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National orchestra launches amid a contentious concerto...

South Africa


National orchestra launches amid a contentious concerto of opaqueness and conflicting harmonies

Director-General of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, Vusumuzi Mkhize at the media briefing at Everard Read Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg on 14 July. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra was launched amid a debate about transformation in the orchestral music sector in South Africa. At the same time, critical questions about transparency and accountability relating to the formation of the national orchestra and its funding continue to be raised.

‘I am not in total opposition to a national orchestra … What I am totally opposed to is the manner in which the DSAC [Department of Sport, Arts and Culture] works with a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability, and a complete lack of vision and strategy,” former CEO of the Market Theatre and current director for the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Ismail Mahomed, told Daily Maverick.

Adding to this, Mahomed said: “I think any kind of investment in the arts is always a worthwhile investment. But there’s an issue here around strategy and timing, and I think what we need to ask is: Is this the right time? Are they using the right strategy? And are they being completely transparent about the process?”

Mahomed, much like many other industry professionals whom Daily Maverick has spoken to, raised concerns about the timing of the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra; after the arts sector was pummelled by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions, regional orchestras have been struggling to stay afloat.

“Immediately after Covid we should be focusing on how we begin to strengthen existing companies,” said Mahomed, referring to — in addition to the country’s orchestras — theatres such as the Fugard closing its doors, and museums across South Africa being in the doldrums.

“A number of art institutions are having enormous difficulties. The focus should’ve been first on rebuilding these structures and then mapping out a way of how you begin to create a pathway between the provincial orchestras and the national orchestra.

“To simply throw the idea of a national orchestra out into the public space, without having a broader engagement about the crisis in the arts sector at the moment, I think is completely naive and completely unstrategic on the part of the DSAC,” Mahomed told Daily Maverick.

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Masechaba Khumalo, spokesperson for the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture,  addresses delegates at the press conference in Rosebank, Johannesburg on 14 July 2022. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

While Mahomed said that some criticism aimed at the Mzansi NPO — specifically from the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra’s Louis Heyneman — was “disingenuous”, he said there needed to be a “much broader consultation held with everyone who works in the orchestral music sector” about the formation of the Mzansi NPO, and not merely a select few.

“What has not happened, is that there hasn’t been a reporting structure to the broader arts sector around what developments have taken place… None of those conversations [around funding and the constitution of the Mzansi NPO’s board] has taken place. So there’s a complete lack of information in the public space coming from the DSAC, but also a disingenuity on the part of those who oppose the notion at the moment,” he said.

According to Mahomed, this should have happened in the same way as the Theatre and Dance Draft Policy, which has been put out for public comment. “The concept of the orchestra needed to be put out for discussion, input needed to be put forward, and details on how the board was constituted needed to be provided,” he said.

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Minister Of Sport, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Oupa Bopape)

Mahomed told Daily Maverick that while “the National Arts Council (NAC) maps out the way institutions can be funded, and the Cultural Institutions Act empowers Minister Mthethwa to form cultural institutions with specific governing structures and funding systems — what legislative power did Mthethwa take to form a company with the board he has appointed, and the CEO he has appointed and to whom he has granted funding?”

Need for transparency

The Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra is a registered not-for-profit company (NPC), as was announced at a launch in Johannesburg on Thursday. However, even if the Mzansi NPO is registered as an NPC, it should naturally be in competition for NAC funding with all other entities, according to Mahomed.

“Otherwise, you are favouring a particular structure over all the others,” he said.

According to Mahomed, this raises serious questions of corporate governance and basic business principles that need to be interrogated.

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Madala Kunene provided entertainment before the press briefing. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“I don’t think for one moment — no matter how much noise is made by the sector, the public or even the media — that the President is going to intervene in the way in which he intervened with the R22-million flag. The flag is an inanimate object. When you’re dealing with an orchestra, you’re dealing with people’s lives and people’s jobs. There is a complete difference.

This [orchestra] is going to happen — the noise that needs to happen now is around how to make it transparent, strategic and implement it in a way that is beneficial to the sector. And I don’t think that Minister Mthethwa has the capacity to do that”, said Mahomed.


The Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra was officially launched at a low-profile media briefing on Thursday, 14 July. Daily Maverick was present at the briefing at Everard Read Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, where there was little detail given on the orchestra’s budget and expenditure — despite Daily Maverick being told that our questions would be “largely addressed” at the event.

The invitation to the briefing had stated that Minister Nathi Mthethwa would announce the establishment of the Mzansi NPO. However, the minister was absent, and Daily Maverick was subsequently told that he had been called away to attend an urgent meeting.

Despite being streamed on YouTube, the briefing itself was very low-key, and Daily Maverick was one of only two news organisations present.



Speaking at Thursday’s briefing, Director-General at the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture Vusumuzi Mkhize said: “As a Department, our commitment is to ensure that our programmes are known and communicated and understood, so that there is nothing that is kept out of sight from our citizens, for they need to understand how the money of the taxpayer is being spent”.

Spokesperson for the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Masechaba Khumalo addresses delegates at the press conference. Rosebank, Johannesburg, 14 July 2022. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Mkhize asked the critical question of why the establishment of the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra had taken so long — and launched almost 28 years into South Africa’s democracy.

“I think, at the heart of this, is the fact that transformation is not easy. It doesn’t happen on its own. So we want to acknowledge on behalf of the Department the work that has been done by those heroes… in continuing with great resilience to support the orchestra, even when it was not fashionable to do so,” said Mkhize.

Read in Daily Maverick: Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra will be a national asset that should be applauded

The debate over transformation in the orchestral music sector is one which has been raging online since the publication of Daily Maverick’s article, Red flags raised over ‘under-the-table’ formation of Nathi Mthethwa’s R30m new national orchestra. Commenting on a Facebook post by Ismail Mahomed, was entertainment lawyer and female orchestral conductor, Unathi Malunga, who spoke about the need for transformation — a conversation which should have been had years ago.

“We need to talk about transformation in this sector properly: We need to talk about transformation in the context of programming and geography, and who the faces of classical music are. While much progress has been made by all the regional orchestras in racially transforming their ranks, the truth is that concert platforms that are prioritised have remained the same as they were in the 20th century,” said Malunga.

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Manager of Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra, Polina Burdukova. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“We need to redress the whole ‘stuffy’ image of classical music. We need to reach audiences outside of the three big metros. We need to address the underlying assumption that a requirement of merit excludes black people and the underlying assumption that all white musicians are excellent. These are the uncomfortable truths and challenges facing us,” she said.

Echoing Mahomed’s remarks, Malunga said that the industry should be “demanding to see the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by the DSAC and NAC, and the audit of the funds transferred so far” with regard to the Mzansi NPO.

The Cape Town Philharmonic’s Heyneman previously told Daily Maverick that no MoU, Memorandum of Incorporation or business plan was ever provided, despite the CPO’s requests.

Heyneman was invited to be part of the task team by the DSAC in a letter that Daily Maverick has seen, dated 18 March 2019. However, he maintains that he was not involved in any other engagements by the DSAC, other than a meeting that occurred on 22 March 2019.

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Princess Celenhle Dlamini, chairperson of the National Arts Council. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“That one single meeting was my only contact with the department. I was never consulted or invited to subsequent meetings. Several requests to see an MoU or memorandum of incorporation, business plan or budget were made in writing earlier this year, but never supplied,” he told Daily Maverick.

The DA has also since requested the MoU between the National Arts Council and DSAC, as well as the memorandum of agreement (MoA) between the DSAC and the Mzansi NPO on the funding of the orchestra after neither was presented to the parliamentary committee on Sport, Arts and Culture.

Speaking to Daily Maverick on the issue of transformation within the sector, Mahomed said that he didn’t buy the argument from the DSAC that a national orchestra would propel transformation.

“If one wants to really transform the arts sector, then one needs to start to ensure that one makes definite plans to introduce the arts into the school curriculum, to be able to give young people adequate access to the arts through the schools. You cannot expect a professional company that does a once-a-year season in small rural towns to be able to make a basic contribution to transformation,” he said.

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Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra board member, Professor Muxe Nkondo. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

However, speaking on behalf of the Mzansi NPO board of directors at Thursday’s briefing, Prof Muxe Nkondo said that the board had agreed that for the orchestra to bring about “foundational or fundamental change”, “it must start with children and child development”.

“Whatever [we] do, [we] must make sure that orchestra reaches our kids on the laps of their parents. So we have a programme that the orchestra is part of the institutions that we are going to use to make sure that we educate our kids for a more global consciousness,” he said.

  Mzansi NPO Launch Media Statement


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CEO and artistic director of the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra Bongani Tembe addresses delegates during the media briefing at Everard Read Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg on 14 July 2022. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Following addresses made by DG Mkhize, Mzansi NPO CEO and Artistic Director, Bongani Tembe — who also holds the position of CEO of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra and his fellow board member Professor Nkondo, the following questions were asked at Thursday’s briefing:

  • Can you clarify why the total funds ring-fenced for the National Philharmonic Orchestra in the presentation before Parliament in December 2021 is about R54-million, but the budget contained in the Mzansi NPO report is in the region of R32-million?

Answering this question (at 1:05:34 in the livestream), DG Mkhize explained that the allocated budget which has been set aside by the DSAC for the Mzansi NPO is, indeed, R54,681,600 — as reported in the presentation to Parliament in December 2021.

The amount of R32-million — contained in the Mzansi NPO report — is, according to Mkhize, “the projected annual budget” for the National Philharmonic Orchestra provided to the DSAC by Tembe and his board of directors.

“They had to give us their breakdown of what it will cost to run the Mzansi Philharmonic Orchestra, per annum. So that is what [the amount of R32-million] is referring to,” explained Mkhize.

According to Mkhize, the funds set aside for the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra are the cumulation of monies from when the Department stopped funding regional orchestras.

“It’s not that there is new money. We had to look at the sliding-scale process, but ensure that we don’t kill the regional orchestras. And that is why the funding [of regional orchestras] will still remain a component of that breakdown,” he said.

  • How much funding will go to the regional orchestras?

During an interview with Kaya 595 last week, Tembe said that “the bulk of the money is going to go to regional orchestras, youth orchestras, learning institutions and other related institutions.”

“By contract, we have to use 75% of the budget directly for artistic and community engagement purposes… which means at least R24-million of this budget we’ve set for ourselves is going directly into the hands of the artists,” he said.

However, when Daily Maverick asked Tembe on Thursday how much funding will go directly to the regional orchestras, he was unable to provide an amount, but said it would depend on engagements within the sector.

“Well, I can’t at this stage give you a specific figure, because that figure will also come out of engagement and needs … But it will be a few million rands. Again, the budget is a projected thing, but in terms of our plan, I would love to see each regional orchestra getting R3-million each,” he said.

“We’re still going to sit with the regional orchestras; discuss an MoU and needs, so I don’t want the board [of the Mzansi NPO] to say [I’ve] already decided,” Tembe said, adding that the ideal R3-million is based on the last amount that regional orchestras received from the DSAC.

“So this endeavour must not make the regional orchestras worse off,” he added.

According to Mahomed, the development of the Mzansi NPO will “without doubt” have an impact on the regional orchestras — even if they were to receive a portion of the funding.

“Regional orchestras don’t only survive on grants, they survive on box office and on corporate sponsorship as well. And we know that when national structures are formed, the corporate sector gravitates towards moving their funding from provincial events to national events because they want a bigger footprint,” Mahomed explained.

“So there’s a risk that corporations that currently support regional orchestras could move their sponsorship to other spaces … So there’s a deeper political implication that one needs to also interrogate when considering the way this would happen,” he added.

  • So how much of the budget has already been spent?

On Thursday, Tembe was also unable to answer questions from Daily Maverick on how much of the Mzansi NPO’s budget has been spent thus far, before a single note has been played.

*“I can’t remember exactly, but I can provide you with a financial report,” he said.

  • Who are the international partners referred to in the report? 

With regard to the Mzansi NPO’s international partners alluded to in the report, Tembe kept mum on who exactly they are.

“We are talking to different partners and potential partners, and of course, the purpose of today is not to announce those partnerships. You can imagine a partner that you are talking to suddenly [hears] you announce this … But there are very exciting things in both the local, national and international situations in terms of partnerships,” he said.

Tembe added that one partnership — among “many others” — is in connection with the G20 Summit, which will take place in Bali, Indonesia in November 2022. The Mzansi NPO will be sending six young orchestral musicians from South Africa to join musicians from the other G20 countries to perform at the G20 Summit, according to Tembe.

He said that while the Mzansi NPO will “bring in genres and songs that reflect South Africa’s heritage…at the same time, [it] is not apologetic about performing numbers by western composers.”

The first national tour of the Mzansi NPO will take place, according to Tembe, in December this year, where the orchestra will perform Beethoven Symphony No 9, and “travel to many parts of South Africa.”

“More importantly, the orchestra will be working with choirs in each region, and with choirs that are coming from that region,” he added. DM

Daily Maverick questions to the minister

Following Thursday’s media briefing, Daily Maverick sent both the spokesperson to the Minister, Masechaba Khumalo and Bongani Tembe a list of questions — in addition to previous queries — relating to the orchestra’s budget and expenditure, on Friday morning, 15 July. They are:

  • How much of the Mzansi NPO’s budget has already been spent?
  • There appears to be no detailed breakdown of the Mzansi NPO project, its implementation plan and its budget in any documents online, including the DSAC’s Annual Performance Plans for 2021/2022 and 2022/2023, the NAC’s performance plans or in Treasury’s Estimates of National Expenditure. Why is this information not included in these documents? Please can you comment?
  • We understand that R1-million was already paid out from the DSAC and the National Arts Council for the establishment of the orchestra in 2018. How was that money utilised in four years, if the national orchestra was only launched now in 2022?
  • Was there a feasibility study conducted for the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra? If so, when was this feasibility study undertaken, and how much did it cost? And if not, why not?
  • The Mzansi NPO Concept and Implementation Plan notes a visit to the Dubai Expo and Europe to meet potential partners and explore opportunities for the Mzansi NPO in October 2021, as well as a visit to the London Philharmonic Orchestra and to arts agents in London to secure the services of the principal conductor of the Mzansi NPO, Marin Alsop and the concertmaster, Pieter Schoeman in January 2022. It records these tasks as completed. Were these international visits undertaken? And, if so, at what cost and who paid for this?
  • Who holds the position/role of treasurer for the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra?
  • Have the tours and concerts for 2022 outlined in the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra report (the launch at Wits, G20 summit in Indonesia, Algeria Festival and tour in December with Marin Alsop) all been finalised? Specifically, have the performance venues for each event been arranged and confirmed, the musicians and conductors selected and contracted, and the travel costs paid for?
  • Has Marin Alsop committed to being principal conductor for the Mzansi NPO? If so, at what cost to the project? Have all the other performers and conductors included in the Mzansi NPO report committed to being involved in the project?
  • The National Tour with Marin Alsop in December 2022 — where will the Mzansi NPO travel to, what performance venues have been booked? Have suitable venues been booked in several cities or townships so that all South Africans have an opportunity to attend concerts?

Daily Maverick had not received a response by the time of publication.

*When Daily Maverick followed up for a copy of the financial report that Tembe said he would make available, he replied: “In hindsight, I am not authorised to release unaudited financials. The audit, by a reputable firm will resume in August, and Mzansi NPO is bound to submit approved and audited annual financial statements to the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture by 30 September, 2022.” DM


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All Comments 3

  • Here is trouble brewing – another corruption case on its way! how many houses could have been built, how many water pipes could be repaired? the list goes on. Nation building comes when money is spent on raising the poor out of the abject misery the ANC has placed them in. I trust the minister will explain to the poorest of the poor how a national phil orchestra will benefit them when in fact there are several orchestra’s around the country already. madness and sadness all around!

  • I’m surprised, given the ANC’s antipathy for all things “Western ” and reeking of the legacy of colonialism , would even think about establishing a philharmonic orchestra for Mzansi (where’s that?) Oh ! I see – this is the first move in a long campaign to have another feeding trough for the comrades ! Now I see! What a wheeze! Give that man/woman a Bell’s! ( Johnny Walker black please!)

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