Future of Cape Town City Ballet uncertain as dispute between CEO and board drags on

Board accused of “acting irregularly, un-procedurally, and illegally to push their CEO out”

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The Cape Town City Ballet, which started as the UCT Ballet Company, has been going since 1934. But now its future is uncertain. Photo of production of Les Sylphides by Danie Coetzee (via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

  • Ongoing mediation between the board and the CEO of the Cape Town City Ballet has left the company in disarray.
  • Former board member Ismail Mahomed has accused the board of being non-compliant.
  • The company’s dancers and others have expressed concern about the future of the company.

Following allegations that Cape Town City Ballet’s CEO was “irregularly and un-procedurally pushed out”, the 89-year-old arts institution is in disarray. The ongoing mediation process has been riddled with challenges leaving 32 dancers unsure of their future.

Cape Town City Ballet (CTCB) has 50 employees and is one of the biggest employers of ballet dancers in the country. Its productions have toured internationally and attract international talent. For this financial year, the company has received R500,000 in funding from the Western Cape Government and R3.2-million from the City of Cape Town.

The company’s CEO, Debbie Turner, resigned in early April in the wake of several allegations of poor financial administration levelled against her by some members of the board. After resigning, Turner submitted a medical certificate indicating that the stress had been taking a toll on her health.

Former board member Ismail Mahomed, who resigned on 14 April, wrote in a report to the trustees of the CTCB Endowment Trust that the board had been “acting irregularly, un-procedurally, and illegally to push their CEO out”.

Mahomed told GroundUp that, in his view, the charges of maladministration against Turner were overblown and mainly revolved around a R5,000 overspend on a budget line item. Mahomed also said that the board has not been compliant: Annual General Meetings (AGMs) have not been held, and there are no board charter or workplace policies in place.

The board has been heavily involved with operational matters at the company, Mahomed says. He says that Turner, as CEO, was not given the authority to make important strategic, financial and operational decisions. For example, earlier this year the board made a decision to cancel a choreographer. This decision, Mahomed says, should have been made by the CEO.

A mediation session between Turner and the board took place in April and a draft agreement was in the process of being drawn up when one board member wrote an email to the board suggesting new conditions for the mediation agreement which, according to Mahomed, were contrary to what was agreed on during the mediation proceeding.

Three board members then resigned from the board, including the chairperson Suzette Raymond. Despite having resigned, Raymond then convened a meeting to discuss the new conditions that were suggested by the board member.

Mahomed wrote in his report to the trustees that the meeting convened by Raymond was highly irregular. He said that apart from three of the board members who had resigned, none of the other board members were consulted on their availability.

“I attended the meeting and objected that the meeting was irregular and un-procedural. There was no platform provided for discussion of the objections,” Mahomed wrote in his report.

“I serve on the boards of several arts organisations in South Africa,” Mohamed wrote, “I have yet to experience this high level of dysfunctionality that prevails in the CTCB.”

Mahomed resigned on 14 April. “I was not going to sit on a board that had no ethics and was not operating according to good governance principles,” Mahomed told GroundUp.

GroundUp sent detailed questions to the chairperson of the board, Suzette Raymond, who responded:

“The negotiations between Ms Turner and the Board of Cape Town City Ballet are ongoing and it is not appropriate for me to respond to the allegations in your email at this stage. Please note that my failure to respond to the said allegations should not, under any circumstances, be construed as an admission of any of the allegations.”

Concerns raised

The company’s dancers published a statement on Thursday expressing concern about the dispute between the board and Turner. The dancers are currently in rehearsals for two upcoming productions. In the statement, they wrote that they support Turner and hope that she will continue in her role as CEO.

“We, the dancers…are proud of our association with CTCB, and are honoured to provide an artistic service to the general public…,” they wrote.

Numerous emails between the dancers and the board, seen by GroundUp, reveal the dancers’ frustration with how the dispute has been handled.

In one email, the dancers wrote: “The board may be in mediation with Debbie Turner, but at this rate, the board has completely broken any small amount of trust the dancers may have had in them. If this is not resolved soon, reputation damage to the company, morale of dancers, international and local contacts, and the future of the company will be damaged beyond repair.”

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) regularly performs with the CTCB and was expecting to be part of their upcoming performances of Carmen, due to start in June, and Don Quixote, planned to run in August. But the orchestra’s CEO Louis Heyneman told GroundUp that the orchestra’s initial quotation was rejected and the booking has not yet been confirmed. He said he is unsure about whether the orchestra will be performing.

“There is a real threat that the ballet can implode because of bad decision-making and a lack of leadership,” Heyneman told GroundUp. He explained that the Ballet is a crucial fixture of the South African performing arts industry and several stakeholders, including the CPO and the Artscape theatre, depend on the ballet as a significant source of income.

“The ballet board has not had the decency to keep its stakeholders in the loop,” says Heynemann.

Artscape CEO Marlene Le Roux wrote an email to the CTCB board on 11 May: “Despite my letter and numerous emails attempt[ing] to obtain some form of understanding of the current situation, I have still not received a formal report from the board of CTCV regarding the situation concerning your ex- CEO.”

“As an associated arts company, I would expect to be kept informed of important situations such as this one. A general media statement is not acceptable,” Le Roux wrote.

TOPICS:  Arts and culture

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