'We will sit both sides around the table' - Public Protector intervenes in artists and NAC impasse

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The Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane. (Photo by Gallo Images/City Press/Tebogo Letsie)
The Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane. (Photo by Gallo Images/City Press/Tebogo Letsie)

Last week, advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane met with the two parties respectively. 

Since then Public Protector South Africa announced plans to mediate between artists and the National Arts Council. The Public Protector argued that if the council had implemented remedial action last year, they would not be in this predicament. 

On Wednesday, 28 April 2021, the Public Protector South Africa announced its plans to mediate in the two-month-long dispute between artists and the National Arts Council and the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture. 

Since 3 March 2021, artists have been staging a sit-in at the NAC offices in Johannesburg. This, after they reached out to the council asking them for details on what went wrong with the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme (PESP) which the government had encouraged artists to apply for in October of 2020.

Artists began asking for more information after the council suspended its CEO Rosemary Mangope and CFO Clifton Changfoot. Through this suspension, artists learnt how the total that the NAC promised to give artists and institutions for relief projects was more than the R300 million that the President's Employment Stimulus Programme had allocated them.

With the council being over-budget, Mangope and Changfoot are being investigated regarding the management of the funds. 

Led by opera sensation Sibongile Mngoma, the artists have occupied the NAC offices for more than 50 consecutive days. In addressing this, Mkhwebane and Deputy Public Protector advocate Kholeko Gcaleka met with Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa and the NAC acting chair, Princess Celenhle Dlamini on Thursday, 22 April. On Friday, the Public Protector and her deputy then met with the artists. 

According to a statement released by the Public Protector, during their meeting with the artists, the aggrieved complained that "some of the current members of the council were beneficiaries of the PESP and therefore conflicted".

This point was denied by the Minister and council the day before. 

During the respective meetings, Mkhwebane raised concerns about a June 2020 investigation report detailing governance issues within the NAC. Among other things, the report highlighted the NAC's expired Projects and Surplus Policy.

In addition to it having gaps that rendered it susceptible to abuse, its implementation was found to be arbitrary and unethical because it allowed employees to initiate proposals for funding on behalf of applicants without the applicants' knowledge or consent. 

Instead of being implemented, the previous members of the NAC council took the report on judicial review, declaring it unconstitutional. She argued that if the council would have implemented the remedial action in the report, they would not be in the now 50-days strong predicament. 

The Public Protector's findings in this regard confirmed the findings of the Business Innovations Group investigation, which carried out an investigation in October 2016, that the Projects and Surplus Policy is not in line with Treasury regulations and the Public Finance Management Act. 

"We will sit both sides around the table in an Alternative Dispute Resolution session to tackle the issue of undue delays to disburse funds and questions around lack of transparency in the NAC processes," said Mkhwebane. 

The alleged governance lapses including the conflict of interest concerning members of the council, will be subject to further investigation.  

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