OP-ED: Corrupt state agents are diminishing the gains made by the arts and culture sector

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Dr Ismail Mohamed. (Photo: Supplied)
Dr Ismail Mohamed. (Photo: Supplied)

With the international cultural boycott of South Africa ending in 1992, and with no strategic government policy in place to support effective and sustainable cultural exchanges, it has been no mean feat for credible South African arts administrators to take a formidable seat at the tables of international conferences and to have our voices heard. This is what makes Ernestine White-Mifetu, the director of the William Humphreys Art Gallery, a truly South African champion. White-Mifetu has been playing a crucial role in transforming South Africa’s museums sector. She was appointed as a board member of the International Committee of Museums and Collections of Modern of Modern Art (CIMAM)

"By being in CIMAM, I am able to transfer the knowledge obtained through the networks and interactions with other global practitioners directly to the sector in South Africa and to regions within the continent that I am requested to engage with through my work as a curator and director of a national museum," White-Mifetu was quoted as saying in Classic Feel magazine. White-Mifetu is also part of the working group that engages with the International Council of Museums (ICOM) where she is involved in the transformation of African (but also global) collections to be more inclusive of race and gender.

No matter her championing spirit, it takes poor governance and a lack of understanding by those who are charged with leading our cultural institutions to taint, damage and destroy the gains that she and many others have achieved in the international cultural arena. We owe our gratitude to an international arts and cultural community that has more faith in us than what we can have in our increasingly failing government.

It is in this light that I view the disciplinary charges against Rosemary Mangope, CEO of the National Arts Council, which proved to have had no substances. She won her case with costs. Mangope also represents South Africa on several international forums. It is in the same light that I also view the charges against me when as the CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation.

I blew the whistle on corruption in terms of the Protected Disclosures Act and won my case without a single charge sticking. Instead, a costly forensic report commissioned by the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture was dismissed in its entirety by Commissioner Larry Shear in a Section 118A hearing. It is in this light that I also view the current ongoing disciplinary hearings against Ernestine White-Mifetu, director of the William Humphrey's Art Gallery in Kimberley, which by no stretch of the imagination has all the makings of an unfair labour practice against one of South Africa’s leading visual arts and museum administrators.     

In mid-September, the Council of the William Humphrey's Art Gallery issued a press release on their social media platform informing a shocked arts community that disciplinary charges were being pursued against White-Mifetu. It was the manner in which a poorly-crafted media statement which had pre-judged and already condemned White-Mifetu guilty even before the hearings could be heard that shocked an arts community that has by now become quite accustomed to how poorly the Councils of South Africa’s cultural institutions understand South Africa’s labour laws.

It was only after expressions of outrage from the arts community that the Council of the William Humphrey's Art Gallery deleted their press statement from its media platforms. By then, the damage had been done and a curious cultural sector had begun to question the integrity of the Council rather than to doubt any confidence that they may have had in White-Mifetu. The treatment meted out to White-Mifetu is no different to how Rosemary Mangope or I were pre-judged even before our hearings by the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, who had issued a press release that the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture was "cleaning house". The department didn’t have a mirror that was large enough to see the mud on its own face that it was going to lose both cases in its entirety.

READ | Arts community up in arms over alleged 'witch hunt' of WHAG director Ernestine White-Mifetu

Fifteen charges against me were totally contrived simply as a punitive measure because I had blown the whistle on corruption in the Council of the Market Theatre Foundation. Five of the charges were dated for incidents that took place during the period 2011 to February 2016. I commenced work at the Market Theatre Foundation only in August 2016. One of the charges was for being absent without leave on 24 May 2018. There was substantial photographic evidence that I was hosting Minister Nathi Mthethwa at the Windybrow Arts Centre at an Africa Day celebration. The charge was withdrawn at the commencement of the hearings. The other charges were equally absurd and proved to have no substance.

In eight days of a disciplinary hearing, witnesses who had been specially groomed by the Market Theatre Foundation had performed so badly that one can only be grateful that it was not a public performance on stage. One of the witnesses didn’t even know what charges he was testifying against. He thought the hearing was set up for him to motivate why he needed a salary increase.

Another witness claimed that there was a nepotistic relationship between award-winning arts administrator Yusrah Bardien and me because she had overhead Yusrah and I exchange recipes for samosas. What she didn’t know is that we Indians exchange recipes for samosas, butter chicken and breyani with all and sundry. We’ve been exchanging recipes since our forefathers landed on this shore. It’s not nepotism. Its pride that we take in our traditional cuisine.

Whatever the charges against White-Mifetu may be, I have every reason to believe that these charges are similarly contrived. As an ethical and visionary arts administrator White-Mifetu may have stood in the way of some of the Council members of the William Humphrey's Art Gallery. On a petition generated on social media to support White-Mifetu, art historian and Managing Director of Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI) and editor-in-chief of Visual Century: South African Art in Context, Dr Mario Pissarra who has known and worked with White-Mifetu in various capacities for over 15 years says: "I have found her to be entirely dependable and ethical, as well as a passionate exponent of the visual arts."

Pissarra explains that from the outset she has been frustrated by the Council, and that one can only surmise that perhaps some people prefer to remain off the map, so that they can quietly abuse their positions. Pissarra argues that he suspects that Ernestine has shaken the tree and disturbed the prevailing, stagnating core. "I would be shocked if there is incontrovertible evidence that she has committed any major irregularities. But I will not be surprised if the disciplinary enquiry finds her guilty," he says.  

The parallel with what is happening at the William Humphrey's Art Gallery is too close with what has happened at the Market Theatre Foundation. There is corridor talk at the Gallery that White-Mifetu refused to provide a loan to an embittered member of her Council. My former colleague, Christine McDonald, the CFO of the Market Theatre, and I refused to give a loan of R57 000 to the former chairperson of the Market Theatre Foundation’s Council, Kwanele Gumbi, when we established that it would be against Treasury regulations. We also upturned an irregular Council resolution in which the members of the Council were going to award themselves a total of R850 000 in Christmas bonuses which was in violation of the Public Finances Management Act.

The tenure of the Council of the Market Theatre Foundation was coming to its end. Charges of nepotism, racism and maladministration with procurement processes were trumped up against us by the Council to motivate to Minister Nathi Mthethwa why they should all be returned for an extended tenure to complete unfinished business. Save for Council member Cedric Nunn, whose lone voice often stood up against Kwanele Gumbi, the minister returned the rest of the Council back to office. It was not long after Christine and I began to send lawyers letters to the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture that Council members Brooks Spector and Sebiletso Matabane, who also voted for themselves to benefit from the illegal Christmas bonuses, had resigned from the Council. Spector cited poor health. Matabane cited family commitments.

Now, draw the parallels with the William Humphrey's Art Gallery. The tenure of the Council is also up for renewal. The charges against White-Mifetu were instituted barely months before the Council’s tenure has to be renewed. It is also no surprise that the prosecutor engaged by the William Humphrey's Art Gallery is the very same legal person that was engaged by the Market Theatre Foundation.

The only difference in White-Mifetu’s case is that she did not invoke the Protected Disclosures Act and whistleblow on her Council. She is further barred by the gallery’s policies from speaking to the public about the case. The William Humphrey's Art Gallery is a public-funded institution like the Market Theatre Foundation and the National Arts Council. When the heads of arts institutions are charged it is in the public interest to know what these charges are, and for a public that is invested in the cultural sector to follow these cases. That these cases will happen behind close doors without public scrutiny only raises questions about the motives of the Council and the integrity of these cases.

A concerned arts public has raised a petition on social media to support White-Mifetu. No matter how ethical and glowing her credentials may be, she will indeed be very lucky if she comes out of this experience emotionally unscathed. This case smacks of every bit of the same kind of filthy strategy that was the feature of what happened at the Market Theatre Foundation. This kind of dirty tricks strategy by corrupt and inapt Councils of cultural institutions to destroy ethical arts managers is reminiscent of the dirty tricks campaign that was used by the apartheid government to taint and destroy its opponents. Apartheid’s agents did not succeed! And neither will corrupt agents in this government succeed.

White-Mifetu’s reputation walks way ahead of her. According to the petition addressed to Mr Vusi Mkhize, the Director-General in the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, White-Mifetu has an impeccable track record in the visual arts. After completing her Master Printer degree at the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico in 2001, she returned to South Africa where she completed her Master of Fine Art degree at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2004.

After her Cape Town graduation, she joined the curatorial team at Parliament. She acted as the Senior Projects Co-ordinator for the Parliamentary Millennium Programme from 2007 - 2011. She then took a BA Honours degree in Curatorship at UCT in 2013. Curator of Historical Collections at the Iziko SANG and of the Michaelis Collection Hayden Proud stated that she was one of his finest students on the latter programme. White-Mifetu subsequently took up the post as Curator of Contemporary Art at the Iziko South African National Gallery from 2014 to 2019.

"She is one of a new generation of sophisticated and energetic black museum professionals, and it is shocking that she is being put through this," says Hayden Proud who agrees with Pissarra that there needs to be an investigation into the qualifications of the members of the William Humphrey's Art Gallery Council and their capacities to serve the special interests of an art museum.

Now that the hearings are forging ahead, signing a petition may not stop the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture or the Council of the William Humphrey's Art Gallery from dropping the charges and to find an internal mediation between the Council and White-Mifetu. Internal mediations is the way that the boards of cultural institutions approached institutional tensions before 1994 when board members were not paid exorbitant sums of money to serve on the councils of these institutions. Those board members volunteered their services because they had a passion for the arts and they cared for and protected people like White-Mifetu who are champions for the South African arts sector.

Every signature on the petition still counts. It may not stir a South African arts bureaucracy which is at its lowest ebb since the dawn of our new democracy. Every signature on the petition from a caring arts public is just one way of saying to White-Mifetu that in a country such as ours where corruption has sunken so deep into the roots of most of our cultural institutions, she is not alone. Every signature on the petition is also an affirmation to international partners who trust our cultural leadership that the time has come for the global community to once again look critically at the South African government and to how our arts institutions are being bastardised; and to how apartheid’s brush has been brought out of the closet to try to destroy those cultural leaders who don’t sell their souls to corruption.

 Ismail Mahomed is the Director for the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of Kwazulu-Natal. He is a multi award winning arts administrator and public commentator on the arts. Serving voluntarily on the boards of several arts organisations in South Africa he writes and speaks in his own capacity.


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