"State capture" and the Market Theatre

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The Market Theatre became one of the most important South African cultural icons during the apartheid era. Launched in 1976, in the same year as the “Soweto uprisings”, the Market Theatre produced plays that travelled the globe, giving a human face to the impact of apartheid on the lives of most South Africans.

Such was the esteem in which the theatre was held by anti-apartheid forces that, after Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the president of the country, the Market Theatre was the only new theatre to be added to the list of nationally subsidised theatres. From being a fiercely independent cultural space, supported mainly by international funding and local, private-sector sponsorship, the theatre – in exchange for receiving a regular state subsidy – became an “agency of the department of arts and culture”, and handed over to the government the right to appoint its governing council, as well as the chairperson of the council.

Civil society activists who advocated post-apartheid arts and culture policies through the National Arts Coalition in the early nineties, were adamant that the governing boards of state-subsidised institutions should be appointed independently, and that the chairpersons of such boards should be elected by the members of the boards themselves, rather than by a politician. In this way, the chairperson would be accountable to the board, rather than to a political party. They had learned from the apartheid era, during which boards of taxpayer-funded cultural institutions – and their chairpersons – had been appointed by the National Party government, so that the political hegemony of the ruling party was ensured within these institutions by the government-aligned boards. Boards played censorial roles and, by virtue of the chairperson having been appointed by “the minister”, few on these boards had been prepared to challenge the authority and decisions of these political appointees.

While initial post-apartheid cultural policy and legislation embedded this “arm’s-length” approach to governance, just a few years later, legislation was changed to revert to that of the apartheid era, where governing boards of publicly funded cultural entities and their chairpersons were directly appointed by the minister of arts and culture.

“State capture” has been very much on the lips and lists of concerns of South African citizens over the last while, as increasing evidence has come to the fore about how publicly funded entities – like the power utility, the public broadcaster, the railway passenger service, etc – have been “captured” by politically connected elites, who have used these entities as their personal ATMs for gross self-enrichment. At the same time, other constitutional bodies that were created to protect South African democracy and the rights of citizens – like the police, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Public Protector, etc – have also been “captured” through the deployment of individuals aligned with the interests of the political and economic elites, who have protected them from arrest and prosecution.

While the scale might have been “peanuts” compared with the thievery that took place in state-owned enterprises, the Market Theatre was also regarded by some as a vehicle for self-enrichment. Early last year, allegations emerged about the chairperson of the council wanting to pay himself an honorarium of R100 000 as well as council members R75 000 each, about his use of hired vehicles for personal work at the expense of the Market Theatre, and about the abuse of Market Theatre events to promote his political ambitions to become president of the ANC.

Counter-allegations then appeared in the media about the CEO being a racist, all of this resulting in adverse publicity and huge reputational damage to the Market Theatre and to its leadership. The department of arts and culture (DAC) then appointed a company to undertake a forensic investigation into a range of allegations that had begun to enter the public domain, and the report was submitted to the department in November last year. On the basis of the report, the chairperson of the council was removed by the minister, and the CEO and CFO of the Market Theatre are currently facing charges being formulated by the current council.

Towards 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 stated that “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 Vusumusi 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 followed a litany of institutions under the DAC’s watch, in which the DAC had “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 ended thus: “Lastly, it is important to note that when whistle-blowers 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, 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 not only to the department but to all agencies and entities under its administration.”

However, 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, of the Market Theatre. The DAC was also 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 reappointed the previous council, and reappointed the chairperson of the council – so much for taking whistle-blowing 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 the individuals within it – would not have suffered the reputational damage that it has. 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.

Rather than being congratulated for “successfully cleaning house”, the department of arts and culture and minister should carry huge and direct responsibility for the house – at least in the case of the Market Theatre – having 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 – the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage – and has still not completed the process?

Buro: MvH
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