Mkhize has finger on Robben Island’s pulse

2011-10-01 18:25

In his new show, Desperate First Ladies, satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys wrily sums up the recent and generally tragic narrative surrounding the World Heritage Site, the Robben Island Museum.

“What’s all this talk about nationalisation?” he asks.

“The government already owns the most profitable gold mine in the country. It’s called Robben Island. And they can’t even
run that.”

Sibongiseni Mkhize, recently-appointed chief executive of the Robben Island Museum, is aware of the island’s tarnished image.

Years of benign neglect, infighting, gross financial mismanagement and alleged corruption have earned the museum nothing but bad publicity and five qualified opinions from the Auditor-General – and so far no one has been criminally charged or held accountable.

“I will make sure action will be taken. I am very committed to good governance and at my age I am not prepared to make the kind of sacrifices of overlooking such things,” Mkhize says.

Bad publicity and increasingly negative experiences, including constant “mechanical” failures in the ferries, have led to some tourist guides in Cape Town advising overseas visitors to avoid the museum completely.

Mkhize recently told a meeting of the arts and culture committee that in 2009/10, about 300 000 people had visited the island and more than 10 000 school tours had been conducted. “Look, it wouldn’t have helped us to appoint a spindoctor to spin the story of the boats.

The best thing to do was attend to the problem and fix it,” said Mkhize.

His 10-month stint has already yielded encouraging results. In July, Ivan Meyer, MEC for Cultural Affairs and Sport for Western Cape, visited the island and proclaimed: “The Robben Island I am standing on today is a different one to the problem-riddled one of recent times”.

In 2005 the island risked being “delisted” as a United Nations’ heritage site but Unesco officials visited in March this year and declared that it was now compliant.Mkhize, who is former chief executive of the Market Theatre Foundation, is a trained historian and is highly regarded by former colleagues at the Msunduzi Museum (formerly the Voortrekker Museum) in KwaZulu-Natal.

He said he had been following developments at the Robben Island Museum over the past few years and knew “what I was getting into”.

Appointing a new 12-member council chaired by North West Premier Thandi Modise had “helped enormously” and had defined a “clarity of roles,” he said.

Mkhize immediately addressed ferry problems, appointing an operations manager in December and a chief financial officer in January.“Since doing that we have seen a huge difference,” he says“If something breaks, we fix it immediately. We have not missed a single boat day apart from the day US First Lady Michelle Obama visited when the weather was bad.”

Other key appointments have been a senior human resources manager, a company secretary who will also provide legal advice and an environmental manager who will deal with the island’s fauna and flora.

Mkhize acknowledges that the Robben Island Museum needs a new business model that might involve private and public partnerships for funding and other functions such as marketing.

The museum gets about 40% of its revenue from the govern-ment and the rest comes from ticket sales, conferences and fundraising.

“But we can’t expect to raise funds when the institution’s books are not in order,” says Mkhize.

“I want to contribute not just to saving this institution but also to growing it to a level ... of excellence,” he says.

“We are supposed to be at the forefront and I think we have lost that position.”

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