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National philharmonic orchestra will be a national asse...

Defend Truth


Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra will be a national asset that should be applauded


Bongani Tembe is CEO and Artistic Director of the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra and CEO of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) and KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Daily Maverick published an article about the imminent launch of a national philharmonic orchestra, with questions being asked about its structure and funding by industry players and parliamentarians. This opinion piece was submitted following publication of the article. 

The past two years’ Covid-19 conditions worsened the trying times faced by many a person in the world. It is now a matter of public record that across the world, the arts are amongst industries that were most affected by the pandemic. 

But what then is to be done? Should we allow ourselves to be drowned in despair and accept ours to be a fate with no turn around possibilities? Is it not a matter of logic that we need to do things differently if we are to reap the fruits borne from tangible efforts that can turn things around and save us from Covid-19’s hardships?

We should implement initiatives which increase opportunities in the cultural and creative sectors.

In terms of posture and content, the Daily Maverick’s article by Victoria O’Regan titled “Red flags raised over ‘under-the-table’ formation of Nathi Mthethwa’s R30m new national orchestra” is a case in point about seeking to promote despair over perseverance. Contrary to what this article suggests, nothing was arranged “under the table”. Instead, proper and transparent consultations were embarked upon with various stakeholders.

It is within this context that it becomes imperative to correct several unfortunate assertions made in the article referred to.

What must Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra (Mzansi NPO) achieve?

Whilst conceptualising the idea of the Mzansi NPO, Government explained that it desired an inclusive and vibrant orchestra geared towards contributing to South Africa’s arts, culture, and heritage sectors. The revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage, approved by Cabinet in 2018 and endorsed by Parliament in 2020, states that “national companies must be developed so that their artistic reputations for excellence contribute to the advancement of cultural tourism in the cities in which they are located”.

This means that the establishment of Mzansi NPO is a matter of established policy — not an option — which enjoys endorsements across the political divide. But what then is the vision of Mzansi NPO? 

It should be a national asset that is inclusive, promotes nation-building and gets international recognition for artistic excellence. It should do so through innovation, development and educational initiatives as it drives worthy community engagement programmes. Most critically, it must be alive to the need to drive transformation in the orchestral industry.

As is, no other orchestra is an enabler of a similar vision with the desired national impact.

Was there consultation?

Correctly, Daily Maverick’s article refers to the policy named White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage as a legal basis for the formation of a national symphony orchestra. 

It should be public knowledge that by law, the drafting of any policy requires public consultations. In addition to this, as early as 2017, the then Department of Arts and Culture resolved to investigate the prospects of establishing a national orchestra. Part of such processes included a meeting called by Minister Nathi Mthethwa with regional orchestras in Cape Town. At this consultative platform, the need to form a national orchestra was discussed. 

In other words, from conceptualisation to roll out, particular attention was paid to inclusivity. Also, post establishment, Mzansi NPO will remain consultative as a way of conducting its business.

There are objective records which prove that there were consultations with various role players in the arts. And that such consultations were comprehensive and transparent. 

How will it work?

Mzansi NPO will be put together through a similar model used by our national sports teams. The best of the best, locally and internationally, will be called to be part of the orchestra whenever there is a local or international programme on the cards. Programmes will be coordinated such that there will be no disruptions to the programmes of regional orchestras. 

Mzansi NPO will not have permanent players.

Relations with regional orchestras

The operating model of Mzansi NPO fosters cooperation and engagements with regional orchestras. In fact, currently meetings with regional orchestras are underway to deepen understanding and unity amongst key role players.

Support will be provided to regional philharmonic orchestras and youth orchestras through grants and the national cadetship programme. 

Were board appointments legitimate?

The Minister appointed a board of highly reputable South Africans with integrity, who are renowned in their respective fields. The task of the board was to establish the National Philharmonic Orchestra in line with the revised White Paper of 2018. On this board, Bongani Tembe performs an administrative/executive role because of his extensive experience and knowledge of the field.

Is the budget R54 -million or R30-million?

Mzansi NPO’s projected annual budget is R32-million. This sum will be derived from an annual grant from government of about R20-million and the rest derived through box office income as well as various sponsorship initiatives. Mzansi NPO is also in the process of establishing an endowment fund to support its sustainability.

Astute management of operations and finances is central to Mzansi NPO’s company values. In line with accepted financial management practices, the books of Mzansi NPO will be audited annually.

The route traversed thus far has achieved key milestones and the board is now in a position to report back to the Minister.  

An orchestra that brings unity, supports artists, enhances talent development by working closely with local and internationally renowned industry professionals, while also working towards steps of getting the industry back on its feet should be applauded. While we call for a close working relationship within the industry, we are also mindful that there are sceptics critical of the project and its intentions. We call on them to come on board and ask all the hard questions they may have so that we can be united, diverse as we are, and make this a success. DM

From the editor: The establishment of the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra was brought to Daily Maverick’s attention by several industry professionals who all raised concerns over a lack of transparency and consultation with professional orchestral musicians, arts managers and music educators. Many musicians, and later parliamentarians, we spoke to had pertinent questions relating to the operation of the National Orchestra, its budget and the appointment of certain roleplayers.

After hearing their concerns and before publication, Daily Maverick sent a detailed list of questions to the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture. 

In a response to our queries on Thursday, 7 July 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.”

Daily Maverick reached Tembe for comment, but attempts to get a response before a planned 14 July press briefing were unsuccessful.

Many of the questions that Daily Maverick posed to the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture and Tembe about the national philharmonic orchestra remain unanswered. They are:

  • We understand that Bongani Tembe has been appointed as CEO of the Mzansi NPO and is on a board of directors along with Justice Leona Theron, Wendy Luhabe and Prof Muxe Nkondo. How were the CEO and directors appointed? Were the positions advertised by the DSAC?
  • Where will the Mzansi NPO be based? 
  • Does the Mzansi NPO expect to use musicians from the existing orchestras (JPO, KZNPO, CPO etc) and will the orchestras be compensated? You say in the report attached, “The NPO will contribute to the funding of regional orchestras and other related entities”. How?
  •  If players are selected from the different regional orchestras, is there an audition/selection process? Will different players be selected for each performance?
  • If the Mzansi NPO makes use of musicians employed in the regional orchestras or freelance musicians who perform in various orchestras, what impact does the DSAC expect this will have on the regional orchestras?
  • In the report attached you say that the Mzansi NPO plans to create job opportunities. Please can you comment on how this will work when it appears that players will be chosen from the existing orchestras?
  • There appears to be no detailed breakdown of the Mzansi NPO project and its budget in any documents online, including the DSAC’s Annual Performance Plans for 2021/2022 and 2022/2023, or in the ENE’s. Where is this included in the DSAC’s performance plans, and if it is not, why is it not included? Was there an implementation and feasibility plan for the project? If so, please can you refer us to it or provide it?
  • In the report attached, it appears that the bulk of the budget of roughly R30-million per year for the next three years, comes from the DSAC, however, there are very few details on how the funds will be divided amongst operational costs, travel costs, management fees, musician and conductor salaries, marketing, the Cadetship Programme, and the acquisition of instruments and performance venues. Please can you provide a detailed budget or account of the Mzansi NPO budget which illustrates how these funds will be allocated to the various components of the project?
  • Who are the international partners referred to in the report attached?
  • Have the tours and concerts for 2022 outlined in the report attached (the launch at Wits, G20 summit in Indonesia, Algeria Festival and national tour in December with Marin Alsop) been finalised?
  • Marin Alsop is an internationally renowned conductor. Has she committed to the Mzansi NPO and at what cost to the DSAC? Have all of the other performers and conductors included in the report committed to being involved in the project?  DM

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All Comments 2

  • Total waste of time and resources. We have three excellent regional orchestras, we don’t need a national orchestra which will inevitable detract from the regional ones. This money would be far better spent on providing much needed finance for the regional youth classical music development programs.

  • Another thumb suck pooply thought out project from the desk of our flagpole hero Nati Mthethwa. Yet another fiasco that will be a disaster in spite of Bongani Tembe’s whitewash attempt.

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