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.
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.
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
- 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
- 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.