Questions over how national orchestra is spending public money

Auditor-General red flags potential conflict of interest and oversight issues

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The Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra performing in Cape Town in December 2022. Photo: Daniel Steyn

  • The Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra receives R21.5-million a year from the government to develop orchestral music in South Africa.
  • Oversight by the Department of Arts and Culture of the orchestra’s spending is inadequate, says the Auditor-General. But the department insists it has taken steps to prevent this recurring.
  • The national orchestra spent about R42-million in 2022 and R27-million in 2023 on concerts, education, community engagement, and grants to regional and local orchestras.
  • But key details of the orchestra’s spending have not been disclosed, such as the CEO’s salary, fees paid to international artists, and the amount spent on national and international tours.

The Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra (MNPO) is now in its third year and has received R68-million in public funds to date. Funded by the Department of Sports, Arts, and Culture, the national orchestra aims to develop orchestral music in South Africa through concerts, workshops, financial grants to smaller orchestras and “cultural diplomacy”.

Since its launch in 2022, concerns have been raised about the efficacy and transparency of how the orchestra spends public funds. The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, declined a once-off grant of R3.2-million from the Mzansi orchestra on principle.

Previously, regional orchestras such as the Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg Philharmonic orchestras received close to R10-million in annual funding directly from the national government. Now the funds are being channelled through the Mzansi orchestra, which has its own artistic projects and the discretion to distribute surplus funds to regional orchestras and local music organisations.

The managements of the Mzansi orchestra, the National Arts Council (NAC), and the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, all maintain that the Mzansi orchestra’s funds are being optimally and transparently spent to develop orchestral music.

The Auditor-General of South Africa does not audit the Mzansi orchestra because it is a non-profit company and not a government agency. But it does audit the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, which oversees the National Arts Council and the funds paid to the Mzansi orchestra.

In its 2022/23 audit of the department, the Auditor-General found that oversight by the department of the Mzansi orchestra was insufficient. The department had not been receiving quarterly reports of spending by the orchestra, the Auditor-General found.

An expenditure report provided to the Auditor-General by the department “did not include a breakdown of the nature of expenditure, nor were invoices provided for”.

“As a result, we were unable to confirm what the amount was used for,” the Auditor-General found.

The department told GroundUp that steps have been taken to avoid a recurrence of this lack of oversight.

Meanwhile, CEO and artistic director of the Mzansi orchestra, Bongani Tembe, said he heard of these audit findings for the first time when GroundUp sent him questions in February. Tembe said the orchestra’s internal audit for 2022 was “clean” and that there had been no issues raised with the orchestra over governance or accounting.

When GroundUp sent Tembe the Auditor-General’s report, he replied: “[The Auditor-General] never interacted directly with the MNPO … The MNPO reports appropriately to the NAC and in a comprehensive manner. It seems to me that the Auditor-General is not pointing a finger at the MNPO in its report.”

The Auditor-General also found a “potential conflict of interest” because Tembe holds the same position at the KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg Philharmonic orchestras, both of which received grants from the Mzansi orchestra in 2022.

Tembe, who is also the deputy chairperson of the National Arts Council, told GroundUp that he recuses himself from any discussion of funds allocated to his other orchestras.

The Auditor-General, however, told GroundUp that “irrespective of safeguards … the conflict will not go away”.

“The MNPO is properly governed by a board of directors of some of the most respected South Africans,” Tembe told GroundUp. The Mzansi orchestra’s board includes Constitutional Court Justice Leona Theron and Prof Muxe Nkondo.

Julie Diphofa, acting CEO of the National Arts Council (NAC), which disburses funds to the Mzansi orchestra on behalf of the department, told GroundUp that the orchestra is “one of the best performing beneficiaries of funding from the NAC in terms of the impact of their programmes and their professionalism and accountability as an organisation”.

Diphofa praised the orchestra’s “highly regarded board” and “comprehensive” reporting to the NAC.

How has the orchestra’s money been spent?

The Memorandum of Understanding between the orchestra and the NAC stipulates that 75% of the orchestra’s funds should be spent on artistic programmes.

In 2022, its inaugural year, the orchestra received R41.5-million from the NAC. The orchestra staged a national tour of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in three cities, conducted by world-renowned Marian Alsop and featuring South African musicians and opera singers who have achieved success on the global stage, including Michelle Breedt, Zandile Mzazi, and Wouter Kellerman.

In addition to the national tour, the orchestra held several community concerts and members of the orchestra performed in Algeria. Four musicians represented the orchestra at the G20 summit in Indonesia. The orchestra does not have full-time musicians and depends on ad-hoc musicians. It cost the orchestra R9.6-million to stage its 2022 concert programme, according to its financial statements.

R3.9-million was spent by the orchestra in 2022 on “education” and “community engagement”. It launched its cadet programme, which saw five up-and-coming musicians financially and “artistically” supported. The orchestra also had three fellows – South Africans studying music abroad – who received financial support.

R9.9-million (22.8% of the orchestra’s 2023 budget) was spent on operations, marketing and administration.

The remaining R20-million was allocated to regional, youth, and local orchestras in once-off grants.

The orchestra brags of having created more than 1,000 “job opportunities” in the music industry in 2022. Almost half of these were members of choirs who performed alongside the orchestra for one or two nights during the national tour.

Tembe declined to disclose Marin Alsop’s fee for conducting, or the fees to other international guest artists and their travel costs.

The orchestra could not sustain the same level of spending in 2023. According to Tembe, the orchestra received R26.7-million from the government in 2023, of which R4-million was spent on operations and R11.8-million on other artistic programmes.

R10.9-million was allocated to other organisations, including R3-million to the music departments of South African universities.

Another national tour was staged in 2023. Alsop, who is the Mzansi orchestra’s “resident conductor”, was billed to conduct but did not due to health reasons.

Other performances in 2023 included a tour to Lesotho for the celebration of King Letsie III’s birthday, a concert with Greg Maquomo, and performing at UNISA’s 150th celebration. A scheduled tour to Algeria was cancelled.

The orchestra conducted two workshops with smaller orchestras and helped launch the Northern Cape Symphony Orchestra, which received R250,000 from the Mzansi orchestra in 2022. Two more cadets and one more fellow were added to the programme.

Tembe did not respond to specific questions about the exact structure and cost of the cadet and fellow programmes.

In 2022 the orchestra made R1.4-million in box office sales, which makes up 3% of the orchestra’s revenue. Tembe says that box office revenue was more than R2.5-million in 2023, about 25% of the orchestra’s total revenue. GroundUp could not verify 2023’s financials because no audited financial statements were provided at the time of publication.

Box office sales include ticket sales and money paid to book the orchestra for some events. GroundUp asked Tembe for details of deals made between the orchestra and institutions who have booked the orchestra for performances, but he did not answer.

Neither the National Arts Council, the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, nor the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra were willing to disclose Tembe’s salary.

There is still confusion over R1-million paid by the National Arts Council to the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2019 for a “feasibility study” before the Mzansi orchestra was registered. No feasibility study has been made public by the department, despite numerous requests from Members of Parliament.

Tembe told GroundUp that the R1-million was “seed funding” to set up the national orchestra. Expenses included a secretariat for the “task team” and travel costs. Tembe says there is more than R500,000 left of this fund, which has been audited.

Correction on 2024-03-08 09:16

The last sentence has been corrected to read: "Tembe says there is more than R500,000 left of this fund, which has been audited."
It originally said erroneously R500 million.

TOPICS:  Arts and culture

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