On the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture and the re-appointment of Mthethwa

On the amalgamation of departments

In principle, I have no problem with the Department of Arts and Culture being merged with another ministry generally, and with Sport and Recreation in particular because:

  1. The high number of departments/ministries was bloated for patronage purposes, and it was morally and politically necessary that the number be cut drastically (in my view, it is still too many, with the number of deputies simply continuing a pattern of patronage and political accommodation)
  2. It is not as if the Department of Arts and Culture has had a stellar record as a stand-alone department for the last fifteen years at least, so that to suggest that its amalgamation with Sport and Recreation will somehow reduce its effectiveness, is ahistorical.
  3. The budget for the Department of Arts and Culture (R4,6 billion) is more than four times that of the Department of Sport and Recreation (R1,1 billion), so that through the lens of finance and funding, it is not true that arts and culture have been “downgraded” with sport assuming political superiority or funding priority over arts and culture
  4. If it had to be merged with another department, Sport and Recreation is probably one of the better options for at least the following reasons:
  • Sport, recreation, arts and culture are about human well-being, about physical, emotional, intellectual and psychological health – visionary leadership can produce and implement complementary strategies that would improve the quality of life of the citizens of our country
  • Sport is able to achieve social goals at scale that arts and culture are mandated to do but are inherently unable to do e.g. the much-maligned notion of “social cohesion”. There is probably greater national pride across generations, genders, culture and other divides when the Blitzbokke win, or when Rabada takes five wickets or when Caster Semenya runs, than when our theatres produce outstanding musicals, plays or dance. This is not to suggest contradictions between sport and the arts, but rather, their complementary visioning to achieve desirable social and human development goals
  • Sport is an integral part of South African culture (understood as a way of life); rather than reject sport or regard it as a threat to the arts, we should seek better to understand and embrace it and learn from it, perhaps popularising the arts in the process
  • An effective department does not have to do with whether it is a stand-alone department or not; it has to do with leadership, with vision, with political will and a desire to serve the best interests of the sector for which it is responsible and society more broadly; which is why I am convinced that the re-appointment of Nathi Mthethwa is absolutely the wrong move for, and sends the wrong signals to, the arts and culture sector.

The two key faultlines globally – and in South African society – are inequality (who has economic, political, social and cultural power) and culture (different value and belief systems, different traditions and forms of social engagement).

For this reason, rather than a silo ministry responsible for arts and culture – or one that now includes sports – there should be a cultural unit in every department  to assess the impact of that department’s mandate on culture and vice versa, and for these to be overseen and coordinated by a minister who has the knowledge, sensitivity and vision for culture and its influence within our society (the domain of soft power, identity-making and the development of individual and communal meaning).  While culture in its broader sense (including the arts and heritage as constituent parts and meaning-makers) is being increasingly recognised as integral to human and social development in other parts of the world, our political leaders – through the National Development Plan that is silent on culture, and the re-appointment of the minister – reflect their incredibly limited understanding of, and respect for culture as a transversal phenomenon that impacts on how we view and practice human rights, gender equity, democracy and the like.

Ten reasons why Nathi Mthethwa should not be minister of sport, arts and culture

  1. As the minister responsible for the police who shot and killed 34 miners, he should never have been appointed to another political portfolio in the first place. That he remained in politics after that reflects the complete absence of any sense of democratic accountability both on his part and on the part of the ruling party.  Appointing a politician responsible for the massacre of workers who were exercising their right to freedom of association and their right to strike and protest to a ministry responsible for a sector premised on the right to freedom of creative expression, is downright cynical.
  2. It took two years to start from scratch a broadly consultative process to the final adoption of the original White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage. It has taken the whole of Mthethwa’s previous tenure (five years) to revise this White Paper, and it is still not done, and due to the limited participation by the sector, it lacks the legitimacy that the original White Paper earned through its inclusive, participatory process.  This points to a gross lack of competence.
  3. There has been no fresh vision emanating from Mthethwa regarding how those regions – generally the less-resourced ones in our country – will have historical imbalances addressed. The DAC continues to pour millions into five theatres in the four provinces, while – notwithstanding the pleas of other regions and even an initial budgetary commitment to Limpopo, none of Mpumalanga, North West, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and Limpopo have a nationally-subsidised theatre space, reflecting a complete disregard for these regions while defending the finance minister’s suggestions for a “new national theatre”.
  4. Unlike representative arts structures formed by artists themselves – Film and Allied Workers Organisation, Association of Community Arts Centres, Dance Alliance, Congress of South African Writers, Performing Arts Workers Equity and the Musicians Union of South Africa in the eighties that led to the National Arts Coalition which successfully lobbied for post-apartheid cultural policies, Mthethwa imposed a structure – the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA) – on the sector as its representative body. Despite not doing anything to earn the respect of the sector since its launch in 2015, Mthethwa set up a task team to prepare the next elective conference, scheduled for late March this year.  That conference did not happen, just as CCIFSA had been an empty shell for the previous four years.  By imposing a sweetheart structure funded by DAC as the “unifying, representative structure” Mthethwa reflects his lack of democratic credentials, and a disrespect for the sector and its right to organise itself, rather than be “led” by government-funded lackeys.
  5. On his watch, numerous publicly-funded cultural institutions have encountered crises of governance, corruption and mismanagement including the National Arts Council, National Film and Video Foundation, PACOFS, the Market Theatre and Robben Island Museum. This points to a lack of oversight on his part and rather than claim credit for “cleaning up” these institutions as he did earlier this year, that they were in crisis reflects his poor appointment of governing structures and the poor governance training at these institutions.
  6. Notwithstanding being informed of the corrupt activities of individuals he appointed to governance structures, he nevertheless re-appointed them leading to the crises at institutions such as the Market Theatre. As the result of a forensic investigation, he removed the Chairperson of the Market Theatre Council but not without irreparably damaging the institution, about which he has shown a complete lack of care, concerned only that his own reputation and that of the DAC are not compromised. He cares more about his own reputational damage than he does about the institutions for which he bears political responsibility.
  7. Mthethwa does not know the laws for which he is responsible. He was obliged to terminate the tenure of one of the NAC’s Councils when a civil society organisation pointed out to him that the Council had been appointed illegally by not allowing the public to sit in on the interviews and to object to any nominated member (which again reflects an inclination to deny the sector its democratic rights).
  8. Nathi Mthethwa is a liar. He wrote in an article that the reason why I was critical of him and the department is because I had requested that he appoint an advisory board – including me – that would advise him and from which he would need to take instructions.  As he has declined to appoint such a body, I am now “making noise”.  I have never asked him to do such a thing and challenged him to produce the correspondence in which I made this proposal.  He has never done so.  Politicians lie.  But this was a bald-faced lie to deflect legitimate criticism by attempting to discredit the critic.
  9. The late appointment of curators for the Venice Biennial this year again underscores the negligence and incompetence of the Department of Arts and Culture under Mthethwa. The DAC knows that the Biennial happens every two years; surely it is not that difficult to allocate a budget and invite potential curators to pitch their ideas at least 12-18 months in advance?
  10. The minister does not understand that he is a politician, elected to serve the people of South Africa generally and the arts and culture sector in particular, and that he needs to be accountable to them. He declines to answer legitimate questions – such as requests for the terms of reference for the company he appointed to investigate the Market Theatre, the amount they were being paid (the company is often used by the DAC for “forensic investigations” so that we should have cause for concern that such a company might provide the recommendations that the DAC wants rather than that which is in the best interests of the institution) – and suggests that he really does not have to answer critics (see Daily Maverick 4 March 2019). Fundamentally, Mthethwa is not a democrat, and has little respect for democracy within our sector.

The elections offered the hope of a “new dawn” for the arts, culture and heritage sector.  Civil society activists called upon the President to appoint a member of the arts and culture community as the minister responsible for the sector precisely because of their disappointment in the last ministers’ inability to realise the huge potential of the sector.

There was the expectation that the ministry would be merged with another, but there was also the hope that a new minister would bring with her or him a new openness, a willingness to listen and engage with the sector, and a simple commitment to work with, and not against the sector, which would benefit the South African public, the arts and culture sector and the Department of Arts and Culture.

However, with the re-appointment of Mthethwa as minister and now with a wider portfolio, there is clearly no new dawn for the arts, at least not from the political class.

Creative practitioners have found ways to work, to produce and distribute their work despite, rather than because of the Department.  There is a strong parallel, independent stream of excellent work in all disciplines.  And yet, there is so much more than can be achieved were the Department of Arts and Culture to be in sync with the vision and needs of the sector.

Having attempted – and failed – to influence the President in his choice of minister, and with the President having shown complete disregard for the sector (if he was not going to appoint a civil society member to his cabinet, at the very least he could have appointed a different minister if he had actually read the various representations that had been made to him), it is now up to the arts, culture and heritage sector to organise itself independently, to advocate for its interests and to monitor and bring pressure to bear on the Department and the minister as necessary.

There is a new generation of bright, active and insightful creatives and activists.  It is their time to act.

 

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The Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards: On Politics, PR and Prejudice

Introduction

About 17 years ago, the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA) hosted a Festival of Reading of New Writing to encourage new writing for the theatre.  A panel of at least three judges would read the submissions without knowing who the writers were; they would make a shortlist of 5 plays which would then each be allocated to a director to produce as a staged reading over the demarcated festival weekend.  After each reading, the audience and judges would give their feedback for the writer to consider, and at the end of the weekend, the judges would make a Jury Award to the play they considered the best of the five as well as to a Runner-Up.  The audience was invited to vote, and the play that solicited the most votes, would be given the “Audience Award”.

I submitted a play – Green Man Flashing – to the 2003 Festival, where it was shortlisted as an anonymous script, and subsequently, it was awarded the Jury Prize (the shortlisted scripts and writers were announced once the initial selection had taken place).  One of the other writers who had been shortlisted suggested that it was a “hometown decision” since I served as the Secretary General of PANSA at the time.  (The PANSA Steering Committee had decided that individuals involved in leadership positions could submit work, or members would decline to stand for leadership of the organisation if they were unable to participate in PANSA’s projects).

While there had been broad affirmation of the play at the time (and Green Man Flashing has since become my most produced play and is studied in schools and universities), I nevertheless wondered whether it had indeed been a “hometown decision”, and whether I had been favoured because of my position within the organisation.

So, the next year, I submitted a play to the Festival of New Writing under the pseudonym, Peter September (a name that had to approximate my Cape Flats background so that judges would not be tempted to be swayed by a “white name” or a “black African name”).  No-one in the organisation knew that Hostile Takeover – a satire on the free market economy and black economic empowerment which was quite different to Green Man Flashing – was my play.

The play was selected as one of the five finalists and the brilliant Matthew Wild was assigned as the director of the staged reading. I had a second phone through which communication about the play occurred (always by sms), and when it was close to the rehearsal process and Matthew wanted to meet the writer, I briefed my brother and had him play “Peter September” in the discussion with Matthew.

Hostile Takeover, a three-hander, was awarded the Jury Runner-Up prize which made me less insecure about my writing.  It was produced by the Market Theatre and premiered as my first Main Festival production at the National Arts Festival the following year.  A few years later, as Artscape’s Associate Playwright, I reworked the script as Just Business.  Mbulelo Grootboom was cast in the original staged reading, and about seven years later, he was cast in Just Business, a role for which he won the Fleur du Cap Best Supporting Actor Award in 2012.

That was the last time anyone associated with my plays in Cape Town won a Fleur du Cap Award.

Critique of the 2012 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards

The year before (2011), the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards and judges were heavily criticised because white winners were selected in all seventeen categories.  I subsequently did an analysis of the productions eligible for the awards that showed that it was less the fault of the judges and more the responsibility of theatre managements and independent theatre-makers that had provided the pool of overwhelming white talent from which judges were obliged to make their selections.  I argued that the awards were symptomatic of the industry and could not be expected to reflect nominations and winners that were inconsistent with the reality of who was on our stages, who was directing them, who was providing technical support and so on.  The challenge of transforming the demographics (the most superficial form of transformation) of our sector lay with the theatre industry rather than with the judges or the awards system. (Substantive transformation i.e. providing access to infrastructure, access to capital, developing skilled human resources, was primarily – though not only – the responsibility of the state).

However, stung by the criticism and with the sponsor – Distell – suffering huge reputational damage as a result of the criticism, in the following year, the judges of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards selected persons of colour in all four major acting categories – Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor (Mbulelo Grootboom for his role in Just Business) and Best Supporting Actress.

After the 2012 awards event and with criticism far more muted, I undertook another analysis and wrote an article in which I showed that while there had been a larger pool of black talent from which the judges were able to make their selections than in the previous year, mathematically, it was just about impossible for them to have arrived at persons of colour winning all four of those categories.  This did not exactly endear me to the judges, one of whom phoned to express deep anger at having the integrity of the judges challenged.

That was also the last time that I attended the Fleur du Cap Theatre awards as – in my view – it had become less of a “celebration of excellence” within the Western Cape theatre sector, than an event in which political correctness, personal prejudice (on the part of some of the judges) and the brand of the sponsor played no small parts in the nomination and selection of winners, as well as in the actual awards event, where over the years, ad hoc awards were made to maintain an acceptable “demographic spread”.

Notwithstanding this trend, two years ago, four women – Chuma Sopotela, Buhlebezwe Siwani, Zikhona Jacobs and Mamela Nyamza -staged a protest at the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards event to highlight the under-representation of black people in the list of nominees.  Last year’s awards were, in my publicly-expressed view – largely – another predictable, politically correct response to the criticism of the previous year.

Why does it matter?

Some would argue that in contemporary South Africa, most – if not all awards – have an element of political correctness, of conscious or less overt correcting of historical legacies in the affirmation of talent, particularly as it relates to “race”, and to a lesser extent, gender.

I do believe that it is appropriate and morally imperative to address the inherited inequities of the past but not in ways that mask and so perpetuate the structural and systemic inequities of the present.  This is, and has been, my key criticism of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards for the last number of years: that the corporate interests of the sponsor and the political interests of at least some of the judges who are active in the industry beyond the awards, overall selections are made that do not rock the Awards boat, but which in the process, give a false impression of demographic transformation of the theatre sector in the Western Cape.

For example, over the last ten years, there have been 45 nominations in the Fleur du Cap Best Director category; of these, only four have been persons of colour (less than 10%), and of these, only one (2% of the total) has been a woman (an English woman, born of South African parents in exile in Swaziland, and who has lived in English since the age of 7).  During the same period (2009-2018), 21 of the 69 Best Director nominees in the Naledi Awards, have been persons of colour (30%), with 7 of these being women (10% of the total).

Has there ever been a “Black African” – man or woman – who has won the Fleur du Cap “Best Director” Award?

There is still much work to do in both of the country’s primary theatre regions, but the answer to the question about who gets opportunities to direct in the Western Cape is starker than in Gauteng.

Persons of colour have increasingly been represented in the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards’ Best New Director category over the last 4-5 years, but how many of them have been invited to direct a play in one of our mainstream theatres or festivals subsequently?  Beyond giving the awards a good demographic spread, how have these awards actually helped the careers of the young nominees, if at all?

The Market Theatre and the State Theatre have contributed to the emergence of new black directors in Gauteng; in the Western Cape, it has to be asked – what has Artscape which receives the largest state-subsidy of the nationally-subsidised theatres, contributed to changing the theatre status quo in the last while?

Lesedi Job, director of my play When Swallows Cry, was the first black woman to win the Naledi Theatre Award for Best Director of a Play.  She directed the same play with a Cape Town-based cast, and was nominated, not in the Best Director category, but in Fleur du Cap’s Best New Director category.  Interestingly, Tinarie van Wyk Loots was nominated in both the Best New Director and the Best Director categories for the 2018 production of Swerfgoed.  In Johannesburg, Lesedi won against seasoned directors such as Sylvaine Strike, Lara Foot, Lara Bye and Andre Odendaal; in Cape Town, she was “lucky” to be nominated as a Best New Director.

Is it because Lesedi hails from Johannesburg and the Fleur du Cap Theatre judges are notoriously parochial?  Is it because she was good enough to make up the demographic numbers in the nominations list, but not good enough to make the Best Directors category, unlike her fellow new director nominee?  (Note: this is by no means a reflection on Tinarie who is not responsible for her nominations; this is to raise necessary questions that are too often lost in the euphoria of celebrating “black excellence” when awards are made to some black winners, while other potentially worthy black nominees are treated differently to their white counterparts).  Is it that the production of When Swallows Cry was so much poorer in Cape Town than the one in Johannesburg, or relative to other productions which were under consideration?  (After all, When Swallows Cry did not receive any other nominations, unlike in Johannesburg where it won the Best Production, Best Director and Best Script categories, and its three actors and lighting designer, Mandla Mtshali – who also did the lighting in Cape Town – were all nominated in their respective Naledi Theatre Awards categories.  And yet, when one reads the Cape Town “four star” reviews of When Swallows Cry – some of them written by FDC judges – and compares them to the reviews of some of the other nominees, one has to wonder….).  Was it that Lesedi had the misfortune of being associated with one of my productions?

Before and After 2012

Before my articles in 2012 and 2013 about the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, I had won two FDC Best Script Awards (Dinner Talk, 1997 and Die Generaal, 2008).  In the seven years from 2005 till 2011, I also had three scripts nominated in the Best Script category (Green Man Flashing, 2005; Mixed Metaphors, 2006 and Iago’s Last Dance, 2009).

In the subsequent seven years, 2012-2018, none of my scripts was nominated, including Brothers in Blood that had won the Naledi Theatre Award for Best New South African Script in 2009 and When Swallows Cry, the most recent Naledi winner in this category.

With the announcement of the nominees for the 2018 Naledi Theatre Awards the night after the FDCs in Cape Town, there are now four post-2012 scripts (Pay Back the Curry, When Swallows Cry, Another One’s Bread and Land Acts) that have been nominated in the Naledis, and which were staged in Cape Town, but none of which was nominated in its equivalent FDC category.  I note this to highlight the lack of FDC nominations coinciding with the period after my criticism of these awards.

What irks me is not the lack of nominations (I’ve asked before: how many nominations – or awards – does one need to be an “award-winning” or an “multiple-award winning” playwright), but the apparent reasons for it.  These reasons – I am convinced – have little to do with “theatre excellence” or the lack of it, and far more to do with the judges who are happy to pronounce on our work both as judges and as sometime theatre reviewers, but who take great personal and collective offence when their work, decision-making and personal prejudices are held up to scrutiny.  An industry that is premised on freedom of expression surely cannot allow itself to be compromised by those who exercise power and influence over the sector (by determining what is “excellent”) and who victimise those who exercise freedom of expression by analysing and critiquing their actions and decisions?

What also irks me is how those associated with my work appear to be prejudiced by this association, particularly since I would like to believe that at this stage in my career, I should be providing platforms and opportunities for younger creatives to profile their talents.

Rainbow Scars, my post-Marikana massacre play that employs the extended family as a metaphor to explore for whom the “rainbow nation” actually works (i.e. a ‘multi-racial’ elite) earned six Naledi nominations including a “Best Newcomer” for Kertrice Maitisa, won a Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival and was selected for the Afrovibes Festival in the Netherlands and the UK, but did not get a single Fleur du Cap nomination.  Daniel Mpilo Richards, an extraordinary talent, won the Naledi Theatre Award for Best Newcomer/Breakthrough Artist for his performance in Pay Back the Curry as well as the Standard Bank Ovation Award for the Most Outstanding Performance at the National Arts Festival for State Fracture (both dealing with contemporary South African issues in satirical fashion); while he was nominated for Pay Back the Curry and Land Acts, he did not make it to the Fleur du Cap podium.  Brothers in Blood earned Greg Homann a Standard Bank Ovation Award as the director of this play that explores prejudice against the backdrop of the three Abrahamic religions; it won the Naledi award for Best New Script and had a return season at Artscape because of its box office popularity, but it, too, did not get a single FDC nod.

Much of my adult life I’ve spent fighting, not to be a “winner”, but for social justice, for people to be treated fairly.  I do not need to do another “Peter September” to know that for the last 6 or 7 years, this has not been the case with the FDCs.  The facts speak for themselves.

Today, it is me.  Tomorrow, it could be the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art, Chuma Sopotela, victimised for her participation in the 2017 protest.  But it will not be noticed, or commented upon, because others within a similar demographic would have been affirmed.  For this is how the status quo remains: through divide-and-rule and co-option.

Conclusion

In our industry-of-small-returns, it is churlish to undermine the winners and those who received recognition and cash prizes at the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards; that is not at all the intention of this article, nor of previous critiques of the FDCs.  On the contrary, those who have received public recognition, should enjoy it and where possible, use it to advance their careers in this most competitive of industries.

In the absence of interrogative journalists and academics who should be doing this kind of work, the article aims to reflect on how the FDCs, conducted – as are most of these kinds of awards events – un-transparently and without the sector being aware of what criteria are used to determine “excellence” in the decision-making processes may

  1. mask the lack of demographic and substantive transformation within the Western Cape theatre industry
  2. primarily serve the corporate image interests of the sponsor rather than the theatre sector and
  3. victimise critical voices which is a fundamental contravention of the principle of freedom of expression

It won’t make any difference, but at least it’s been said.

Mike van Graan

March 2019

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The Market Theatre Executive Summary Report: A Comment

Having read the Executive Summary Report on the Investigation into Allegations of Mismanagement at the Market Theatre Foundation after it was posted on Facebook by Carl Johnson on Sunday 10 Feb 2019 (thanks Carl, and to whoever leaked it to you 😊), I’d like to offer a perspective.

It is the summary, rather than the full report, so it reads like a shopping list of allegations with cursory evidence in support of some of the allegations, followed by findings and recommendations by the company who conducted the investigation, and whom we now know to be Morar Incorporated (Chartered Accountants, and Registered Auditors).

Being a report by accountants, the summary (and it needs to be emphasised that it is the summary) is largely technical, with findings that point to breaches of policies, regulations and laws – or not – rather than provide a holistic context in which to understand and interpret the allegations and findings.  However, a closer reading of the whole summary (as opposed to bits of it as was clearly the case in the compilation of a recent front page story in the Star), tells a broader story that paints a picture of the core conflict at the Market Theatre and which forms the background and context for the allegations, counter-allegations and the findings.

The core conflict revolved around the Council of the Market Theatre on the one hand and its (former) chairperson in particular, and on the other hand, the CEO and the CFO.  There are multiple findings against all three individuals, as well as against the Council (at least those who comprised the Council in 2017/18), with recommendations for disciplinary action against all three individuals as well as against former and current Council members implicated in the findings.

Three of the Council members re-appointed in April 2018 have resigned, and the Chairperson of the Council has been removed by the DAC/Minister.  (In terms of the Cultural Institutions Act, the Minister appoints the Councils of publicly-funded bodies, and thus has the legal mandate to remove the Council and/or individual members).  The expectation among some would now be that the – mostly reconstituted – Council, charged with the governance of the Market Theatre Foundation, will take disciplinary action against the CEO and CFO as recommended in the forensic report. 

But first, beyond the accountant list of technical breaches, what story does the Report tell?

Allegation One in the Report lists the negative media publicity resulting from City Press articles which cited allegations of fraud, corruption and maladministration at the Market.  The finding in the report is that the CEO leaked confidential information to the City Press, which led to an article on 22 April 2018 which “constituted extremely negative media publicity for the MTF (Market Theatre Foundation)”.  Subsequently, the Chairperson of the Council leaked confidential information to the City Press.  The Report states that in doing so “the Chairman and CEO have breached the Conflict of Interest Policy of the MTF” and accordingly, recommends that disciplinary action be taken against the CEO and the Chairman.

Some thirty allegations later in the Report is Allegation Thirty-One: “the alleged threats of constructive dismissal by the Chairman of the Council at a meeting held by him on 17 April with the staff of the public entity; and which threats formed the basis of the CEO and CFO to seek legal intervention.”

From further clauses, it would appear that the Chairperson addressed the staff (a finding is that this was in contravention of the Market Theatre Foundation’s Code of Conduct and Ethics for Members of Council), that his demeanour in this meeting “was distressingly aggressive and confrontational” and that “various statements made by the Chairman in this forum were construed to not only be directed at the CEO and CFO but were felt to be threatening the security of the CEO and CFO.” 

The Report states further that “though threats of constructive dismissal may not be substantiated, it has been determined through email communication between the Chairman of the Council and the HR Manager…that the objective to dismiss the CEO and the CFO was being pursued.”  Ending that section, the Report declares that “the matters raised by the Chairman and the manner in which they were addressed to the MTF staff was not in the best interests of the organisation and contributed significantly to the negative media coverage received by the MTF in the subsequent City Press article detailed above.”

Allegation Thirty-Six states that “the HR Manager…acted in defiance of the CEO, her direct manager, in the pursuit of a meeting of the irregularly constituted (Human Resources) committee” and that “in addition to this, evidence indicates a collaboration between (the HR Manager) and the Chairman which points to an attempt to achieve the termination or dismissal of both the CEO and CFO of the MTF.”

While the Report finds that the CEO breached MTF policy in leaking information to the City Press that created negative publicity for the institution and recommends that he be disciplined for it, the Report makes it clear (if one reads it as a whole) that the context for leaking this information is that a few days earlier, the Chairperson of the Council – in contravention of Market Theatre policy – addressed the staff and made statements sufficient to have the CEO and CFO believe that their jobs were at risk.  Forensic evidence also pointed to the Chairperson collaborating with the head of HR, a subordinate of the CEO, to rid the Market Theatre of the CEO and CFO.

This, then, is clearly the context for the CEO’s leaking of confidential information to the media.  If you feel your job is under threat, and that the correct channels – such as the Council of your institution is compromised and subject to the whims of the Chairperson, and if you have reported matters of concern to the DAC who have taken no action – what options do you have?  Everyone knows that Ismail is my friend, but – unless one has a really personal gripe against him for one reason or another (whether valid or not) – can one objectively declare that one would not have done the same in his position?  So, technically, he breached the MTF regulations in leaking confidential information to City Press, but the context was the real and imminent threat to his job.  And the reason that his job was under threat – together with that of the CFO’s – is that they were exposing or blocking the Chairperson’s abuse of the Market Theatre’s public resources for his personal and political ends.

In real terms then, the CEO was a whistleblower.  That’s what whistleblowers do.  They go against the strictures of their organisations, companies and institutions to expose corruption or some other threat to the well-being of the entity; they contravene a minor measure for the greater good of the institution. 

We have short memories and we shift the goalposts to suit us and the outcomes we would like.  So it is necessary to remind readers that one of the most serious allegations made against the CEO at the time – by some staff members – was that he was a racist, with newspaper headlines screaming this all over Johannesburg, and resulting in enormous reputational damage.  On this matter however – Allegation Twenty-Eight – the Report states “We found no evidence of ongoing racism, sexism and/or victimisation” (on the part of the CEO).

So what now?  What about those who made the allegations?  The Report is silent on them.  But it does make clear the collusion between the Chairperson of the Council and a senior staff member, with the aim of terminating the services of the CFO and the CEO.  And it further – when discussing Allegation Thirty-Five – indicates that the Chairperson bypassed the CEO and directly engaged a senior publicist at the Market, to assist him “in launching his personal political campaign” (for the presidency of the ANC).  It would thus not be unreasonable to assume that the Chairperson fomented opposition – and charges of racism against the CEO – among some of the staff, thereby undermining management and causing conflicts which could hardly be in the best interests of the Market Theatre, whose best interests he was appointed to ensure!

But what were the reasons for the tensions between the Chairperson on the one hand, and the CEO and CFO on the other?

The clues to this may be found in some of the findings against the Chairperson, such as that he irregularly requested a loan of R56 000 from the MTF and that he fraudulently hired cars while not on Council duty (at least 17 times).  The final allegation (Allegation Forty) is that CFO undermined Council decisions because of her refusal to pay the honoraria for Council members approved by the Council (at the time when this was exposed in the media, the amounts were R100 000 for the Chairperson and R75 000 for Council members).  The finding states that the CFO acted on the advice on the DAC and that there was thus no wrongdoing on her part but recommends that disciplinary action be taken against the Council members for the irregular decision to pay themselves honoraria. 

Essentially then, the conflict between the Chairperson on the one hand, and the CEO and the CFO on the other, had nothing to do with the best interests of the Market Theatre, nothing to do with different ideologies and visions for theatre generally, nothing to do with how best the Market Theatre could serve its stakeholders and the public which was its core mandate; it had everything to do with the Chairperson abusing the resources of the publicly-funded institution and the management seeking to limit or prevent this.

This is the story of numerous publicly-funded institutions over the last couple of decades; the amounts are a lot smaller, but the themes are similar – those charged with the proper governance of the institution instead seek to use it as their personal ATM, and when management stands in their way, they are forced out, or attempts are made to force them out by – if appropriate – alleging racism.  This is the context in which the Report needs to be read, rather than simply as a list of allegations and technical findings of breaches of regulations and policies, of which there are many.   

This is not to say that the allegations and findings should not be tested, and charges laid where necessary, but it is important for us as readers, as stakeholders and as the public to be clear about the context for these, rather than view any or all of the allegations, findings and recommendations in isolation.

There are numerous allegations against the CFO; some of them sound pretty spurious.  For example, according to the Report, the CFO asked the IT service provider to the Market Theatre for a second-hand laptop that she could buy in her personal capacity, to pass on to a university student who was part of her church.  The service provider then informed the CFO that she need not pay for the laptop; they would recognise the donation as part of their CSI initiative.  The Report states “the CFO did not decline this offer and therefore benefited in the form of savings in her personal capacity, as she did not have to outlay any of her personal money to acquire the laptop for the student.”  The Report goes on to imply that it is this kind of conflict of interest that led to the CFO further extending or motivating for the extension of the contract of the service provider.

Again, let me be clear that where there is evidence in support of allegations and adverse findings against anyone, including the CEO, CFO, current and previous Council members and staff, due process must ensue, and those that are found guilty must be appropriately sanctioned.  In a society as racially charged and a sector as polarised as ours, one can only hope that – unlike the Department of Arts and Culture – the present Council of the Market Theatre will act transparently and in the best interests of the institution which they govern, rather than out of political expediency.

One cannot help but come away with an impression that Morar Incorporated was instructed or pressurised by the DAC to make some of their adverse findings against the CFO and CEO in order for the Report to appear to be even-handed.

A final word on the DAC and the Minister of Arts and Culture, who really are the real culprits in this mess that would never have happened, had the DAC and the Minister actually have done their jobs properly!

A couple of weeks ago, at the end of January, the DAC issued a media release in which they praised themselves and the Minister for “successfully cleaning house” in their reporting entities.  The release states “the DAC does not believe in the masking of difficulties, where administration and institutional governance – or the lack and absence thereof in either, occur.  In this regard, Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Director General Vusumuzi Mkhize and the department’s senior officials have spent the past months addressing areas of grave concern including maladministration, corrupt activities and the disintegration of governance in entities.”

There then follows a litany of institutions under the DAC’s watch in which the DAC has “successfully cleaned house”, including the country’s two major public funding agencies – the National Film and Video Foundation and the National Arts Council, the South African Heritage Agency, the Robben Island Museum and the Market Theatre, all of these pretty major cultural institutions.

The DAC’s media release ends thus “Lastly, it is important to note that when whistleblowers and individuals report worrisome matters to the DAC – these are taken seriously.  This is apparent in how swiftly Minister Nathi Mthethwa and the DAC have acted in the past months, by relentlessly and with great commitment tackling all issues of concern and without hesitation, instituting processes to rectify these. The DAC deems it of utmost importance to be transparent in keeping its stakeholders and members of the public informed on any activities related to not only the department but all agencies and entities under its administration”.

Clearly, the DAC believes its own propaganda and would like to pull the wool over the eyes of its stakeholders with its self-congratulatory, smoke-and-mirrors public statements.

During July last year, I was part of setting up an Ad Hoc Committee of Concerned Market Theatre Stakeholders to try to advocate for transparency in the Market Theatre investigation.  We wrote to the Director General on 30 July 2017:

“We are aware that there is an investigation into the various allegations made by staff, management and Council members, and we would like to believe that this is an independent and rigorous investigation.  Unfortunately, recent history in our country – and in our sector – leaves us with a sense of unease.  We have witnessed huge levels of corruption and gross disregard for regulations and laws that govern publicly-funded institutions and state-owned enterprises, sometimes with the assistance of politicians and senior government officials.  Subsequent investigations into these have been mixed, with a few being rigorous and others aiding and abetting the corrupt.

The Department of Arts and Culture has been informed over a period of time by current and previous managements of the Market Theatre about the alleged financial impropriety and poor governance of the Council and of its Chairperson, Mr Kwanele Gumbi, in particular.  And yet, the Minister of Arts and Culture saw it fit to re-appoint most members of the Council, and to return Mr Gumbi as the Council’s Chairperson in April this year.

You would then understand our unease at the appointment of an “independent investigation” by the Department of Arts and Culture which could be seen to be directly responsible for the current state of affairs having not acted on prior allegations and having re-appointed the Council.

We would like to be convinced that the investigation is indeed rigorous and independent, as well as being transparent.

Accordingly, this is to request the following (in order for it to be made public as a first step):

1.       the name of the company undertaking the investigation

2.       how/why this company was selected

3.       how much this company will be paid for its work

4.       the terms of reference of the investigating company

5.       the time framework for the investigation”

To this day, we have not received a reply to these questions.  When the Department has answered our queries, it has been in the form of media releases subsequent to our letters, so that one wonders whether they would in fact deem “it of utmost importance to be transparent in keeping its stakeholders and members of the public informed” unless there were stakeholders actually demanding transparency.

With the posting of the Executive Summary of the report on Facebook this last Sunday, we now know that the forensic investigation was done by Morar Incorporated.  From the DAC’s January media release, we learn that Morar Incorporated is also undertaking the forensic investigation at the National Arts Council and at Robben Island Museum (interestingly, they are not listed in the part of the release dealing with the Market Theatre). 

Morar Incorporated obviously gets much work – and thus remuneration – from the DAC.  This raises the question about how they might feel pressurised to deliver reports that suit the interests of the DAC, or how much the reports are changed after their submission to the DAC.  The date of the report is 16 November 2018, and the DAC’s media release states that it was handed to the Council of the Market Theatre in December 2018: were there consultations between the DAC and Morar Incorporated that resulted in any changes to the final findings and recommendations for disciplinary action?  In the interests of transparency, perhaps the DAC can tell us?

But there is another factor that points to the venality of the DAC and the Minister: as stated in the letter of the Ad Hoc Committee, the DAC was informed of allegations of poor governance and financial impropriety by the former chairperson of the Council over a period of time by the previous management as well as the current management.  They would also have been aware that the Chairperson had been forced out of his similar position at another DAC entity, Business and Arts South Africa, because of his inappropriate behaviour there.  The DAC had also been informed of the Council’s irregular decision to pay themselves bonuses in 2017.

Yet, when the Minister had an opportunity to appoint a new Council in April 2018, he essentially re-appointed the previous Council and re-appointed the Chairperson of the Council: so much for taking whistleblowing and reporting of “worrisome matters” seriously.  Simply put, if the DAC and Minister had cleaned house at the Market Theatre by appointing a new Council in April 2018, the conflict between the Chairperson and the management would not have happened and the Market Theatre – and individuals within it – would not have suffered the reputational damage that they have.  By reappointing the Council and the Chairperson, the DAC empowered him to continue his vendetta against management whom he believed stood in his way, turning staff against management by playing the race card.

The question then is: who investigates the DAC?  Who investigates the Minister?  Who will take disciplinary action against them?

Less than a year later, the Council re-appointed in April last year, does not exist.  At least four of those seven members have either resigned or have been removed.

In August last year, the Ad Hoc Committee responded to a letter from the Minister (the only communication we received in response to our letters to the DAC and the Minister):

“In your letter, you – correctly – state that “there is…no legislation that requires you to publish the final list of nominees” (for the Council of the Market Theatre).  However, given your and the DAC’s public commitment to transparency and accountable governance as stated in the media release, we again respectfully request that you release the list of nominees so that we as stakeholders may gain insight into why the current Council was appointed (with most of the former Council being re-appointed, despite the allegations against them which had been submitted to the DAC by current and previous managements of the Market Theatre).

We would love to accept your good faith with regard to the appointment of the Council in April this year, but with mounting evidence of collusion between ministers and the Councils/Boards of state-owned enterprises and publicly-funded institutions in other sectors of our society, we need to be convinced that the same is not being practiced in our sector.  We trust that you will understand where we are coming from.”

The Minister declined to respond, but with members of the Council resigning, he has had to fill the vacancies.  Apparently, he is doing so by making such appointments from the list of people who had been nominated to serve on the Market’s Council, who had been interviewed and subsequently shortlisted by the DAC (no doubt bearing in mind that he had to remove all the members of a previous National Arts Council when he was shown that he had appointed them improperly).

But, in the midst of allegations of racism against the – Indian – CEO, the Minister appointed two Indians to the Council, including one who is a close friend of the CEO.  Fortunately, the allegations of racism against the CEO have been found to be without basis, but the credibility of any charges or sanctions against the CEO by the Council based on the Report will be compromised (at least in the eyes of some of the aggrieved staff) by the DAC’s mismanagement and lack of transparency in the appointment of the Council.  It also places individual board members in invidious positions, particularly at a time when a highly polarised staff and management team have to be brought back together, by the governing Council.

Rather than be congratulated for “successfully cleaning house”, the Department of Arts and Culture and Minister carry huge and direct responsibility for the house – at least in the case of the Market Theatre – been turned upside down in the first place.

But then, what can one expect from a department that has taken five years to review its most important policy document and has still not completed the process?

Hopefully, given its difficult position, the Council of the Market Theatre will act with transparency in bringing this episode to an honourable and fair conclusion.  Whatever the outcomes, it is unlikely that all stakeholders will be happy.  But given the state of many of our key public institutions, it is imperative that sound governance and ethical management be restored at the iconic Market Theatre.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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