By Ismail Mahomed
The day has arrived! My last day as the CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation. I look forward towards closing this chapter of my career. It could not be on a more significant day than on the 25th anniversary of the death of Barney Simon, the founding artistic director of the Market Theatre Foundation.
In an obituary by Athol Fugard in the New York Times on the passing of Barney Simon he wrote, “At a time when all of us in South Africa are saying “What now?” for the nation, he was the one man who would have had the capacity to answer the question. His unique vision of theatre’s relationship to society was a combination of ruthless honesty and extraordinary compassion.”
In serving one of South Africa’s most iconic theatres at a time when it was being entangled in a web of corruption by its former Council who in breach of the Public Finance Management Act resolved to pay themselves an illegal bonus totaling a sum of R850 000 I can only hope that my upsetting of the boat was because I had the courage to ask the question, “What now?”
In blowing the whistle on this act of illegality as well as other acts at the institution that violated the ethos of its founding values I acted with ruthless honesty to reclaim the values of social justice which was the ethos on which Barney Simon founded this iconic theatre.
What followed was a trail of harassment, abuse, victimization and a smear campaign that I and a colleague, Christine McDonald, had to endure. It was as horrendous and as similar to the dirty tricks that used to be perpetrated by the former agents of the apartheid government. In a forensic report commissioned by the Department of Sports, Arts & Culture its prologue opened with the words, “The reports have not been verified”.
I survived a grueling trail that lasted for eight months longer and for which I had no doubt that the truth will prevail. It did! This was however just the interval — a moment to catch my breath. I needed to fight on further and to also win the battle to be repaid my legal fees and to have my reputation restored. I won both these battles too. The Council of the Market Theatre Foundation after paying me back my legal fees in March this year issued a statement that apologised for what I and my colleague Christine Smith McDonald had endured over a period that had extended to just almost over two years.
There will be absolutely no doubt that whilst we fought this battle with courage, conviction and won it that it had a devastating impact on our health. I had lost partial mobility in one leg and had to walk with a crutch during a three month period when the trail was running.
I accepted the apology rendered by the Council. Our lives must revolve around an axis of compassion rather than bitterness. Three days later after their apology was tendered in a press release I decided that it would be best to close this chapter. There could be nothing more victorious than eroding one volume of a malicious forensic report which opened with the words, “the reports cannot be verified” with a final statement by the Council’s press statement which says, “The Council regrets the impact of these allegations and the processes that followed”.
The real act of injustice was not against me. It was not against my colleagues. It was against a public whose taxes have been misused in a campaign whose single objective was to embark on a process of retaliation against me and some of my colleagues who stood up against corruption. It was an act of injustice against the artists because the more than a million rands wasted on this retaliatory campaign could instead have been used to create work for artists. It is they who are still owed an apology.
History will tell the tale because the records of the hearings are now in the public domain in terms of the relevant Acts that I had invoked. These volumes of papers will go down as the chapters that have recorded the dark years in the history of this institution.
Even in the darkness there was hope. Throughout this period we still retained our audiences. We won awards. There was the singing, dancing and laughter that resonated in our walls. There were the telephone calls, WhatsApp messages, email messages, Facebook posts and inbox messages of support can kept our spirits high and fueled our determination to restore the values for which Barney Simon founded this theatre.
There are many triumphs to write about but perhaps my greatest triumph is that I leave the Market Theatre Foundation knowing that no Council that is ever entrusted with governing the institution will ever again try to corruptly claim bonuses for themselves. I take great pride in having a hand in writing a revised Council Charter by which the Council will be governed and the Terms of Reference by which the Committees of Council shall operate. I take pride in having written several new policies for the institution. These are the gifts with which I welcome my successor because it is the armory with which my successor will be able ensure good and clean governance. With this taking care of itself and hoping that without any more attempts at corruption at least my successor will have the time, energy and resources that cannot be stolen by devious public officials. The funds will be used to create work for artists.
I leave without any regrets. I leave today paying homage to Barney Simon for giving us this iconic space. I pay homage to the artists whose minds, voices and bodies have been given to tell stories and to fight for justice. I pay homage to our audiences, funders and stakeholders. I pay homage to those of my colleagues who stood up for the truth and who even in the dark and depressing times did not fault from delivering service. I pay homage to you who never doubted our integrity and who supported our resilience.
Leadership in the arts is not about celebrating the battles that we have won. We shouldn’t have had to go into the battle in the first place if the values enshrined in our Constitution and the ethos that we subscribed to as a nation on 27 April 1994 was was not being eroded by those who are entrusted as the custodians of public funds. Leadership is about compassion. It is about our ability to accept an apology, to close the door and to walk away from a brutal past to working with those who remain committed to still wanting to build the kind of future on which we must never give up hope. Leadership is what we will endow to successive generations.
.Ismail Mahomed served his last day a chief executive officer of the Market Theatre on Tuesday, June 30, to take the directorship of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His monthly column in CityLife Arts Not AN Art CRITIC will continue.