Red flags raised over ‘under-the-table’ formation of Nathi Mthethwa’s R30m new national orchestra

Red flags raised over ‘under-the-table’ formation of Nathi Mthethwa’s R30m new national orchestra
Bongani Tembe, the CEO of the new Mzansi National Orchestra, is also the CEO of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra pictured here. (Photo: KZN Orchestra)

Music industry players and parliamentarians have raised concerns and are seeking answers surrounding the establishment of an R30-million national orchestra on Sport, Arts, and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s watch.

The national Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC) is setting up and reportedly allocating R30-million to a National Philharmonic Orchestra (NPO) which is expected to be formally announced on Thursday, 14 July, while critical questions by members of South Africa’s fragile classical music industry, relating to its formation and operation, go unanswered. 

These and other details were revealed to us in a Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra Report 2021/22, which is circulating in musical circles. 

The establishment of the orchestra is due to be announced at a briefing to the media on Thursday, 14 July, and a launch concert on 27 July, yet we struggled to get official comment or detailed information from authorities beforehand. 

News of Sport, Arts, and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s plans for a national orchestra comes in the aftermath of a scandal involving R22-million he planned to spend on a giant 100m high South African flag which was labelled a “vanity project” and put on hold for review amid a public uproar in May this year. He had launched the project in a bid for social cohesion and to build national pride

Bongani Tembe, CEO of the Mzansi National Orchestra, who is also CEO of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra. (Photo: KZN Philharmonic Orchestra / Webpage)

According to the orchestra report, the Mzansi NPO comprises the “cream of South African musicians who have earned a reputation for excellence and innovation in their fields”. At the helm of the orchestra, as CEO and Artistic Director, is respected opera music veteran and leading South African arts manager Bongani Tembe – who is also the CEO of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) and the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra.

According to the orchestra report, the Mzansi NPO will be an ad hoc orchestra – meaning its orchestral musicians will not permanently play together – and will make use of musicians employed in the regional orchestras or freelance musicians who perform in the orchestras for certain grandiose performances throughout the year.

“Such a national orchestra, much like a national sports team, cannot exist in isolation,” reads the Mzansi NPO report.

“In order to be sustainable, the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra needs to be central to a national talent recruiting, refining and retaining system; the highest level of a multitiered developmental process for young South Africans, of which the regional orchestras remain a critical element.”

The report suggests that the Mzansi NPO will work in partnership with the regional orchestras and, according to the report, the Mzansi NPO “will contribute to the funding of regional orchestras”, but to what amount is unclear. 

Alarm bells

While some were against the formation of a centralised national orchestra at this time of strife, others supported the idea of a national orchestra, but have raised questions about the lack of transparency in constituting the project. 

 CEO at the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) Louis Heyneman said that a centralised orchestra will not be able to service all of South Africa’s metropolitan areas and will create a permanent “tug-of-war” between the cities. 

“This is akin to ‘Orchestra Capture’, where all the decisions about musical performance, transformation and training will be dominated by a few,” he said.

“It has been constituted without any formal discussions or consultation with the professional orchestral musicians, arts managers and music educators in South Africa,” said Heyneman, who claimed that efforts to consult the CPO board began only after the Mzansi NPO had been established. 

Heyneman and the CPO board had multiple questions and concerns relating to the formation of the Mzansi NPO – many of which were repeated to Daily Maverick by other orchestral musicians and conductors in South Africa. 


Sport, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa. (Photo: Flickr / GCIS / Kopano Tlape)

Willem Vogel, Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Theatre and Gauteng Philharmonic Orchestra – the only professional orchestra in Pretoria –  and Erik Albertyn at the Eastern Cape Philharmonic both expressed concerns about the practicality of a national orchestra when regional orchestras don’t receive funding from the DSAC and are reeling from the knock of Covid-19.

“As Eastern Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, we don’t really know where our next concert is going to come from. We can’t even plan for a concert. We have some funding that we can have maybe one concert this year, and that comes from private sponsorship,” explained Albertyn. 

“Now to come in with a fully funded orchestra … it’s just, in a way, not practical; it’s not realistic. It’s great that there is funding for an orchestra, but I believe there should be a decentralised approach to it all.”

If you end up with only one orchestra, what purpose does that serve?” he asked. 

 Vogel said: “It’s a huge amount of money which could be put to much better use with individual orchestras. I’m completely and utterly against it. It’s just kind of been formed under the table and all of a sudden emerged.”

South African musician and conductor, and Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra between 1991 to 1999, Richard Cock, added that at this stage, after Covid-19, artists are trying to “re-establish themselves and recover. It is a particularly bad time to be spending R30-million on trying to establish a new orchestra which will waste funding on international travel, when what we need is support for local groups.

“We are all struggling for audiences. People have to get back into the habit of going to concerts … I think R30-million could be better spent on supporting regional initiatives. It would bring more benefit to more people, audiences and musicians,” said Cock.

While the report shows that there are a number of orchestral musicians and conductors who have been approached by the Mzansi NPO board to be appointed in the positions of principal conductor, associate conductors and concert masters, Daily Maverick understands that the participation of some of these roleplayers is still unconfirmed. 

Lecturer at the Odeion School of Music and Concertmaster of the Free State Symphony Orchestra (FSSO) Samson Diamond said that he had been invited by Tembe to be one of the associate concert masters for the Mzansi NPO. “I did [accept the role], I mean, all under the spirit of what the National Philharmonic Orchestra aims to achieve. The last two years have been overwhelmingly difficult for everyone, but not least for musicians. And I think to have another opportunity – but not only one where it’s a regional orchestra, but perhaps to have national representation – is good,” Diamond explained. 

Cash flow

The formation of a National Philharmonic Orchestra was included in the revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage that the Cabinet approved in August 2018, which stated the DSAC’s intention to “establish national Theatre, Dance, Orchestral companies with youth components each resident in a different province cross-subsidised by national, provincial and metro funding”. 

The Mzansi NPO Report 2021/22, revealed that the DSAC has funded the bulk of it, with an allocation of R30-million for the first year (2022/23) and thereafter with two further annual tranches, of R26-million and R27-million. 

“The Orchestra has an annual budget of about R32-million, funded by the DSAC as well as the private sector and box office income. Mzansi NPO is also in the process of establishing an endowment fund,” reads the report. 

There is scant detail on how the R32-million will be divided among operational costs including, travel, management, marketing, the acquisition of instruments and performance venues, a National Cadetship Programme and – most importantly – the cost of musicians and conductors.

This is despite its inaugural performance scheduled for 27 July 2022, with two overseas performances planned in September and October, and a national tour planned in December, according to the Mzansi NPO report. 

The inaugural performance of the Mzansi NPO will be presented as part of the University of Witwatersrand Centenary Celebrations. Wits University will present internationally renowned South African artist William Kentridge’s “Oh to Believe in Another World”, accompanied by Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 performed by the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra, on 27 July at the Wits Linder Auditorium. 

The American and artistic conductor Joseph Young will conduct the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra for the event. 

Additionally, the budget contained in the report is at odds with the total of R54,681,600 ring-fenced for the Mzansi NPO, which is outlined in a slide on the Mzansi NPO contained in a presentation to Parliament on the implementation of the revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage by DSAC Director-General Vusumuzi Mkhize on 3 December 2021. 

In the presentation, a timeline with interventions and the proposed funding allocation of R54-million distributed in three tranches of 50%, 30% and 20% also indicates, in the update of 30 September 2021, that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the DSAC and the National Arts Council (NAC) on the allocation of funds to the National Orchestra was drafted and approved. 

However, members of the Portfolio Committee on Sport, Arts and Culture have not seen this MoU, DA Deputy Shadow Minister Veronica van Dyk told Daily Maverick.

“The committee did not receive the concept document and work plan developed by the Advisory Board, established by the Minister, to establish the National Orchestra in May 2021, nor an implementation plan for the project. We know nothing about the project other than what [was presented on 3 December 2021],” said Van Dyk. 

This was further confirmed by EFF MP and committee member Brian Madlingozi. “We never had a meeting in that regard. It would be best to speak to the minister of the entity, Mr 22 Million Flag. I have no information regarding an establishment of NPO,” he said.

Daily Maverick understands that an MoU was also meant to be established with all the regional philharmonic orchestras. However, the Cape Town Philharmonic’s Heyneman said that no MoU, Memorandum of Incorporation or business plan was ever provided, despite the Cape Town Philharmonic’s requests. 

It is also curious that no detail was given about the National Philharmonic Orchestra in the department’s annual performance plan (APP) for 2022/23 if it was planned to launch in the same year as the monumental R22-million flag project, that is outlined in the APP. There is no mention of the National Orchestra in the 2022 Estimates on National Expenditure for the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, and nothing in the NAC’s 2022/23 annual performance plan

When approached for comment, the DA’s Van Dyk said she “questions the processes that were followed” in constituting the Mzansi NPO. 

“There is no online information on how the board got constituted – there is nothing online, no advertisement calling people to be nominated … Without a business plan and budget, it is concerning whether the NPO was properly constituted, especially when you consider that public money is involved,” she said.

Van Dyk echoed many of the questions and concerns addressed by the various musicians and longtime arts professionals. 

“We do not know whether there were formal discussions with professional orchestral musicians, music educators and arts managers too, or was it only with a selected few?” asked Van Dyk. 

“For the DA, it is a huge concern if the government will only be funding one national orchestra. The Mzansi NPO will apparently contribute to the regional orchestras’ budget, but how much will that be and how reliable … Government funding would have been better spent on the existing development programmes than to create parallel structures to duplicate programmes,” she added. 

Van Dyk said that the DA will pose questions to Minister Mthethwa relating to the constitution of the Mzansi NPO, and also write to the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Sport, Arts and Culture requesting that a presentation by the orchestra board be put on the committee’s third-term programme after parliamentary recess. 

“The concept document and work plan developed should be explained. We also need to see the memorandum of understanding between the DSAC and the National Arts Council. The Department will have to present to us the establishment of this National Orchestra. It cannot be that the establishment of an institution of such importance is not discussed with the Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture,” said Van Dyk. 

Attempts to get comment from Tembe were unsuccessful.

On Tuesday, 5 July, DM168 sent the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture a list of detailed questions relating to the operation of the National Orchestra, its budget and the appointment of certain roleplayers. In a short response on Thursday afternoon, the spokesperson to Minister Mthethwa, Masechaba Khumalo, said: “I wish to state that the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture consulted widely leading up to the establishment of South Africa’s first National Philharmonic Orchestra in the democratic era. We have detailed information to substantiate this assertion.”

“We have noted your questions and believe that they will be largely addressed at the upcoming media briefing on 14 July 2022.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Nick Jacobs says:

    I see what you did there 🙂

  • Johan Buys says:

    can’t help it but the picture that came to mind is that band playing on the Titanic deck. Our national mood is shed to bits.

  • Pet Bug says:

    National symphony orchestras make sense in smaller countries with one, maybe two dominant urban centers; think Latvia, Scotland or New Zealand. (Not Austria…!).
    SA has at least six urban centers than have and can sustain dedicated classical orchestras.
    After the triple whammy of you know what all, sounds like SA is down to one, maybe two (?) dedicated and functional companies.
    To hear that so much money is planned on an national orchestra, one that occasionally flies together, with no real purpose, is so sad .
    If this was established as a fully fledged outfit, with a permanent home, one that offers bursaries and has a continuous program of performing, teaching, specializing and furthering the arts, with national tours to underserved areas, (certainly not overseas trips before it has acquired some perfection or niche!), then it might be different.
    Instead, this new Mthethwa brainwave has all the Schmutz associated with undermining the desperately broke regional bodies, (out of spite?), and wasting money on some nationalistic tendency and that will not help out the musicians where it matters most: in the regions.
    Even the Nats cottoned onto this regionalism as being the better way to sustain the art form.
    But maybe that’s not the intention here.

  • Roy Haines says:

    What this idiot of a minister actually needs to do is financially support the regional orchestras for them to give top quality concerts and provide the funds for them to further their excellent work in training young upcoming musicians of all races.

  • Sue van der Walt says:

    Let’s get real! We have continuous blackouts with catastrophic economic impacts, infrastructure is crumbling, hospitals are in dire need of equipment and upkeep, schools with pit toilets, nurses who have not been paid for 3 months the list goes on and on, but we can afford a national orchestra?

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    A new fund to steal from is what I suspect. A plan so covert and vague is open to corruption and misuse. I hope the musicians won’t be flying hither and yon on SAA.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    “the establishment of South Africa’s first National Philharmonic Orchestra in the democratic era.” is the key to the NPO. The existing orchestras are all linked to the previous dispensation, hence this move, which cleverly undermines them by poaching their top musicians and others. The odious Mthethwa has many tricks up his sleeve, mostly to do with legacy (his, of course) and centralisation – the ANC’s Stalinist White Paper wet dream. He is a divisive, toxic individual, the worst in a procession of bad Ministers, and there is no doubt that the plight of the arts communities of this country is the least of his concerns.

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