Pay R3.4-million of Presidential Economic Stimulus funds within 72 hours, Court orders National Arts Council

By Edward Tsumele

The National Arts Council (NAC) has suffered a major setback in its tussle with artists over the disbursement of the Presidential Economic Stimulus Package (PESP). 

The High Court on Wednesday ordered the government agency  to pay  to the National Arts Festival  (NAF)  account millions of Rands within 72 hours of the Court order. This portion of the funds are part of the funds NAF had applied to NAC for projects that met the criteria for funding by the Presidential Economic Stimulus Package (PESP) under the Presidency special Covid-19 assistance to the creative sector. This is part of the R8 million originally granted to NAF and then revised downwards by more than half, driving NAF to court.

This court ruling by the South Gauteng High Court on Wednesday effectively opens the doors for hundreds of artists whose original grants met the same fate as that of NAF  to challenge their revised contracts in court, and possibly win. The  victorious NAF confirmed their court victory over  NAF over the PESP.

Several artists have been left aggrieved by the manner in which these funds were handled by NAC, including the reduction of grants initially awarded, inexplicable delays in paying the grants even in situation where artists out of desperation have begrudgingly signed contracts with the reduced amounts, as well as other governance issues that have since emerged bedeviling the arts agency.

As per call all projects were supposed to have been already wrapped up with reports sent to the NAC March 31 by the artists who se were funded as per Public Finance Management Act requirements. Instead the agency is still battling to pay artists, and by this week not even half of the R300 million has been paid out, further exposing the NAC to accusations of inefficiency the enraged artists. A number of artists led by celebrated soprano Sibongile Mngoma have been camping at the abandoned offices of the NAC since March 3, demanding that authorities take action to rectify the situation and get the officials to account. A forensic investigation has since been announced by the Minister of Arts and Culture to look at how the R300 million PESP was handled by the arts funding agency.

In this latest development over the PESP debacle the South Gauteng High Court dismissed attempts by the (NAC) to enforce unilateral changes to a contract which forms part of the Presidential Economic Stimulus Programme (PESP), currently being managed by the NAC.
The NAC initially granted the Festival R8-million to run three projects that the organizers of the festival say would have provided employment to 400 artists, both nationally and in the Makhanda region.  With the projects underway and the bulk of the funds committed, the NAC then reneged on the agreement and attempted to force the Festival to accept less than half of the original grant, or lose it entirely. In its order the Court instructed the NAC to, within 72 hours, pay R3.4-million of the original grant, with the balance forming part of further legal action that the Court ordered should be expedited. 
The Festival, like many other institutions and artists, was hamstrung when it was told by the NAC in March, just weeks before the end of the project deadline, that it should accept a new, unilateral contract and lesser amount, or lose the grant entirely. 
“Hundreds of organisations were sent the same message by the NAC. Today the Court sent a single, clear message back, repudiating the high-handed approach of the NAC,” Festival CEO Monica Newton said. 
“The Court effectively repudiated the Arts Council’s stance that it should be allowed to unilaterally change grant agreements. They can’t, and that much is now clear. It also means that the Arts Council can’t hold the arts community to ransom with their “take it or leave it” approach,” Newton said.  “We’re hoping that this ruling will embolden all other organisations to challenge what the NAC are doing.”
The NAC had previously maintained in press releases and letters to the industry that beneficiaries had to accept greatly reduced grant amounts or risk forfeiting the full grant – a position that the Court ruled was untenable. 
“Although full funding has not been restored yet, the ruling means that the Festival can at least begin to honour its contracts with artists, creatives and technical professionals who have been working with us on these projects. The grant is set to fund productions and exhibitions that have and will employ hundreds of artists, technical crews and creatives, and create work that we hope will, over a period of time, generate an ongoing stream of income for those artists.” The Festival-managed projects were also set to include the establishment of an arts hub in Makhanda, and a project that will encourage artists and creatives to interrogate the 1820 Settlers’ Monument in Makhanda; engage with its complex legacy and re-imagine its future. 
“All of our projects are aimed at helping artists build sustainable careers in the arts, and to re-stitch the fabric of our artistic community. The Covid-19 pandemic has decimated the industry and now is the time that all organisations and individuals in the sector need to pool their expertise and resources to find, and fund, big solutions. The NAC should be partnering to deliver that vision,” Newton said.

CITYLIFE/ARTS was unable to get comment from the NAC before publishing, and as soon as we do so, we will include their comment with this developing story.

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