “new dawn”, it is only the most naïve suckers for emotional and psychological abuse who would respond positively.

The arts sector generally and the theatre sector in particular should be acting in concert to defend institutions such as the Market Theatre and other publicly-funded institutions – like PACOFS which has been in chaos for much of the last number of years.  But the sector is so polarised along racial and political lines reflected in our broader society, and so lacking in visionary leadership that acts with boldness and integrity, that collective action to address the ills within the sector is well-nigh impossible.

And so we risk a key institution being wrecked by a combination of greed, incompetence, political ineptness, opportunism and cowardice.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The 53rd Fleur du Cap Awards and the making of Witkanda

Introduction

Last year, at the 52nd Fleur du Cap Awards event hosted at Artscape, Mamela Nyamza, Chuma Sopotela, Buhle Siwani and Zikhona Jacobs performed a protest against the pre-dominance of white nominees.  Wielding placards declaring “70 nominees 52 white nominees”, “#nominatelikeits1965” and “#white excellence”, the protestors drew attention to the symptoms of a lack of transformation within the theatre industry in the Western Cape.

There were 16 categories at last year’s awards; this year, there were six additional categories in which nominations were made: Best Performance by an Ensemble, Best Performance in an Opera – Male, Best Performance in an Opera – Female, Best Theatre Production for Children and Young People, Award for Most Promising Student and Best Production.

With the appearance of more black nominees (I use “black” in the Biko sense), and icons such as Faniswa Yisa and Jay Pather winning their respective categories, the critique of this year’s edition of the Fleur du Cap awards has been far more muted.  In fact, so much has the “fare being shared” (relative to last year) that we could almost be tempted into believing that our performing arts industry (at least with respect to theatre, musicals and opera) has achieved a “rainbow” moment, the making of a “Witkanda” if you like.

In an industry of small returns where any kind of affirmation – and monetary reward – is to be applauded, I do not wish to burst any happy-clappy bubbles, but it is in our interests as an industry to reflect a little more deeply on the awards and what they say about us at this time.

History

In 2012, I wrote an article reflecting on the Fleur du Cap Awards event that year, a year after a rather controversial awards event, which approximates almost exactly the events of 2018 following 2017.

The article started thus:

“Six weeks after the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, with the event and the awards having been received significantly better than the 2011 version, it would be of value to the local theatre industry to reflect on the awards.  While there has been a complete absence of controversy around the 2012 Awards (at least publicly), there have nevertheless being questions raised – more discreetly – not least because of the perceived political correctness of these latter awards.

In short, while the controversies of 2011 related to the selection of “white” winners in all 17 categories in which awards were made, this year’s awards are controversial for the opposite reason i.e. 5 of the 15 awards (33% in total), including some of the most competitive awards i.e. best actor, best actress, best supporting actor and best supporting actress, were all won by people of colour for the first time in the history of the Awards, with an additional two awards (theatre innovation and lifetime achievement) made to people of colour.

The purpose of this article is not to undermine any winner (particularly people of colour who historically have been, and remain under-represented in just about all Awards categories as well as within key decision-making positions within the local theatre industry), but rather to interrogate the 2012 awards both for what they reflect about the theatre industry in the Western Cape and for what they reflect about the judging process, in order to contribute to the ongoing development, transformation and celebration of excellence within the local theatre industry.

Their value as an affirmation of excellence in the industry, their consequent marketing benefits and their prize money all affirm that the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards occupy a unique space in the regional and national theatre landscape, a landscape in which there is limited financial reward and recognition for practitioners.  For this reason alone, it is necessary to interrogate the Awards from time to time in order to ensure that they do not lose or compromise their value, but that they continue to recognise and celebrate excellence within the local theatre industry.

The nature of such – and similar – awards is that there will always be some debate about winners and losers, some ill feeling about who was nominated and who was not; this is not what this article is about.  Rather, it is to evaluate what progress, if any, has been made since last year, and where the deficiencies, if any, might lie this year, in order to address these”.

This could very well have served as the introduction to this particular article, except that this one will have a few more personal anecdotes.

The basic conclusion to my 2012 article was:

“While the anger at the Fleur du Cap judges in 2011 was largely misplaced given that they were required to judge what was made available to them by theatre managements, except for the technical, design and directing categories where persons of colour are still woefully under-represented, the Fleur du Cap judges had a significantly larger pool from which to make their selections in 2012.

The 2012 Judging Panel is thus primarily responsible for the decisions made, particularly in the first four categories where the categories for lead and supporting actors and actresses in plays, were all won by persons of colour.

In the light of the controversies of 2011, it is difficult not to conclude that the 2012 judges succumbed to their individual and/or collective politically correct pressures to arrive at their final selections rather than the criterion of “merit”.

…it would appear that there has been an over-reaction to the 2011 controversies which may result in patronising and politically correct decisions and actions that undermine the value of the Fleur du Cap awards.  At best, this year’s awards may be viewed as part of its upward trajectory that will eventually see the Awards stabilising as the theatre industry plays its part in its ongoing transformation and as the panel of judges comes to acquire the individual and collective vision, skills, experience, sensitivity and insights to play the role required of them”.

That was six years ago.  And yet, here we are.  Again.

After that article was published, I received a rather irate phone-call from one of the judges at the time who was most upset that I had questioned their integrity.  Since then, (and perhaps it is purely coincidental), while my scripts (Pay Back the Curry, Brothers in Blood, Rainbow Scars) have been nominated in other awards – e.g. the Naledi Theatre Awards – they have not featured at the Fleur du Cap awards.  I accept that this may simply be that relative to other nominees in those particular years, my scripts were simply not good enough to be nominated locally, but I mention this for three reasons:

  1. to be transparent so that readers can make up their own minds about whether this article – or parts of it – may be coming from a place of “sour grapes”
  2. I do believe that there are consequences for individuals who raise critical questions within our industry (hence the default position of many who would rather remain silent in the face of some form of injustice – which is ironic given that our industry lauds itself on speaking truth to broader powers) and
  3. I further believe that those associated with my creative work are treated unfairly by being ignored in award nominations (let alone as winners); by putting this on the table, I hope that in future, those given power to make judgements about the quality of our work can separate the creator from the many others who actually give the work life

Analysis of 2017/18 nominees and winners

The official media release about the nominees for the 52nd Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards lists 15 categories, each with five nominees and a sixteenth category with three nominees, for a total of 78 nominees. (Some individuals are nominated more than once for different productions, and so are assumed here to be separate nominees).  Of these 78 nominees, 59 – 75,6% of the total – appear to be white, with 19 (24,4%) being black.

There were 4 black (25%) and 12 winners in these 16 categories, approximating the percentages of those nominated.

An award for innovation in theatre was made to the Makukhanye Art Room and a Special Encore Award was given to the cast of The Fall.

This year, with the additional categories, 60 (61%) of the nominees are white, with 38 (39%) being black.  If the categories of 2017 were to be compared against the same categories for the 2018 event, 30 (37,5%) of the 80 nominees in 2018 would be black and 50 (62,5%) would be white, an improvement on the previous year’s nominations in sheer numbers, even without the additional opera categories that provided 6 black nominees.

The key difference between 2017 and 2018 in terms of contributing black nominees appears to be the musicals category with King Kong and Aunty Merle delivering 11 black nominees between them (2017 was a lean year for black performers in musicals with only two of 20 nominations going to black performers).

What is clear then, is that awards’ judges are dependent on the decisions of theatre managements and producers about what they choose to stage; they can only select from what is made available by the theatre industry (by independent, public and private producers and by what theatres allow to rent their stages).

However, as in 2012 – and indeed in every year – the judges are solely responsible for the selection of nominations in each category, and ultimately for the winners of each category, as well as for any additional awards (lifetime achievement, innovation, etc).

Which is why they alone should be held responsible for this year’s selections.

Political correctness

I have chosen not to attend the awards for the last five years, sometimes happily being out of town at the time, and at other times, like last Sunday, simply choosing to watch Carte Blanche instead.

About two days before the awards ceremony, I sent an email to a friend who was going to the event, and “predicted” who some of the winners would be, particularly in some of the more contested categories.

I wrote (some parts edited out):

“Given the outcry last year about a lack of black nominees and winners, the personal prejudices and favouritism that I think some influential judges have towards certain managements/practitioners, the generally parochial nature of the awards (favouring Cape Town productions above Joburg, far more so than the Naledis that are pretty open to productions from around the country), I would not be surprised if the following happens:

The top 4 categories – best actor best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress – have at least one person of colour, and particularly a black African person as a winner. Might even be two…😊

Best Actor would be between Craig Morris and Marty Kintu; Craig Morris should get it, but Marty has a good chance by virtue of the above.

Best Actress should be Charmaine Weir-Smith or Tinarie, but don’t be surprised if Faniswa gets it….

Best Supporting Actor – should be Mark Elderkin…unless the judges are desperate for a person of colour winner.

Best Supporting Actress – Anyone of the five actresses, but don’t be surprised if Renate Stuurman gets it.

Best lead actor in a musical – locals love Mark Lottering.  All the others are pretty much out-of-towners.

Best performance by a lead actress in a musical – should be Ashley Harvey.  But Nondumiso Tembe or Edith Plaatjies could get it.

Best performance in a revue/one person show – Gideon Lombard has won awards in the Afrikaans fests, and Daniel at NAF, but bet on Tony Miyambo for Kafka’s Ape.

Most promising student – probably Luntu Masiza.

None of the 4 technical categories – lighting, set, costume and sound – have a person of colour except Sound which has Neo Muyanga for Twelfth Night and Aunty Merle with Tarryn Lamb and Marc Lottering.  Don’t be surprised if Neo wins….

Best new script – Paul won the Naledi.  Local favourite among some influential types is Louis Viljoen.  But don’t be surprised if Nadia Davids gets it…woman of colour and all.

Best director – all pretty strong contenders.  Might be a need to satisfy the Afrikaans constituency – so Jaco or Lara for Reuk van Appels, but don’t be surprised if Jay Pather gets it.  😊”

By now, we know who the winners in each category were.  As in 2012, the 2017/18 Fleur du Cap Awards judges – in my view – engaged in acts of extreme political correctness in selecting black winners in many of the categories.  It is not that the winners are not worthy of being recognised for their body of work within the industry, but it is moot as to whether the productions for which they won this year was actually their best work, or even the best work relative to the work of others in the same category this year.  Faniswa Yisa, for example, was brilliant in Ityala Lamawele (I’m not sure whether she was even nominated for a Best Actress award for that production), which is why there have been many comments about her recognition being “overdue”.

Six years ago, only 10% of the plays under consideration were directed by black people.  It is almost exactly the same 6 years later!  In 2011/12, there were no black nominees in the categories for Best Costume Design, Best Set Design and Best Sound or Original Score categories and one nominee for Best Lighting.  In 2017/18 – six years later – there are no black nominees in the Best Lighting, Best Set Design and Best Costume categories, with two nominees for Best Sound or Original Score.

This year’s Fleur du Cap Awards, by playing the game of political correctness has whitewashed the ongoing challenges in fundamentally transforming the Western Cape theatre industry, of growing talent and providing opportunities in all areas of the industry.

But hey, the sponsors are happy, the judges feel affirmed, there won’t be protests next year, and the theatre status quo can remain; Witkanda has arrived in the Western Cape theatre industry!

For all the critique of whiteness, it is bemusing to observe how desirous black people are to be affirmed within this space.  But then again, perhaps in an industry of small returns, and one in which black people still generally struggle after 24 years to have critical mass both quantitively and qualitatively (unlike in Gauteng), small victories need to be celebrated, provided that they do not blind industry players to the fundamental challenges that remain.

Beyond racial appeasement, towards the dumbing down of the theatre sector

But this year’s Fleur du Cap Awards have gone even further than the politically correct whitewashing; the spread of the nominees and of the eventual winners reflects a general dumbing down of the sector by the judges.

Last year, the judges gave a special award to the cast of The Fall, an ad hoc decision to recognise a worthy piece of theatre, whose individual components did not easily fit into any of the existing categories.  There was no leading or supporting actor or actress, all the actors made up the whole.  Which is why the judges probably created a new category this year: Best Performance by an Ensemble.

But, bizarrely, the nominees in this category included a part of one cast (the divas of Priscilla Queen of the Desert) as well as plays in which there were leading and supporting actors and actresses.  Craig Morris won the category for Best Performance by an Actor in a play and yet the cast of Tartuffe was nominated as an ensemble.  Even more bizarre is that the eventual winner in this category – What Remains – did not just have one, but TWO nominees in the category for Best Performance by a Lead Actress in a play – Buhle Ngaba and Faniswa Yisa.  I’m not sure why they did not also nominate Denise Newman – unless she, or her surname, were not black enough for their purposes?  By the way, who decided that these two actresses were “lead actresses” in What Remains?  The writer/producer or the judges?  Asking for a genuinely confused theatre-maker….

I confess I did not see it, but apparently the winner of the category for Best Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Musical or Music Theatre Show was Isabella Jane who sang the equivalent of one song in Evita?  If this is true, then one has more reason to question the credibility of the Fleur du Cap judges, and the absolute confusion they cause within the industry about what constitutes an ensemble or a supporting act.

Without winning any of the other major categories, the Baxter Theatre’s production of Marat/Sade was awarded the Best Production Prize.  Last year, there was no “Best Production” category, and it is almost as if at the end of the discussions, the judges realised that the Baxter Theatre – hosts of this year’s ceremony – was largely unrecognised, and so they decided to give them this prize!

In the past, when there has been controversy, the Fleur du Cap sponsors and representatives have always argued that the scoring for the productions is all done independently by the individual judges and then the scores are verified by an independent auditor.  I do not believe this for one minute, and even if this were the case, the spread of the nominees and of the awards reflect discussions by the judges as an ensemble, perhaps with some leading and some supporting judges, who influence decisions so that they arrive at a patchwork of awards that appeases not only critics on the basis of race, but also ensures that all the major producing houses have at least one winner.

This also goes to the parochial nature of the awards; there are winners from outside Cape Town, generally, but local winners appear to be favoured as this is where the judges most have their ongoing relationships.

While some, or even most categories may have worthy winners, one cannot help but have the impression of the Fleur du Cap judges engaging in politics – in the broad sense of the word – seeking to appease various constituencies, including the theatre managements, the Afrikaans theatre industry, black stakeholders….

And so, the credibility of the awards is undermined, some of the categories are farcical and disrespectful of the industry, the theatre community is taken for a ride but remains silent, and the status quo is maintained.

The Fleur du Caps get personal (or why I do not believe this lot)

On 8 February, the Swedish Embassy hosted a “soft ceremony” in lieu of my being awarded the Hiroshima Foundation’s Prize for Peace and Culture.  The next day, a leading Fleur du Cap judge tweeted “Astonishing how men who are quite comfortable treating womyn like shit in their personal space are awarded for promoting peace internationally. #Male privilege.  Some days the world is a very tiring place”.

I cannot think of why she would write this other than because of the paragraphs below from a reflection I wrote on the 2017 National Arts Festival:

“As a reviewer, (Tracey) Saunders has enormous power to influence public thinking about the shows she reviews and about the issues, institutions and individuals she profiles.  In this, she is not, of course, unique.  However, she serves on the Artistic Committee of the National Arts Festival and convenes the Standard Bank Ovations Award panel.  In these positions, she gets to determine what is selected for the Arena (and what not) and is highly influential in the allocation of Standard Bank Ovations (a role she also plays on the Fleur du Cap committee).  Saunders also gets to influence the selection of judges for the Standard Bank Ovations panel so that the power relations and the dynamics on the panel would favour Saunders as the Convenor.

One would hope and expect that those who select work for some form of public acknowledgement do it on the basis of the work, rather than allow personal grudges, or their personal relationships and preferences within the industry or their need for institutional affirmation to inform their selections.  In our industry of small returns though, the capturing on the one hand, and on the other, allowing oneself to be captured in a mutually beneficial relationship, play themselves out in ways other than Gupta-like financial benefits.  Saunders has perks, power and prestige at the Festival, and from the Festival’s perspective, there is one less journalist to interrogate or critique it and its Cape Town Fringe sibling”.

None of this critique is levelled at Saunders because she is a woman, (or even because of her white privilege, although that would be a factor more than her gender); if anyone has followed my engagements over the last 25-30 years, they would know that I have been critical where I believed I needed to be irrespective of the race, gender, class or other extraneous factors related to the objects of my critiques.

What this tweet reveals though is that an influential judge bears a deep personal grudge to the extent that she does not believe that I should be affirmed.  She is entitled to her belief and her grudge, but it is important for the sector to note that personal grudges DO impact on how one’s work is judged within our industry.

Last year, I had a play – Another One’s Bread – commissioned by the Centre of Excellence in Food Security which featured four women characters from Khayelitsha.  It had a long enough run at the AFDA Theatre to be eligible for the FDCs, after which it enjoyed a highly successful run at the Market Theatre where it played to critical acclaim and excellent houses.

However, it was completely ignored by the Fleur du Cap judges, and I cannot help but wonder if the above tweet provides a clue as to why it was not – at the very least – nominated in the Best Ensemble category, for relative to most of the other nominees, this was a true ensemble piece (as pointed out by reviewers in Johannesburg), and even ticked the judges’ politically correct box!

But Another One’s Bread had another strike against it.  One of the four performers (together with Faniswa Yisa, Motlatji Ditodi and Awethu Hleli) was Chuma Sopotela – this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art – but also one of the protestors against the whiteness of the 2017 Fleur du Cap nominees.  Given the way in which (some) judges hold grudges, it is unlikely that they would affirm a piece featuring one of the protestors as this would give the impression of their succumbing to the protest.  And so they engaged in the more elaborate politically correct smoke-and-mirrors undertaking described above. And played that old colonial/apartheid divide-and-rule trick by affirming Faniswa Yisa, an icon within the black theatre community in particular, thereby silencing the protests.

We (or some of us) see you though….

Conclusion

I recognise that all awards are contestable, that there are subjective elements to all of them and that they may all have a political dimension.  I accept that I may have been a political beneficiary of awards in the past.  What I do not accept is that a panel of judges or their sponsors sell themselves as independent, as objective, as having the interests of the theatre sector at heart, and then engage in acts that reflect complete disdain and disrespect for the sector, while giving an impression of progressiveness.

The judges are not accountable to anyone but to themselves and to the sponsors.  Few question them publicly for fear of falling foul of them.  Many of them are connected to news outlets which are unlikely to critique their colleagues, and most outlets no longer have experienced, critically engaged arts journalists anyway.

In my view, based on the selection of this year’s nominees and award winners, while they may generally be lovely people, as an ensemble of judges, they have failed our industry, and should, quite frankly, resign.  How can it be that the work of theatre professionals who work at great financial risks and other costs, can have their work evaluated, judged and presided over by such displays of rank amateurism?  Would this be tolerated in any other industry?

The judging categories should be more clearly and transparently defined than the current state of adhocracy, and individuals with more knowledge of the industry and of how theatre works should form the critical mass of the panel.

But, of course, based on this year’s evidence, the theatre community appears to be very happy to have an annual party to dress up for, to gloss over the cracks in the industry, to accept the crumbs of appeasement and perhaps to wake up in 4 or 5 years’ time for another protest action.

As for me, come the second or third Sunday in March, I will be watching Carte Blanche….

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Towards a more impactful National Arts Festival

This article addresses some of the “how” in relation to criticisms and points raised in a previous article reflecting on the 2017 Festival.  It combines recommendations made after previous festivals on the size of the Festival (2014), reviews and reviewers (2014) and the Standard Bank Ovation Awards (2017).

Introduction

After this year’s edition (2014), there was much debate about the National Arts Festival as a market for the performing arts, and theatre in particular, given that there is clearly an oversupply of theatre on the Fringe for the size of the market that the Festival attracts for this genre.

This debate extended to the economic impact of the Festival in Grahamstown itself and in the Eastern Cape as a whole, particularly interrogating the actual beneficiaries of the Festival as opposed to broad statements of economic impact.

With the National Arts Festival also organizing the inaugural Cape Town Fringe, the questions about the size of the festival, its location and its actual beneficiaries played themselves out in that context too.

In the light of these debates and the critical questions raised, this short paper offers some ideas for how the National Arts Festival can make a real impact on the livelihoods of artists and people who really need it in Grahamstown, while maintaining its status as the premier arts festival in the country.

On reducing the size of the Fringe

Other than for a minority of practitioners who do really well on the Fringe, the general experience for Fringe theatre-makers is that they lose money. This is a direct consequence of there simply being too many theatre offerings for the size of the market.

The resistance to reducing the size of the Fringe has come in the form of numerous arguments.  Key among these are:

  1. audiences want variety and options; reducing the Fringe will take away a key attraction of the Festival
  2. the Festival is a free market; everyone has the same chance to “make it”, so this is an excellent place to learn what the real world is like
  3. theatre-makers come to the Fringe not only for financial reasons, but also to be noticed, to launch their plays – reducing the Fringe would take away such opportunities
  4. who will select and what criteria will be used to make such a selection if the Fringe has to be reduced?

Responses to these arguments

  1. Festival-goers (festinos) want variety

One festino can see a maximum of 77 shows i.e. 11 days X 7 shows per day; which only a handful, if any really achieve.  Most festinos probably see 4-5 shows per day X 5 or 6 days i.e. 24-30 shows (including Main and Fringe theatre, music, dance, etc) for the whole festival.

The first point then, is that there is no need to present 180 plus shows (quantity) on the Fringe, in addition to the Main programme, for festinos to enjoy “choice”.

The Main Programme’s theatre and other shows tend to sell out because they are curated i.e. the festino is aware that some sort of selection has taken place and/or that it (co-)produced by a reputable theatre entity.  The shows that attract “market attention” on the Fringe are those that are produced by theatre-makers with a “quality” brand i.e. whom festinos know from previous festivals and/or theatre productions in major theatres around the country.

The second point is that, should festinos be assured of a degree of excellence (quality), they would be more inclined to book for these shows.

  1. The Festival is a “free market”; as difficult as it is for some theatre producers to make it, this is good practice for the “real world”.

Any analysis of those on the Fringe who generate the most income will show that it is those with brands, with networks and historical privilege that overwhelmingly are the usual top-sellers (the exceptions do not dispel the structural advantages that many top-sellers have).

While the Festival may be a “free market”, it is also a limited market in quantity (it is simply not large enough to support all the productions staged at the Festival) and while the demographics are changing, it is still overwhelmingly white so that black, relatively unknown theatre-makers (of which there is an increasing number), do, and will struggle to attract this market.

It is not that this market has an aversion to “black” work; it is that they are generally ignorant of such work and its producers, and will be unlikely to purchase tickets for these works unless there is a recognizable “brand” association (black or white), and/or they are affirmed through a Cue review or perhaps an Ovation award.

  1. Theatre-makers come to the Festival to launch their work, to be noticed, not only to make money; reducing the size of the Festival will take away these opportunities.

While this may be true, it is more likely that theatre-makers will get noticed if

a. there are fewer productions for producers (international and national) to see

b. fewer productions mean that longer, more in-depth reviews can be written that could attract the attention of producers and

c. there were greater investment in the quality of the work, with better production values being an additional attraction

d. fewer productions mean longer runs thereby giving the production more of a chance of “being noticed” as one challenge is for producers (and audiences) to get to the productions they want to while they are still running

  1. Who will select and what criteria will they use?

There will be no selection process so that no criteria will be used.  It is recommended that self-selection occurs by the Festival placing limits on the number of productions that independent producers may bring to the Festival, and/or to link the number of productions to (experienced) festival producers investing in, and helping new entrants to find a market at the Festival.

An experienced producer or a subsidized production house/theatre may bring any number of productions to the Fringe.  For audiences and producers, they will be more inclined to purchase tickets for these shows, rather than unknown or little known brands unless there is good “word-of-mouth” at the festival about such productions.

Thus, the large(r) number of productions by “good brand” producers may prejudice younger/less well known theatre brands.

It is proposed then that there be a three-tier system (if “tiers” upset you, call it something else, but herewith, the principles):

INDIVIDUAL THEATRE-MAKERS/PRODUCERS

Tier One: Producers/theatre-makers who have staged a show on the Fringe at the Festival for five years or less

Such producers:

  1. are given a minimum of 5 performance and a maximum of 7 slots at the Festival
  2. are required to attend a briefing about producing at the Festival – the pros and cons – in their respective region (the Festival is to establish partnerships with institutions in every province where practitioners could collect toolkits/information packs about Festival production and/or to host information sessions)
  3. are invited to apply for
  4. an artistic mentor to advise/assist with the aesthetics of the play and
  5. a production mentor to advise on the branding, marketing and funding of the play

Members of the theatre community are/will be invited to offer such mentoring services, with producers able to choose (in order of priority) the mentor/s which they would like, and which would be most practical (in terms of geography, but recognizing that such mentorships can be conducted through technology i.e. skype, whatsapp, email, etc)

Tier Two: Producers who have staged work on the Fringe for 6 to 10 years

Such producers will be entitled to one play per year, and a second play if

  1. they have won a Standard Bank Ovation award in the preceding two years
  2. they have been selected for an international festival/theatre as a result of their work being seen at Festival (whether on the Main or the Fringe)
  3. one of their shows has sold the following percentage of the total number of tickets available for their show on the Fringe in the preceding two years:

30% of a 200+ seater (if 6 shows, then 30%+ of 1200+ seats i.e. 360+ seats)

35% in a 150-200 seater

40% in a 101-149 seater

50%in anything up to 100 seats (if 6 shows, then 50%+ of 600+ seats or 300+ seats/tickets) or they serve as substantial (rather than token) mentors (artistic and/or production) for a theatre-maker/producer in Tier One in the year of application for a third production

These criteria point to quality on the one hand and/or market demand on the other.

Such producers may have their two shows considered

  1. for a minimum of six and up to eleven shows
  2. if it is a returning show, for it to have won an award, or having been selected for an international platform and/or sold above the minimum ticket percentages as outlined above

Tier Three: Producers who have staged at least one play on the Fringe for at least 10 (not necessarily consecutive) years

Such producers may have two shows on the Fringe Festival and a third show in any one year, depending on the following criteria:

  1. they have won a Standard Bank Ovation award in the preceding two years
  2. they have been selected for an international festival/theatre as a result of their work being seen at Festival (whether on the Main or the Fringe)
  3. one of their shows has sold the following percentage of the total number of tickets available for their show on the Fringe in the preceding two years:

30% of a 200+ seater (if 6 shows, then 30%+ of 1200+ seats i.e. 360+ seats)

35% in a 150-200 seater

40% in a 101-149 seater

50% in anything up to 100 seats (if 6 shows, then 50%+ of 600+ seats or 300+ seats/tickets)

or they serve as substantial mentors (artistic and/or production) for a theatre-maker/producer in Tier One in the year of their application for a third production

If in two years, they fail to win an award or sell tickets as above, they revert to two shows per year maximum.

INSTITUTIONS AND COLLECTIVES

Theatre institutions and collectives (e.g. The Edge, ExploSIV Productions, Followspot productions) may bring up to seven shows in any one year, provided that

  1. at least two shows are Tier One shows
  2. artistic and/or production mentoring/support is provided to the Tier One shows that are part of its offering

No formal theatre institution (as opposed to individual theatre-makers/producers) – whether state-subsidised or private – will have a show on the Main Programme unless they also support at least one Tier One show on the Fringe.

The rights that individual and institutional/collective producers are entitled to are NOT TRANSFERABLE and can only be taken up by the producer/s themselves.

Conclusion

By applying this strategy

  1. Those who have attended and produced works on the Festival over a long period

1.1  are rewarded/recognized with greater opportunities

1.2  are challenged to produce better quality and/or more ticket-buying work

1.3  are invited to nurture/mentor new entrants/to give something back to the industry

  1. New entrants

2.1  have time to acquire experience of producing on the Fringe

2.2  are able to be mentored and to learn from others

2.3  are incentivized to produce good work/sellable work, and are rewarded with more plays

It is strongly recommended that if such a strategy is implemented – or a version thereof

  1. 10-15 high profile Fringe/theatre practitioners be approached to support the idea and to lend their weight as mentors to the project
  2. the broader theatre community be educated about this, and that it be “sold” as the theatre sector taking responsibility for itself
  3. theatre-makers who have attended the Festival for a while but who still struggle on the Fringe be invited to apply for artistic/production mentoring too

A smaller number of works, but still with brand names, and with greater incentivization towards greater quality and/or marketability, and the lending of “brand” names to new entrants as mentors, the overall quality and marketability of Fringe productions will be encouraged.

REVIEWS AND REVIEWERS

This was written about three years ago, and some of it might still have relevance to the discussion about reviews and reviewing, particularly at the National Arts Festival.

It seems like there are numerous things in place already to improve the general standard of reviewing – training possibilities (e.g. Kobus Burger), funding (e.g. Distell, BASA), mentoring (e.g. SA Writers Circle).  Perhaps we need to take responsibility as a sector, devise a little plan and come up with a mechanism to drive its implementation.

As I see it, the following: two immediate focus areas would be the  National Arts Festival (other major festivals use professional arts journalists attached to media partners like those in the Media 24 stable) AND Gauteng and Western Cape – the main regions of arts activity

Training could be provided by five institutions in particular: Johannesburg/Pretoria: School of Arts at Wits University and Tshwane University, Pretoria; UCT in Cape Town and University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University

Also, an on-line course available throughout the year for freelancers around the country e.g. through Kobus Burger, former arts editor of Beeld, training.

There could be a generic course with specific models aimed at various genres (music, theatre, dance, film, literature, visual arts, etc).

Cue and the National Arts Festival

a. Identify/invite 30-40 senior students (minimum of BA Honours) and academics intent on attending the next festival, and who would be available to write reviews

b. All to complete an online training course in reviewing run by Rhodes University/Kobus Burger

c. All Cue writers are selected only if they have a certificate of competence from one of these course

d. Identify possible mentors to work with writers at NAFEST, to advise and comment on reviews prior to submission

e. All to sign a Code of Conduct to ensure no conflicts of interest in reviewing particular works

f. Festival/Cue to have a website for longer reviews, while Cue, given space limitations, carries shorter ones; the website to be well-advertised (people can access via smartphones easily enough)

Repository of reviews

a. Artslink to be invited to play this role

b. Anyone may submit reviews, categorized according to the production and dates of review so that comparisons may be made

c. A section – possibly – to be made available for only the best reviews, selected by a panel of five, to ensure compliance with “best practice”, to set standards for reviewing, and to celebrate excellence in the field

Annual awards for best reviewing as per existing awards (or additional awards at Fleur du Cap, Naledi, Ovations)

Annual gatherings

Reviewers, practitioners and trainers to meet in annual seminars in Gauteng and Western Cape at least to reflect on improvements/state of sector, exchange ideas, engage constructively, and plan on strategic interventions as necessary.

  1. Coordination

To be driven by a committee comprising representatives of the key producing festivals (National Arts Festival, ABSA KKNK, Clover Aardklop), training institutions and online platforms where review/arts journalism training takes place, SA Critics, funding partners.

STANDARD BANK OVATION AWARDS

 Consideration should be given to

  1. Having separate awards for productions that supported by institutions (productions – and I have had some of these – supported by a subsidized institution will invariably have better production values than most independent theatre pieces on the Fringe – is it really fair to compare them as equals?)
  2. Having separate awards or somehow acknowledging differences between works that have run before the Festival and works that premiere at the Festival (the Festival talks of “premieres” but means works that come to the festival for the first time, even if they have premiered elsewhere. Works that have had a season or two before the Festival are in better shape and thus stand better chances of being rewarded than works which have an audience and all the technical elements in play for the first time at the Festival. Works that have had prior seasons can be evaluated at their first performance, while works that premiere at the Festival should only be evaluated on their second, or preferably, third performance)

 

Use it, lose it.  Am done, and outa here.

 

Mike van Graan

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment