Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen

Phoenix rising: Post-Covid theatre will return — angrier

Phoenix rising: Post-Covid theatre will return — angrier
The most significant death knell over the lockdown period was sounded when the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town announced that it was closing its doors, says the writer. Photographed above is The 'Kinky Boots' cast which performed at the Fugard in 2019. (Photo: Fugard Theatre)

The Covid-19 pandemic has given the South African theatre and arts festival stages an unusual performance. Instead of pulling in the crowds to the site of the performance, it has left a trail of destruction and even death. It has pushed audiences further back and further away from one another.

Covid-19 has exposed the antithesis of what good theatre delivers to us. In Act 1, it dimmed the lights, brought down the curtains and put the bolts on the theatre doors. Who will script Act 2 for theatres after the Covid-19 pandemic? Or, what will Act 2 look like when the pandemic will have changed our world in ways that we had hardly anticipated?

The pandemic is expected to bow out and exit stage left only some time during next year; and that is only if a vaccine brings on a Eureka moment. It is possible that even with such a discovery, we may never be able to return to our theatres in the way we know. 

For most South African theatre makers, this is an extremely hard blow. Not only have the past seven months of the national lockdown resulted in severe loss of income and immense frustration with an Artist Relief Fund South Africa that has been poorly administered by the Department of Sports, Arts & Culture, but it may also leave theatre makers with potentially fewer factory floors to ply their trade.

The death of the Fugard

The most significant death knell over the lockdown period was sounded when the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town announced that it was closing its doors and leaving behind only a small skeleton staff to maintain the building. The announcement was met with several “obituaries” on Facebook. During its inception, The Fugard rose like a phoenix in District Six, built to show its middle finger to apartheid’s ghosts. It rose in Cape Town in the shadows of South Africa’s first non-apartheid theatre, The Space, which did not live to see Nelson Mandela’s era. Post-1994, the Fugard Theatre became the stage for the most significant independent theatre in South Africa.

The Fugard’s annual celebration about that long-gone era penned by David Kramer and coupled with several other West End hits made it one of Cape Town’s most well-loved spaces. The Fugard was run like a well-oiled machine. Its staff were deeply professional. Artists who performed in its space were respected and treated like stars. Audiences who walked through its doors were entertained, inspired and challenged. 

Good theatres across the globe thrive because they satisfy all these qualities, but good theatres also thrive when they are subsidised by their governments. The Fugard Theatre received no subsidy. It was single-handedly funded by philanthropist Eric Abrahams who invested millions of rands into the theatre for just over a decade.

Despite the theatre rising in the dustbowls of District Six and standing against the face of apartheid’s ghosts; and despite it bearing the name of one of South Africa’s greatest living playwrights with the largest international reputation, Athol Fugard, its closing sounded to government’s ears like the death of Steve Biko sounded to Jimmy Kruger. It just “left government cold” and unsympathetic. 

The rise and fall of the Fugard Theatre is a blight on the ANC government’s failure to build a theatre industry in South Africa. 

The Market Theatre

The Fugard Theatre was driven by the same energy that fuelled the founding of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. One of the movers and shakers at the founding of the Fugard Theatre was Mannie Mannim, the visionary who founded and opened the Market Theatre in June 1976, just two days after the historic Soweto uprising.

From its foundation as an independent, non-racial theatre, the Market Theatre with its repertoire of anti-apartheid productions, built a phenomenal reputation as South Africa’s home of protest theatre. It was here where the roots for Section 16 in South Africa’s Constitution (which guarantees Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Creativity) was anchored. It was hoped that in a post-apartheid South Africa the Market Theatre would remain the platform where artists would continue to be able to hold the government accountable and that artists would be given the freedom to speak out against state corruption — one of the moral pandemics that has afflicted post-apartheid South Africa. Unfortunately, the DSAC has debilitated the institution in the same way that the old NP government had run its four Performing Arts Councils.

Since 2005, when the Market Theatre Foundation became a legislated institution in terms of the Cultural Institution Act No 19 of 1998, it has received subsidisation from the national coffers. These funds, however, did not assist the making of productions that would create work for writers, actors, designers and creatives, instead, the R45-million-plus annual subsidy was for operations and infrastructure. 

The founding board of the Market Theatre Foundation, who volunteered their services to the theatre and kept the theatre alive since 1996 and supported the management in building the theatre’s international reputation, was dissolved. A new council with political loyalties not to the arts but to the ruling party was hand-picked by the Minister of Sports, Arts & Culture to govern the institution and the members were paid thousands of rands to be his master’s voice.

This is a lesson that the ANC government learnt from the NP government which planted members of the Broederbond on the councils of the four provincial theatres to control the strings that manipulated its management and silence artists who spoke out against the state. Nobody who walked in the corridors of the Market Theatre during its heyday would have imagined that the theatre would be challenged by its then CEO and CFO in terms of the Protected Disclosures Act if they dared to expose how members of its governing council appointed by the Minister of Sports, Arts & Culture, Nathi Mthetwa, were trying to dip their sticky hands in the theatre’s coffers. 

At an irregular meeting of the council held in November 2017, the council resolved to pay itself hefty Christmas bonuses with the chairman receiving R100,000, each of the six council members receiving R75,000 and the five members of the audit committee receiving R37,500 each. The resolution, which was irregular and illegal in terms of the Public Finance Management Act, was overturned by the Theatre’s CEO and CFO who refused to pay the bonuses. 

What followed was a calculated campaign to discredit the CEO and CFO with a combined total of 23 fabricated charges, a forensic report costing millions and disciplinary hearings which cost hundreds of thousands of rands. Not a single charge against them could be substantiated and the entire forensic report commissioned by the DSAC was rejected by commissioner Larry Shear.

The Market Theatre Foundation is one of five theatres governed by the state in terms of the Cultural Institutions Act No 119 of 1998. The others are Artscape in Cape Town, PACOFS in Bloemfontein, the State Theatre in Pretoria and the Playhouse Theatre in Durban. The latter four were established by the NP government. 

In the 26 years of ANC rule, not a single new theatre has been built by the DSAC despite Mthetwa (for two consecutive years) going unquestioned in Parliament about promises that he made that a new theatre would be built in Limpopo. After 26 years and endless pledges of broadening equity and access that artists can have to the industry, not one province other than those established under apartheid’s design has a state-funded theatre. 

A White Paper for Arts & Culture has been so long in incubation that its pages have probably yellowed. There has been no map drawn up for how the government will grow and sustain our theatre industry. It is, therefore, not surprising that there hasn’t been any kind of a framework through which the Artist Relief Fund could effectively come to the rescue of renowned institutions like the Fugard Theatre, let alone assist artists who are now in serious financial distress as a result of the national lockdown.

While the government has continued to dither over the past seven months on how to provide relief for artists, several artist-led initiatives have risen from the ground. Along with this is a new voice of protest being heard from artists. It is a voice that is growing louder every day and within it are some of the most ardent cultural soldiers who fought against the apartheid state who are now beginning to paint the DSAC with the same brush. 

If this new rise of protest in the theatre sector isn’t a wake-up call to government about how the power of theatre can make people turn against the state, then the government needs to look again at the impact of protest theatre in the fight against apartheid. After the pandemic has passed, it will be the artists who return so much angrier because that is what hunger does to an artist. DM/MC

Ismail Mahomed is the director for the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He was the former artistic director of the National Arts Festival and CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation. During his tenure at the Market Theatre Foundation, he invoked the Protected Disclosures Act to expose irregular and illegal funding payments that the Council of the Market Theatre wanted to make to itself. With more than 35 years in the cultural sector, he has won several awards nationally and internationally. He writes in his personal capacity.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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